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Scents to savour

MALAYSIAN COOKING: A Master Cook Reveals Her Best Recipes
By Carol Selva Rajah
Publisher:Tuttle Publishing

Carol Selva Rajah follows her nose in her new cookbook.

PINCH your nose with a clothes pin to block it and try eating some cumin, fennel and sugar. Chances are, you’ll get no sensation of taste or smell.

Carol Selva Rajah gets her cooking class students to do this to demonstrate the fact that three-quarters of what we taste comes from smell.

“Then I have them remove the clothes pin. Whoa! Smell and taste return with surprising force,” she writes in her latest cookbook, Malaysian Cooking: A Master Cook Reveals Her Best Recipes.

This book “was born from a discovery that Malaysian flavours and aromas are simple to recreate in your kitchen” and that forms the basis for Selva Rajah’s selection of recipes.

She starts off with a nostalgic tale of her childhood in Klang, Selangor, and growing up in a house with a garden that were cultivated with vegetables, herbs and spices and fruit trees, which supplied a lot of the ingredients for her family’s meals.

Her provenance shaped her culinary style, and her nanny’s cooking tenet, “Ahh, ho heong, ho sek mah” (good smell, good eat), is one she has always held to and clearly an inspiration for this book.

If the recipes seems a little ecletic, moving from Nyonya to Indian and Chinese to Malay, it is only because Selva Rajah was exposed to various cuisines from very early on.

She was born in Singapore to Sri Lankan parents, but her mother was brought up by Hokkiens in Penang. Growing up in Malaysia raised by her Cantonese amah, Selva Rajah experienced a fusion of cultures which influenced her culinary style.

In fact, her amah – her “other mother” – was her mentor whose tutelage started every morning before school when the young Carol would learn how to pick and portion herbs, grind chilli, prepare spice mixes and do the marketing.

The importance of aroma in cooking is not understated in this book. Selva Rajah tells the story of an Australian diplomat who came to her home for dinner and thought she had forgotten about the invitation as there were no lingering aromas since Selva Rajah had sprayed her house with air freshener to extinguish the curry smells prior to his arrival!

Similar anecdotes are peppered throughout the cookbook and she prefaces each recipe with informative notes. It’s as if this celebrated expert in Asian cooking is by your side, giving you pointers as you prepare a meal.

Her recipes prove that Asian dishes depend greatly on curry mixes and spice pastes, and she has a whole section on these components.

Selva Rajah uses the versatile Sambal Oelek Chilli Paste (recipe below) in many of her dishes, including Okra Stuffed With Prawn Sambal. The filling was delicious and I had to stop myself from eating it all up before I stuffed the ladies’ fingers, although the Dijon mustard seemed unnecessary. She even includes a useful tip on roasting dried prawns in the microwave oven.

Most cookbooks will have enticing food photography and Malaysian Cooking is no different. Remember that your own attempt may not look like the picture, one example being the stuffed okra – after being baked, as instructed, they would look more like those in the recipe below and would not retain their vibrant green colour as those in the book. But do not be discouraged as the recipes are simple and produce humble but delicious, aromatic dishes for the home cook.

The Ginger Soy Chicken with Rice Wine, for instance, is a dish I would not normally attempt as I find Chinese cooking a little daunting, but the instructions are well explained and it turned out well, save for the tea-flavoured eggs – they were cooked perfectly but did not have the desirable marbled effect.

Selva Rajah does not say, but I suspect it’s best to use black tea for the colour.

For a dish like this, use free-range organic chicken if you can – it makes a big difference to the taste.

Other recipes I tried were Mint Pachadi Chutney, Sweet and Spicy Fish Nibbles with Peanuts and Semolina Halva with Almonds. And while I am no fan of tinned sardines, I made the Tomato and Tamarind Fish Curry in which it is utilised.

I haven’t changed my mind about sardines but the people I served the dish to polished it off with their chappati!

  • Malaysian Cooking is published by Tuttle Publishing, with photography by Masano Kawana.

    Okra Stuffed With Prawn Sambal

    Serves 4

  • 300g young okra (lady’s finger), stems trimmed
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • ¼ cup plain yoghurt
  • ½ tsp ground red pepper

    Filling

  • 5 tbsp dried prawns, dry-roasted and crushed (see note)
  • 1 tbsp dried mango powder (amchoor), or ½ tsp tamarind pulp mixed with as little water as possible to make a paste
  • 1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tbsp Sambal Oelek Chilli Paste (recipe follows)
  • 1 tbsp dried unsweetened grated coconut, dry-roasted in a pan until golden
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp sugar, or to taste
  • 3 tsp water

    Method
    Rinse the okra well, drain and dry with paper towels. Make a slit along the side of each okra with a sharp knife, making sure not to cut through it. Carefully remove seeds and pith.

    Set aside. Combine Filling ingredients and mix well. Stuff each okra with 1 tsp of Filling. Preheat the oven to 160°C.

    Mix cornstarch and turmeric together on a plate. Roll each stuffed okra in the mixture to coat well; place them on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and arrange in a serving plate in a shallow yoghurt bath. Sprinkle with ground red pepper and serve immediately.

    Note: Dry-roast the dried prawns by placing them in a shallow dish and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir well and return to the microwave for 1 more minute until crisp. Grind or crush them.

    Sambal Oelek Chilli Paste

    Makes 1 cup

  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced
  • 5 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2.5cm fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 12 red finger-length chillies, halved and deseeded
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp shaved palm sugar or dark brown sugar
  • 100ml vinegar
  • ¼ tsp salt, to taste

    Method
    Grind onion, garlic, ginger and chillies to a smooth paste. Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the ground paste over medium heat until fragrant, 3-5 minutes; season with sugar, vinegar and salt.

    Remove from heat and cool, then store refrigerated in a sealed jar for up to 2 months.

    Ginger Soy Chicken With Rice Wine

    Serves 6

  • 600g boneless chicken thighs, fat trimmed, cut in half
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1½ tbsp oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger
  • 3 green onions, sliced into short lengths
  • 3 tbsp Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing)
  • 10g (¼ cup) dried woodear or cloud ear fungus, soaked in hot water until soft, hard bits removed, drained well
  • 1 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • ½ tbsp thick sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
  • ½ tsp salt, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp ground white pepper Tea-flavoured Eggs
  • 12 quail eggs
  • 1 tbsp tea leaves Warm water, to cover
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce

    Prepare the tea-flavoured eggs first.

    Place eggs in a small saucepan and add enough warm water to cover. Add tea leaves and bring slowly to a boil over medium-low heat, then simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes.

    Turn off the heat and remove the eggs from the pan. Roll each egg on a flat work surface to crack the shell on all sides, then return to the saucepan with the tea mixture.

    Add dark soy sauce, bring the micture to a boil and simmer over medium-low heat for 3-5 minutes.

    Turn off the heat, remove eggs from the pan and plunge them in a bowl of cold water to cool them; peel the eggs and set aside.

    Combine the chicken and soy sauce and mix well.

    Heat the oil in a wok until smoky and stir-fry garlic over medium heat until golden and fragrant, about 20 seconds.

    Stir in ginger, green onion and rice wine; add chicken and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes. Add fungus, season with hoisin sauce and thick sweet soy sauce, and stir-fry for about 1 minute to mix well.

    Add a little water if the dish appears dry. Cover and simmer for 3-5 minutes until the sauce thickens and the chicken is well cooked.

    Season with salt and pepper to taste and remove from the heat. Transfer to a serving bowl, top with Tea-flavoured Eggs and serve immediately with steamed rice or noodles.

    The Don’t Call Me Chef team of Blessed Glutz, Veggie Chick and Marty (whose cookery column appears in StarTwo on the first Monday of every month) reviews cookbooks in this regular series. To give readers an idea of what the books are about, they also test recipes from the publications. For more recipes from the book, go to martythyme.blogspot.com.