Traditional Malay cooking

Nazlina is the kind of person you want to be friends with. As we sat down for an early breakfast of roti canai and chatted about potential menu items for the day, it felt like we were planning a dinner party together. I had already learned some of the usual staples on her list and she happily got creative to figure out something different that we could make together. The results were unbelievably delicious – one of the best meals I’ve cooked or eaten in SE Asia.

The highlight of the meal was a dish that doesn’t really have a name. Naz (she told me to call her that – see, I told you we were friends!) said that it’s something she makes at home and that you wouldn’t really find it in a restaurant. My kind of dish. She described it as beef in a fresh chili sauce. We used an old fashioned batu giling, which literally translates as a mother and child, to slowly hand press the chilis. The “mother” is a giant rectangular stone imported from India and the “child” is a cylinder that you roll back and forth over small quantities of chilies until you have a fine paste. The advantage of this over a traditional mortar and pestle is that you can grind larger quantities of chili to a finer paste. Before this trip, I had not realized there were so many types of mortars and pestles.

Batu giling, or mother and child mortar and peste for creating chili paste

We braised the beef in water while we were grinding the chilies so that it was fully cooked – this made the actual assembly and cook time of the rest of the ingredients – chili, ginger, galangal, tamarind, palm sugar, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, cloves, lemongrass, curry leaves, onion, garlic, and coconut milk – very quick. The result was rich and sweet and delicious – when Nazlina went upstairs to check on something, I definitely ate straight spoonfuls of the sauce. I’m sure that is bad form here – it would be at home – but it was just so damn good and I couldn’t fit in any more of the beef.

Part 1 of assembling ingredients – all of these need to be mashed with mortar and pestle

Step 2 of assembling ingredients, post mashing up the ingredients above

This sauce is so good you don’t even need the meat – just a big spoon!

Along with the beef we also made Nasi Minyak, or wedding rice. Naz said that when someone wants to jibe a young person on when they are finally going to get married they ask, “When am I going to eat your nasi minyak?” Subtle. And not that different from my grandfather asking my husband, “Do you know how old I am? I have my dancing shoes polished for your wedding,” for the entire eight years we were dating before we did, in fact, get married. Nice to know that some things are the same across all cultures.

Flavorful seasoning of galic, onion, spices, and pandan leaf for the nasi minyak

Nasi minyak, or wedding rice, garnished with freshly fried shallots

The last dish we made was wing bean salad. Wing beans are pretty cool – they have four edges that come out like – you guessed it – wings, so that when you slice them, you have a four sided star. We sliced them at an angle and mixed them in with blanched shrimp, vibrantly pink ginger flower, minced lemongrass, toasted coconut and shallots. We made sambal belachan for the dressing, which is a characteristically Malay sauce made from toasting the ubiquitous shrimp paste (belachan) and mixing it with red chili, lime juice, sugar, and salt. The resulting salad was crisp and refreshing, perfect for a hot day.

Assembling all the ingredients for wing bean salad

Refreshing wing bean salad

Additional information:
Nazlina Hussin Pickles and Spices
http://www.pickles-and-spices.com/cooking-traditional-food-class.html
71 Stewart Lane, Penang
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