Churches, Mosques and Temples, OH MY.
When I asked, “are there any descent places to eat around here” the response was, “do you want Malay, Chinese or Indian.” After several days in Malaysia, I soon realized the answer to this simple question was not as simple as I had thought. As Malaysian Cuisine is rather complex and has many layers, but once you peel away each layer, you begin to understand the cuisine, culture and history.
But, first to understand the cuisine one must understand Malaysia’s history. Malaysia has been influenced by many different cultures, but several in particular have had a lasting impact. First the Malay, second the Chinese from trade and finally the Indians who worked on the rubber plantations.
These cultures introduced Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, also bringing temples, mosques and other cultural traditions.
My first stop on my Culinary Journey through Malaysia was George Town on the Island of Penang, fondly called “The Pearl Of the Orient.”
George Town is a “Unesco World Heritage Site” lined with shophouses, which are two or three stories high, with a retail space on the ground floor and living space above each shop and dotted throughout the town are churches, temples and mosques.
George Town is the “culinary gem” of Malaysia and is renowned for their nightly Hawker Stalls, selling “Penang Specialties.” So, naturally this was my first stop.
My first taste of Penang was from a Hawker Stall selling “Penang Assam Laksa” (see above photo). Which is a noodle dish made with a mackerel-fish based broth, tamarind juice, shrimp paste, bird’s eye chillies, lemongrass, ginger, onion, garlic and galangal.
Assam Laksa is finished with finely shredded Torch Ginger (below is the photo of the flower, however when using Torch Ginger use the bud and not the flower), laksa leaves, sliced pineapple, accompanied by a liquid shrimp paste called “otak udang.”
This is a very complex and unique dish, as there are various flavor profiles, sour from the tamarind, salty from the shrimp paste, spicy from the chillies, but the most distinct of these flavors is the mackerel broth.
The next dish I had was “Penang Curry Mee” (see photo above) in its most basic form it is made with yellow noodles, pig’s blood cubes, cuttlefish, shrimp, tofu puffs, coconut milk, clams, bean sprouts, topped with a spicy paste and mint.
This dish has an array of ingredients, which includes a variety of textures with every bite. From the broth infused fried tofu puffs to the jelly-like consistency from the pig’s blood cubes.
Once I voraciously ate my way through six Hawker Stalls, I was ready to learn how to make Malaysian Cuisine. So my next stop was a cooking class at “Pickles and Spices.”
“Pickles and Spices” is run by the tireless Naz (see photo below) she teaches the cooking classes and the affable Peter (he’s from Holland, but has been living in Malaysia for many years), he gives the morning market tours, before he hands the students off to Naz for the cooking portion. Together they make a great team and provide the students with hours of laughter and learnings.
Peter was a great market tour guide, probably one of the most entertaining I have had to date (and I have had a lot of market tours), he was quite knowledgable about the ingredients and what they are used for. He gracefully weaves you in and out of the vendor stalls, who sell everything from fresh herbs and spices to freshly grated coconut and coconut milk.
From there he takes you to a few of his favorite morning Hawker Stalls, all the while talking about his passions, one being hiking.
Once Peter’s tour ends, Naz takes over. Naz is passionate about cooking, which is illustrated by her explanation of the cuisine and in her teachings. I enjoyed my initial class so much, I went back for an additional class. Two days and eight dishes later, I was equipped with a few “basic” Malaysian dishes and a few that were “off the beaten track” from the regular menu she usually teaches.
One of the eight recipes I learned was “Beef Rendang,” which is the recipe I will provide for this blog post. After cooking Malaysian Cuisine over the last three weeks, I realized you really have to want to cook Malaysian Cuisine. As most of the dishes require time and ingredients you don’t necessarily have stocked in your pantry. And Beef Rendang is no exception to this, as it does require many ingredients.
Beef Rendang is generally served for celebrations, especially weddings. It does take some preparations, but can be done in stages. One step involves making toasted coconut into “chocolate.” This was a first for me.
You can make the “Kerisik” (pounded toasted coconut) in a large batch and freeze it, so you have it for your next round of “Beef Rendang.” I will also provide another recipe using Kerisik in another blog post.
Basically you toast desiccated coconut until dark brown (see photo above) and with a mortar and pestle (or blender or food processor), pound until it is a liquid consistency and looks like chocolate.
This is definitely not a “beginner” recipe, but is a good introduction to Malaysian ingredients and techniques. If you can identify the ingredients and master the techniques all additional Malaysian recipes will be a breeze.
Where possible, I included photos of some of the ingredients. Also, you can transfer the meat to a slow-cooker once you complete step 12 of the recipe.
I hope you take the opportunity to make this dish as it really is delicious. However, maybe make it for yourself first, before you invite people to try it. And if you find yourself in George Town, Penang, I highly recommend the “Pickles and Spices” cooking class and market tour with Naz and Peter.
- 1½ pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 4 cups water
- Spice Paste
- 1-2 fresh bird's eye chilies (Thai Chilies), or omit if you don't like spicy
- 2 dried guajillo chilies, deseeded and soaked in water for 30 minutes to soften
- 15 shallots or 2 large red onions
- 1 inch ginger, peeled
- 1 inch galangal, peeled and bruised to release the flavor
- 4 candlenuts - substitute macadamia nuts if you cannot locate candlenuts
- 5 cloves of garlic
- Kerisik (toasted coconut, pounded)
- 2 cups of freshly grated coconut or desiccated coconut (not sweetened)
- Whole Spices
- 1 star anise
- 3 cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 cloves
- Dry Spices
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
- ½ tablespoon coriander powder
- ⅓ teaspoon cumin powder
- 1 teaspoons chili powder (for added heat, if desired)
- 1 tablespoon curry powder
- Fresh Leaves and Herbs
- 5 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, only lower ⅓ of stalk (white part, not green), and bruised to release the flavor
- Additional Ingredients
- ⅔ cup coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons kerisik (toasted coconut, pounded)
- 1 piece of tamarind apple (asam keping) or 4 tablespoons tamarind water - If using tamarind water see instructions under "note" section of the recipe
- 1 tablespoon chopped palm sugar or brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons of canola oil (or vegetable)
- Salt to taste
- Put beef in a large stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and using a ladle, skim off any scum on the top. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove beef and reserve beef water for recipe.
- Spice Paste
- Pound all ingredients finely using mortar and pestle or use a blender or food processor. And a little water if necessary.
- Kerisik - toasted coconut, pounded
- Place pan over low heat and dry toast the coconut until dark brown (see photo in blog post), about 10 minutes. Continue stirring, until all the grated coconut is evenly browned.
- Once dark brown, use a mortar and pestle (or blender or food processor) and pound until it is a liquid consistency and looks like chocolate.
- In a pan over medium heat, add oil and spice paste. Cook the paste until oil separates from paste, about 5 minutes. Add reserved beef broth to pan, along with dry spices, whole spices, tamarind apple (or tamarind water) and lemon grass.
- Once the mixture comes to a boil, add coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and sugar.
- Once the sauce has reduced by half, add kerisik and salt to taste.
- Let simmer slowly for about 1 hour. If you like more "gravy," only cook for 45 minutes.
- Serve with Rice
Place the tamarind pulp into a small bowl.
Pour the warm water into the bowl.
Let it soften, about 15 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, mash the tamarind.
With a spatula, push the pulp through the strainer. Discarding the solids. Set tamarind water aside.
2. Toast the whole spice before using them in the recipe. This will bring out the flavor.