Friday, June 24, 2011

Carrot Cake Cupcake!

I have a thing for food that comes in a small package. 

I guess it's just the cute factor. Mini pies, mini tarts (tartelettes sound even cuter), mini cakes, mini lasagnas...If I can make a baby version of something, I'd make it! That's not exactly why I made this dessert though, which is essentially carrot cake in cupcake form. Nope. I had a whole different reason.

In fact, I almost always have the same reason for cooking something: my mood. While other women show their change of mood through their choice of skirts or pants, mine translates to what gets served on the dinner table. I guess that's why my pantry is always well-stocked -- it has to be ready to serve two or three different moods at a time.

When I feel like retrieving to my comfort zone -- whether it's because I'm having exam pressure, or just feeling a little blue, or extremely exhausted -- I reach out for something comforting and warm, like mushroom risotto or chicken porridge. There is the occasional moment when only chocolate will do, in which case I'll turn to a cup of very rich and very dark hot chocolate.

When I feel upbeat, which often coincides with summery weather, I whip up something bright and sunny, like pasta with fresh vegetables. Bright colors and bold flavors will be on the menu, accompanied by a jug of chilled lemonade. 

When I feel excited, or on top of the world (things going well at the work front, perhaps), I strangely go for something spicy or, um, "ethnic". I will intuitively crave something Mexican, or Indonesian, or anything with a bit of a kick (or a lot). If you have an explanation for that, please give me a call! And when I'm, what's the word, going bananas over a guy? Well, that moment calls for a Hainanese chicken rice, complete with all the trimmings. If you're a guy (and not one of my guy friends!), and you find yourself struggling to finish a huge spread of Hainanese chicken rice at my dining table, be very suspicious that I have a huge crush on you. And if there's dessert, be very suspicious. If there's no dessert...I probably am just tired. I'm not that picky ;)

And when I'm having one of those moods -- spectacularly happy, permanent-grin-on-my-face kind of happy, the kind of mood that makes everything look pastel-colored.....The kind of mood that makes you understand La Vie en Rose ("Life in pink? that TOTALLY makes sense").....The kind of mood that makes every romantic comedy enjoyable no matter how much Hollywood has robbed it off its originality.....That calls for something cute, sweet, creamy and pretty. One way or the other it usually involves a guy. Vanilla, butter and sugar are usually in there somewhere. A guy, vanilla, butter and sugar...Can't go wrong with those.

Hence the Carrot Cake Cupcake today. That was my mood showing through.

Not just because I had extra carrots in my fridge.

Carrot Cake Cupcake
Makes 20 cupcakes

Adapted from

• 250g unsalted butter, softened
• 250g light brown soft sugar
• 5 large eggs, separated
• zest and juice of 1 orange
• 170g self-raising flour, sifted
• 1 slightly heaped teaspoon baking powder
• 100g ground almonds
• 100g chopped nuts (almonds/walnuts/cashews) plus a handful for sprinkling
• 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
• a pinch of ground cloves
• a pinch of ground nutmeg
• ½ teaspoon ground ginger
• 250g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
sea salt

for the orange mascarpone icing:
• 100g mascarpone cheese
• 200g cream cheese
• 85g icing sugar, sifted
• zest of 1 large orange

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas 4. Line the cupcake pan with cupcake wrappers. Beat the butter and sugar together by hand or in a food processor until pale and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one by one, and add the orange zest and juice. Stir in the sifted flour and baking powder, and add the ground almonds, nuts, spices and grated carrot and mix together well.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, then gently fold them into the cake mix. Scoop the mixture into the cupcake wrappers and bake for about 20-22 minutes until risen. You can check to see if the cupcakes are cooked by poking a cocktail stick into one. Remove it after 5 seconds and if it comes out clean the cake is cooked; if slightly sticky, it needs a bit longer, so put it back in the oven. Leave the cupcakes to cool completely on a wire rack.

Mix all the icing ingredients together and spread generously over the top of the cake. Finish off with a sprinkling of chopped walnuts.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Aubergine Parmigiana

Today I found out that shit happens.

I mean, I've always known that bad things happen...There's a whole spectrum of bad things that can happen to you, from things that ruin your day like a careless cyclist who hits your car and leaves a tiny dent, to things that can break your heart in the best and worst way that anything can break your heart. You know what I'm talking about. 

I've always known, just by the simple powers of observation, that best friends break up, people die of hunger, businesses go bankrupt and babies die for no reason at all. I know. But somehow I managed to make my way through life for 24 grand years without letting any of the bad things get the best of me. Oh sure, I wept, I got upset, I threw stuff. But I never let these things turn me into someone bitter, or scared, or timid. "Oh wow," you're thinking, "The optimism and arrogance of the youth."

Yeah, I guess. But it was also the naivety of the youth. I'd always been one of those naive children who embraced life for everything that it was. I saw challenges like everyone else, but I'd always thought, "Oh, it'll be fine." And even if it wouldn't be fine, I'd survive and be cheerful again after, like, 20 minutes. As someone once so perfectly described, I "propelled forward through life, hitting bricks and walls on my way, but always going forward nonetheless." Life was a big, bold adventure, and my mind selectively chose to remember the good memories over the bad. There was nothing zen about my upbeat outlook, it was just the pure fearlessness of a child trapped inside an adult's body.

And then life threw me one of those surprises, because that's just what life does. You know what I'm talking about. Total road kill. Heart leaping from a cliff into thin air, then crashing spectacularly into the ground. Heart pulp. Your belief system suddenly not being so believable anymore. Your comfort zone way, way far behind. One of those moments in life when no amount of motivational quotes or Ben and Jerry's or supportive friends can help you.

Shit happens.

And you find out that suddenly you're not so fearless anymore, not so charmingly naive, not so...innocent, perhaps. Suddenly you're a reluctant, scared, worried, and tired adult like everyone else. What's an adult to do? Well, it took a lot of long walks and absent moments spent staring at my laptop screen, but I think the answer is faith. When blind naivety doesn't save you anymore, faith can. Faith requires the patience and wisdom of an adult, which is probably why that was not the first resource I tapped into when I was faced with fears before. 

Faith to me means believing that things will be fine even if you don't know how or why or when. It's believing that there's a just government above who will protect you, love you and guide you when you ask it to...and when you listen. Faith means surrendering to the knowledge that there's no such thing as certainty or total control. It's knowing that shit happens all the time, but that you have it in you to guide yourself through the mess.

Do I feel a pang of sadness about growing up? Oh, sure. Instead of channeling Cinderella as a child (Girl sings with rats and birds, girl mops the floor, girl falls in love with a guy who can't remember what she looks like after dancing the whole night with her?....Come on), I could always relate better with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. I never wanted to grow up! I wanted to live in a pastel-colored world. But perhaps I'm more like Wendy than Peter Pan -- I must return to the real world where the colors come in a far wider spectrum. But I'm pretty sure I still get to keep a little childishness in me.

And now...eggplants. Because loss of innocence and limp vegetables are TOTALLY correlated.

Aubergine Parmigiana
For 6 servings

Recipe adapted from

- 3 large firm aubergines
- olive oil
• 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
• 1 clove garlic, if you can get it, peeled and finely sliced
• 1 heaped teaspoon dried oregano
• 2 x 400g tins good-quality plum tomatoes
• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
• a large handful of fresh basil
• 4 large handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
• 2 handfuls of dried breadcrumbs
• a little fresh oregano, leaves chopped

• 1 x 150g ball of buffalo mozzarella

Remove the stalks from the aubergines and slice them up into 1cm thick slices. Get a dry pan really hot. 

Put 2 or 3 glugs of olive oil into another pan on a medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and dried oregano and cook for 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and the garlic has a tiny bit of colour. If you’re using tinned tomatoes, break them up and give the mixture a good stir, then put a lid on the pan and simmer slowly for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, grill the aubergines on both sides until lightly charred – you may have to do them in batches. As each batch is finished, remove them to a tray and carry on grilling the rest until they’re all nicely done. When the tomato sauce is reduced and sweet, season it carefully with salt and pepper, and add the basil. You can leave the sauce chunky or you can purée it.

Get yourself an earthenware type dish. Put in a small layer of tomato sauce, then a thin scattering of Parmesan, followed by a single layer of aubergines. Repeat these layers until you’ve used all the ingredients up, finishing with a little sauce and another good sprinkling of Parmesan. I like to toss the breadcrumbs in olive oil with a little freshly chopped oregano and sprinkle them on top of the Parmesan. Sometimes the dish is served with torn-up mozzarella on top, which is nice too.

Place the dish in the oven and bake at 190°C/375°F/gas 5 for half an hour until golden, crisp and bubbly. It’s best eaten straight away, but it can also be served cold.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Summer Meal - Linguini with Garlic, Chili, Prawns and Coriander

Summer has me wanting a glass of iced mint lemonade all the time.

It's the only thing that will get me through a hot, sweaty day. Something tangy, minty, citrusy bright and cold...Oh yeahh. I plan my meals based on this drink -- anything that goes with it is in, and the rest gets stocked in the freezer! And what goes with tangy, minty, citrusy bright and cold lemonade?

Something garlicky...No heavy sauces, just beautiful, jade green olive oil.

And some freshly chopped chilies.

And some fragrant coriander leaves to spruce things up.

I don't get what people mean when they say that coriander leaves smell grassy. What's grassy? Do you know?

I think I'm gonna bung in some prawns to create a more substantial meal. But still totally elegant.

And I think all of that will go with some pasta. Pasta and minty lemonade, and fabulous weather. Ahhhh.

Linguini with Garlic, Chili, Prawns and Coriander
For 1 person

Enough pasta for a generous serving, preferrably spaghetti, linguini or fettucini
3 fat garlic cloves, sliced thinly
1 chili with seeds, sliced thinly
A handful of prawns, shelled
A handful of young coriander leaves
Olive oil
Chicken stock cube, salt and pepper
Some extra coriander leaves for scattering on top

Boil a big pot of water. Only when it comes to the boil, add some salt and add the pasta.

In the mean time, heat up some olive oil on a pan over low heat. Saute the garlic and chili. Once they become fragrant, add the prawns and crumble in the stock cube.

Once the pasta is al dente, drain well and add the pasta to the pan. Add the coriander leaves and stir everything well until the leaves wilt slightly. Season with salt and pepper. 

Serve it on a big pasta plate and scatter the remaining coriander leaves on top.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Road to Peace of Mind is Paved with Imperfections

"There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

Here’s a fact. Everyone is trying to make sense of their life in some way. We’re trying to make it feel right to us. Some do it by pursuing their goals, some with art, some with love, and some by giving to others. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to make sense of my life by trying to be perfect. Well, up until some time ago, to be exact. But it was a profound force in my life. It took over the big picture and it showed in the small things. If I was perfect, I was fine, and if I wasn’t perfect, I was a failure. Yes, I was a blossoming, self-declared perfectionist.

If you have just an ounce of perfectionism in you, you’d understand when I say that there’s a whole spectrum of perfectionism. There’s one end of the spectrum, where the level of perfectionism is rather healthy, and all you desire is to reach your most ambitious goals. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, where perfectionism has hindered you from functioning well as an individual. You won’t go out of the house because things are not controllable outside of the safety of your home. You can’t have a relationship because human beings do unpredictable things that make you feel uncomfortable. And the rest of us fit somewhere in between these two extremes.

I have traveled the spectrum a fair bit in my life. There was a time in my childhood when I would be frustrated and unable to sleep if I would get an 8.9 in a class test, while others could get a 9.  There was a time when I had to write an essay for a literature competition, but I couldn’t write it simply because my handwriting was not perfect enough for me. It was not perfect enough because some letters were slightly larger than the others, and my b’s and d’s were not of the same height. Perfect handwriting, to my 12-year-old self, meant that the letters had to have the exact same size and height. I’d write a few words, be frustrated because they were not “perfect”, crumple the paper into a ball, throw it on the floor, and start over only to fail to make the perfect handwriting again. It became so bad that my mother had to draw lines between the actual lines on the paper with a pencil, so that I could make all my letters the same height. My young mind could not recognize that this was the beginning of my love affair with perfectionism. I simply thought I was a failure, because I believed that successful people could write with perfect handwriting.

I continued to have a complicated relationship with my perfectionism. There were days when I’d criticize myself so many times in my head, sometimes literally hundreds of times per day. My hair was not right. I was not pretty enough. Not articulate enough. Could have worked harder on my assignment. Could have been nicer to people. Could have been more focused in my prayers. The way I walked was not right. Perfect people walk gracefully and in one straight line. I did not.  The things on my desk had to be arranged all facing north, with equal spacing between each other. Why did I say that stupid thing? Why couldn’t I be more patient with my baby sister? Why do I binge? I created highly unreasonable definitions of perfect, definitions I couldn’t fit into. In my eyes, I was far from perfect. And yet, I decided that being perfect was the only way I could be happy, the only way to live. The only respectable way to live.

And yet, in all aspects, I appeared as a normal teenager. I excelled in several things and was generally happy. I had friends and the typical ups and downs of a teenager. And yet, even in my happiest moments, there was always something that didn’t feel right. There was always something in the back of my head, telling me that I’m not perfect and thus undeserving of true happiness. As destructive as it was, I held on to my perfectionism. I was even proud of it for some time. I felt like perfectionists were the type of people who were ambitious, hard-working and unafraid to pursue their goals. We were the people who would succeed. And true, if you could control your perfectionism and use it to your advantage, it could motivate you to reach your goals. But I find that it’s immensely difficult to make sure that your perfectionism is large enough to motivate you, but not too large that it eats you. Finding balance, as those among us who are honest with themselves know, is one of the finer challenges in life. After years of being a proud yet tormented perfectionist, I finally realized that I had to deal with it, or it would sabotage my life.

And even then, it was not easy to unlearn my perfectionism. Oh boy, was it difficult. And even if you’re not a perfectionist, I believe you can relate to this experience. If we’re honest, each of us is struggling with something, a part of us that prevents us from being truly happy, and would continue to do so until we deal with it. It can be pessimism, laziness, procrastination, shyness, lack of confidence, lack of purpose, you name it. But here’s the thing. No matter how many times I failed to properly deal with my perfectionism, I never gave up on myself. I never let my perfectionism define who I am. Never once did I say, “This is just who I am and I can’t change it, so I should stop trying.” And I think that’s the first step of dealing with your issue: never let it define you. It’s not who you are, it’s just one side of your personality that you would like to change, to allow yourself to be truly happy.

And here’s where I think people are divided. There are people who argue that you can’t change the fundamentals of who you are, and there are people who argue that you can, and that in fact, you need to do so throughout your life in order to grow. I lean towards the second. If you’re a follower of the first school of thought, don’t sneer just yet. I think people probably can’t completely change their natural tendencies, but they can develop skills on how to deal with them. I still have perfectionism tendencies – I still demand a lot from myself, and sometimes I criticize myself too much. But I have learned how to respond to these tendencies. I have learned how to deal with them so that they don’t take control over my life. Whenever I feel my perfectionism urges coming up, I tell myself, “Perfectionist is bad, dedicated and motivated is good.” This motto reminds me that as long as I stay dedicated to what I’m doing and motivated, I’ve done my best, and that’s all I need to be. And not just that – it also reminds me that it’s okay to have perfectionism tendencies. It doesn’t mean I’m a perfectionist. What matters is how you respond to these tendencies. Do you succumb? Or do you keep a clear head and choose to do what’s best for you?

In my opinion, the argument that people can’t change is nonsense. Have you met a person who has never gone through a major personality change in their life? If you look back at your life, could you say that you haven’t changed at all, personality-wise? I find that people need to constantly change to survive. As we get older, our challenges become more difficult, and we need to grow in order to rise to these new challenges. And isn’t change the essence of growth? Growing up means you become something that was initially not you. I was a spoiled child, but because I was sent abroad to study at the age of 13, I had to be independent and take care of myself. Slowly I grew into a more independent person. Is that not change? And yet, if I decided that being independent was impossible for me, I believe I would not have become independent. What you believe becomes your self-fulfilling prophecy. It becomes your reality. So if you believe that you can’t change, you’re probably right. If you believe you can, you’re probably right too.

So that was the first lesson I learned the hard way: Never let your demons define you. Learn the skills to deal with them, and never give up. And if you forget why you bother to deal with your demons (we all forget from time to time), remember that it’s because you owe it to yourself to be truly happy. We all deserve to have peace of mind and happiness.

The second thing that I found helpful was to take it day by day. I once went to a Christian school, and although I’m not Christian, I still had to attend mass every Monday. I had to sit with the other students, listen to their singing and to the sermon. One of the regular songs was about taking your burden off your shoulders and putting it before God. That concept appealed to me tremendously. Dealing with your demons is difficult, but it gets easier if you break it down into days. Just like a tired athlete who needs rest, you too need time-off from all your worries. After a long day of fighting off my perfectionism tendencies, nothing feels better than to take a moment alone, close my eyes and say, “God, I tried hard today. And yet my problem is still there. Tonight I will take my problem off my back and lie it down in front of You. Please soothe my frustrations and let me have my rest. Tomorrow I will try again.” Doing that always makes me feel energized and calm.

But I found that self-conviction and persistence wasn’t enough – they had to be paired with self-understanding. If ever there is one powerful tool that can open many doors for you, I think self-understanding is it. Personally, I think self-understanding is being honest with yourself and learning about how you work. Why do I have perfectionism tendencies? I read that perfectionism is a tool we use to defend ourselves against inner vulnerabilities. Oh, how that resonates with me. That feels so true. What do I feel vulnerable about? What are my fears, my insecurities? What am I trying to achieve by trying to be perfect? Who am I trying to please? Does it really make me happy?

Going down that road can be uncomfortable and takes courage. Some truths about ourselves are just not pretty. We may find things we don’t like about ourselves. It’s tempting to not go into them and bury them instead. Oh yes, it will be tempting to follow your tendencies too, because they just feel so natural. When this happens, I find it helpful to remember why I’m doing all this: the pursuit of happiness. Peace of mind is not just some distant concept reserved for the most zen among us and Buddhist monks – it’s a necessity if we long for a happy life. And I don’t mean the kind of happiness that we derive from a great relationship, an achievement or an easy day spent hanging out with best friends. I mean the kind of happiness we have even when our love life or achievements are non-existent. I mean the kind of happiness we derive from strength and stability of mind, and from understanding and accepting ourselves. If anything helped me to deal with my perfectionism, I think learning about myself with genuine honesty was it. I read psychological explanations for the way I worked. I spent time pondering about why I work the way I work. It makes a world of difference when you’re honest with yourself. You see, people are highly skilled at fooling themselves. We believe what we want to believe. If we are prepared to look at ourselves just as we are, with full acceptance, we may find that suddenly things become clear to us.

They certainly became clear to me. Slowly, because sometimes things are revealed to us in pieces, little by little. There should be no surprise in that – I bet a lot of our parents are still dealing with their demons. There’s no quick-fix solution to this. It became clear to me that I wanted to be perfect because that’s where I derived my self-worth from. Growing up, the people around me have always been ambitious and successful. I was always encouraged to aim high, and praised when I did well. People have always expected me to do well. Everyone longs for acceptance, and I am no different. Performing and living up to other people’s expectations was my yardstick for success. Success equaled self-worth. All along, I was looking for the feeling of being worthy.

Unfortunately, self-understanding alone doesn't lead you to peace of mind. There's still the last piece of the puzzle, the trickiest one, which is self-acceptance. Why is it tricky? I think constructive self-acceptance, which is self-acceptance that will lead you to happiness, requires you to find a balance between loving who you are and not letting your demons define you. You should accept yourself, but you shouldn't hastily accept those characteristics that make you less than happy as a fixed part of you. And here's another point where people are divided. Some people would argue that you should accept everything about who you are, the good and the bad. And I agree, I think you should. But not those characteristics that make you less than happy. You, not other people. The purpose of accepting yourself is to be happy. Why should you accept those characteristics that actually do not make you happy?

Also, who is to say that these characteristics are you; an unalterable part of you? Remember my paragraph about change before. We should be careful in labeling ourselves, because labeling is a very powerful tool. We tend to believe the labels we give ourselves, and they will, eventually, become our reality. If we label ourselves as lacking in confidence, and we accept that, we will never be confident. Lack of confidence can cause many problems in life -- it may stop us from pursuing our dreams, prevent us from having meaningful relationships with others, and lead us to pessimism. Why should we allow ourselves to be this way?

Let me elaborate by using myself as an example. To constructively accept myself, I accept that I have perfectionism tendencies, but I refuse to let them take over my life. I refuse to call myself a perfectionist, because I don't need to stay as one. I can learn skills to deal with my perfectionism tendencies. I take the same approach to other characteristics that make myself unhappy. As for those characteristics that are not necessarily positive but that don't make me unhappy, I accept them fully. I accept that I can be careless, that I have no sense of direction, that I can be too open, that I can withdraw myself from others in certain situations. I don't fret over my hair on a bad hair day.

The paradox is this: Once I accepted myself, it became easier to deal with my perfectionism. I came to the understanding that that self-worth is not derived from success or pleasing others. Everyone goes through failures. Does it diminish your self-worth when you fail? No. I believe you derive your self-worth from living well and being yourself. If you do your best, practice kindness, pursue your purpose in life, allow room for mistake for yourself and others, and be yourself, I believe you can derive self-worth from that.

So I began to try to extract self-worth from these things. I took baby steps towards my lifelong goals. As part of living well, I began exploring the spiritual side of my life. I prayed more. I confided in God more. I laughed off my mistakes. I gave myself credit for the things I achieved. I made time to do things I really loved, like cooking, reading cookbooks and spending time with friends. I tried to be kind when I didn't feel like it. I didn't always succeed, but no worthy pursuit is supposed to be easy. Every night, I still take my worries off my shoulders, put them away, and get my mental rest.  

Unexpectedly, my perfectionism tendencies also become less and less. It's like seeing the world through a new pair of glasses. Suddenly, I understand that life is meant to be imperfect. Life is a mess. Life is a succession of messy, unpredictable affairs. Accepting this gives me immense relief. I am no longer a victim of my own perfectionism. It no longer prohibits me from being happy, from loving myself, from embracing life's unpredictable events. But I am also under no illusion that peace of mind is a static concept. I don't believe that once you reach peace of mind, you will always have it. You need to maintain in by practicing the things that led you to peace of mind in the first place. It may be a lifelong journey, but I feel that this is a start.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spicy Prawn Curry (Gulai Udang)

This is one of those sinfully delicious dishes. Not because of the prawns -- contrary to common belief, prawns  contain more good fat than bad fat, and are good for your health. No, this dish is sinful because of the coconut milk, which is the base of the sauce. It's cooked for a long time until it has a very thick consistency, studded with spices and very rich in flavor. Part of the coconut milk will be turned into coconut oil, which will be red in color from the chilies. Although you won't think it, this red oil is actually very flavorful -- just a bowl of hot steamed rice slicked with this oil and the curry sauce is heavenly, but you can take it up a notch by using it to make fried rice!

I grew up visiting my maternal grandparents every other weekend. My grandma would cook up a storm in her tiny kitchen every time we would come over. She had several special dishes up her sleeve that she made over and over, and this dish is one of them. Her version also contains stinky beans and hard-boiled quail's eggs, which really take the dish over the top. Mine is the simpler, student-kitchen-in-the-Netherlands version. 

I often wonder what life would be like had my grandma not passed away when I was young. I loved having a grandma, and she was everything a grandma was supposed to be. She was sweet, loving and tender. She completely adored me and was never mad at me. She was such a lady -- her gray hair was always neatly pulled up into a bun, she had the best smell, and she always wore such pretty colours. She tended to her rose garden so carefully, only to have her roses plucked and chopped up by me when they bloomed. I remember looking up at her from my toy kitchenette, her roses completely butchered up on my toy kitchen counter, me grinning the naive grin of a child who didn't understand the time and labor that went into those delicate flowers. "These are the chilies," I said, pointing at the rose petals. She'd grin back at me. 

She'd then feed me the fried chicken that she made especially for me, the best one in the world. She'd tell my mother not to get angry at me for ruining the roses again. She'd bring me in for a nap when the heat and the humidity had gotten the best of me. She'd fan me with a magazine when the rackety air-conditioning would be making too much noise again and disturbing my sleep. Sunday afternoons at grammy's were the one of the highlights of my childhood.

Even to this day, one of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood is of my grandma, sitting on her small kitchen stool, chopping up vegetables and grinding spices, her back turned towards me. Although I never had the chance to learn about cooking from her, I feel like when I make this dish, I may be continuing her cooking legacy. Who knows, maybe it even tastes quite similar to hers.

Spicy Prawn Curry (Gulai Udang)
For 4 people

4 large handfuls prawns, cleaned (it's up to you to keep the shells intact or not)
5 kaffir lime leaves
juice of 1/2 lime
1 lemongrass, stalk bruised, or 1 tsp powdered lemongrass
chicken/vegetable stock cube
salt and sugar to taste
500 ml coconut milk

To be made into a spice paste:
7 shallots
5 garlic cloves
10 chilies
1 tbsp coriander seeds

With a blender, a food processor or a pestle and mortar, make a smooth spice paste using the spice paste ingredients. Add oil or water to make it easier to blitz everything into a smooth paste.

On a hot wok, heat up some oil (less if you've added some to the blender) and sautee the spice paste with the lime leaves until everything is fragrant and cooked.

Add the lime juice, lemongrass, coconut milk, stock cube and sugar. Once it comes to the boil, lower the heat and add the prawns. The reason why we're not adding salt at this point is that the sauce will be cooked until it's reduced, and once it's reduced, you may find that the stock cube was enough to salt the curry.

Keep cooking on a low heat until the sauce is reduced to a very thick consistency. The curry is done when red oil starts to surface. Taste and add salt if needed.

Serve with hot steamed rice.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Crispy Fried Fish with Spicy Yellow Sauce (Ikan Pesmol)

One of the most perfect Indonesian lunches, in my opinion, consists of this dish, served with stir-fried snake beans, bean sprouts and tempe, and a plate of hot steamed rice. This is Indonesian home cooking, and definitely something that my grandmother, mother and aunts have been cooking and eating their whole lives. It is light and delicious with many different textures and colors. I get very greedy when I see this being served on the table!

I use dorado fish in this dish (called mahi-mahi in Indonesian), but you can use any mild-tasting fish like pomfret, gourami or sea bass. I prefer smaller fish that can be fried until very crispy, although some people prefer thick, meaty fish fillets. It's really up to you. The sauce is mouthful and savoury, slightly spicy from the chilies, fragrant with lime leaves and slightly sweetened by the tender spring onion. The candlenuts make the sauce taste very rich without making it heavy, which means it doesn't mask the taste of the fish. Perfect for a seafood lunch.

The accompanying vegetable dish, stir-fried snake beans, bean sprouts and tempe is one of the easiest vegetarian stir-fries there is. It takes hardly any time to cook, and perfect to be eaten on its own because the tempe provides protein and a meaty bite. Because it tastes very mild, it's a suitable pairing for bolder-tasting dishes. 

Crispy Fried Fish with Spicy Yellow Sauce (Ikan Pesmol)
For 6 people

6 whole fish/fish fillets (dorado, pomfret, gourami, sea bass), 1 per person
Juice of 2 limes
3 tsp powdered turmeric
3 lime leaves
5 or more chilies (a mix of red, orange and green), cut into diagonal slices
2 spring onion, cut into 3-cm chunks
2 medium tomatoes, cut into wedges
200 ml water
Salt and sugar to taste

To be made into a smooth paste:
9 shallots
5 garlic cloves
3 tsp powdered turmeric
2 cm ginger or 2 tsp powdered ginger
2 cm galangal or laos
1 lemongrass, the thick white part only
9 candlenuts

If using whole fish, make sure the fish is scaled, gutted and thoroughly cleaned. Cut deep diagonal slices on the flesh of the fish, and mix the fish with the lime juice (save 2 tablespoon for later use), turmeric powder and some salt. Leave to marinate in the fridge for about 20 minutes.

Using a blender or a pestle and mortar, make a smooth paste of the spice paste ingredients. Saute the paste on a hot wok with some oil. Once fragrant, add the lime leaves, chilies, the remaining 2 tablespoon lime juice and water. Add salt and sugar to taste.

Once it comes to the boil, lower the heat and add the tomatoes and spring onion. The low heat will ensure that the tomato juice comes out and flavors the sauce. Simmer for 5-10 more minutes.

Meanwhile, deep-fry the fish until golden brown and very crispy. Drain on kitchen paper. To serve, pour the sauce over the fish and serve immediately.

Stir-Fried Snake Beans, Bean Sprouts and Tempe
For 6 people

3 large handfuls snake beans, cut into 3-cm chunks
4 large handfuls bean sprouts
2 large handfuls tempe, cut into 3-cm sticks 
5 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
3 shallots, sliced thinly
4 chilies, cut into diagonal slices
2 spring onion, cut into 3-cm chunks
1 chicken/vegetable stock cube
Salt, sugar and white pepper to taste
1 cup water

On a wok over high heat, heat up a few tablespoons of oil and sautee the garlic, shallots and chilies until fragrant. Add the snake beans and tempe. Season with the stock cube, salt, sugar and pepper. Add the water and turn the heat down to medium.
Once the snake beans and tempe are half cooked, add the bean sprouts and spring onion. Stir-fried until everything is cooked through but still crunchy. Do not overcook to retain the beautiful vibrant colours. 
Serve immediately.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Indonesian Mild Curry (Opor)

Opor, one of the most beloved curries in Indonesia, is very versatile. The original version calls for chicken, but it works very well with other mild-tasting protein like tempe (soy bean cake), tofu and hard-boiled eggs. It's also wonderful with vegetables -- snake beans and mushrooms are my favorite. I actually like the vegetarian version of opor better. The tofu soaks up the rich sauce very well, as does the tempe, and since this is a milder type of curry, it doesn't mask the subtle taste of the vegetables. And if you've never had  a curry with boiled eggs before, don't turn up your nose -- just keep reading and you'll see why!

Although this is one of our milder curries, it's bursting with flavors. The coconut milk sauce is enriched with an array of spices, and the palm sugar adds an almost coconut-y sweetness to the curry, which balances out the savoury note provided by the chicken broth. It's best eaten with a lot of rice to mop up the sauce!

Start with an obscene amount of spices...And chop up all your ingredients.

Blitz the spices using a blender, and dump on a hot wok with some oil.

After the spice paste becomes slightly yellow and very aromatic, add the coconut milk and the rest of the ingredients, except for the mushrooms.

The tofu is fried before hand, so that it's soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. The hard-boiled eggs are fried briefly until they develop a thin, crackly skin that's very scrumptious. There's something about the creamy egg yolk, the satiny smooth egg white and the crispy skin that pairs very well with the curry.

This recipe also uses snake beans, tempe and enoki mushrooms. These mushrooms retain a good bite even after cooking, which works very well with the sauce. 

Cook the curry on medium heat. Don't worry if the curry looks very pale at this stage, because the color will get darker later.

Let all the flavors marry...

Once the curry comes to a boil, add the mushrooms, and turn down the heat so that the curry is just simmering. Your curry is done after it's been simmering for about 10 minutes and it has no more hint of bitterness. This means that all the spices have been cooked thoroughly.

Indonesian Mild Curry (Opor)
For 8 people

1 block of tempe (soy bean cake), cut into thick strips
2 large blocks of tofu, cut into thick triangles
1 large bunch of snake beans, cut into 4 cm pieces
2 bunches of enoki mushrooms, bottom part chopped off and cut into chunks
8 hard-boiled eggs, skin peeled
1000 cc coconut milk, mixed with 250 cc water

Spice paste:
18 garlic cloves (I'm not kidding with my blog title)
15 shallots
12 candlenuts
3 tbsp coriander seeds
5 heaping tbsp palm sugar, shaved

1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
2 bay leaves
2-3 chicken/vegetable stock cube
white pepper, sugar and salt to taste

Deep-fry the tofu and boiled eggs until they form a thin skin. Drain on kitchen paper.
Grind all the spices for your spice paste using a blender or a food processor until smooth. Add some oil to the blender if it's difficult to blitz everything into a smooth paste.
Heat some oil in a large wok. Add the spice paste and sautee on medium heat until aromatic and the paste turns yellow.
Add the coconut milk that has been thinned with water to the wok. Add your eggs, tofu, tempe, snake beans, ground ginger, ground cumin, lemongrass stalk, bay leaves and stock cube as well. Stir well.
Bring everything to the boil, and then lower the heat until the curry is just simmering. Season with salt, sugar and pepper to your liking. Add the mushrooms and simmer for ten more minutes until the curry sauce doesn't have any hint of bitterness.
Serve with steamed rice.