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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Laksam Kelantan

It has been a real long while since I last had laksam. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder"... there's so much truth in that saying when it comes to many aspects in life, but probably just not so much with food. It wasn't until I came across Gertrude's from My Kitchen Snippets on her post on the Malaysian Food Fest (MFF) Kelantan Month that had once again stirred all the memories of everything Kelantan-related food in me after all this while.

Browsing and reading through her post, it felt like a walk down the memory lane - of all the family gatherings my dad's side of the family had had in Kelantan back in my younger years and particularly of the many years dad spent working in the state up North along the Peninsular East Coast, away from home.

A sweet moment of reminiscence that sure is...

My appreciation (with some curiosity) for the diverse cuisines in Malaysia is one precious value I take after my dad. We share the same enjoyment trying different cuisines whether or not they are the familiar to us, checking out new places, exploring different cities like the locals, strolling at one local bazaar after another and especially getting spoilt for choice when it comes to food. It was during those trips of ours to Kelantan that I was briefly introduced to Kelantan culinary delights. And the rest of the story - they simply unfold and develop themselves there onward.

Of the extensive list within Gertrude's introduction post that reveals some the most famous dishes in Kelantan with good details, my attention kept getting diverted back to one single dish among them - the laksam. Oh, how I've missed it! Made famous in the East Coast particularly in (but certainly not limited to) Kelantan and Terengganu, it is a local favorite for many, even for a Kuantan folk like me.

The difference between the laksam of both states? Not much really... they closely resemble one another especially in term of appearance. The only difference (but maybe not so notable after all) is probably how the Kelantan laksam tends to be a little sweeter in taste whilst the Terengganu version - a little more savory in general.

I have not an exact recollection as to when and where I had first tried the laksam, but it has always been one of the few dishes in my "lookout" list especially during the Ramadhan months with food bazaars springing to life everywhere. Having not had it for so so long, that post was all needed to first get me so intrigued, and then all motivated to check the laksam out a little more. That, plus some extra  readings especially on its making and I'm all decided - this is it! I shall give it a try making my own at home!

Scouting out for a laksam recipe was not too difficult a task - thanks to its popularity! This is a recipe I adapted from Ita at Masam Manis in her post on Laksam which in turn has originated from Yani at Myresipi.com. My only setback in this laksam making - I did not manage to get hold of any asam gelugor (dried tamarind slices). So where it should be present, I substituted them with the tamarind juice instead (a suggestion brought forth by Chef Wan in his post on Tuna Curry featured on Asian Food Channel). It did concern me a little wondering if the lack of asam gelugor (and especially its natural fruity flavor) will affect the laksam much, but it was proven unwarranted in the end. There's the promised delightful tangy taste in the gravy nonetheless, and it's not at all disappointing. But should you have the asam gelugor readily available in your pantry, by all means please do use them...

Breaking the laksam down to its components, we have the laksam gravy, the noodle, the ulam (a mixture of fresh herbs and salad eaten raw) and the sambal. A brief look at it - it is generally a serving of rolled up flat rice noodles drenched in a rich and relatively thick white gravy, topped with a variety of ulam and finished with a huge dollop of sambal (and a squeeze of lime!).

 ikan kembung (Indian mackerel)

The rich and relatively thick white gravy - it is the centerpiece to a serving of laksam, pretty much defining the quality of the laksam in general. Made primarily with fish - first steamed, deboned and then pulsed into a paste, the gravy with a natural sweetness coming from the fish is then made creamy by adding in the coconut milk. Some of the choices of fish include the ikan kembung (Indian mackerel), ikan selar (yellowtail scad), ikan selayang or ikan tamban (both translated as sardine on the MalaysianFood.net in its glossary page). With some minimal spices adding in some aroma and tanginess to the gravy, its taste (and appearance) is accentuated and made even more unique with the use of black pepper powder and especially so when it is freshly and coarsely ground.

The laksam noodle is made with a mixture of rice flour and wheat flour. Slightly thicker than the usual flat rice noodle (kuey teow), making the laksam noodle has always been more like a homemade affair - they are almost never seen or sold readily made and packed in the market unlike all the other easily available types of noodle. From a smooth batter, a small amount is spread in a thin layer and steamed to set. As it cools, it is rolled up neatly and cut to bite sized right before serving. Soft with a tad of springiness, they should neither be too thin or too thick in texture.

The ulam made up of different types of vegetables and herbs makes a great source of fiber that completes the laksam in terms of its nutritional value. It is also the garnishing that does the rest - it adds color, complements the aroma and enhances the taste. Some commonly used greens that make great candidates for this ulam include the bean sprouts, cucumber, long beans, daun kesum (Vietnamese coriander) and bunga kantan (torch ginger bud). Served raw (some julienned, some thinly sliced, others serves as it is), the ulam adds a contrasting flavor and texture with an extra crunch to a serving of laksam.

And for the finishing touch - the sambal! Made with fresh red chilies and some birds eye chilies for an extra kick, it comes with a hint of piquancy from the shrimp paste (belacan) added in. A plate of laksam now completely transformed visually with the vibrant red of sambal - with a grandiose squeeze of the fresh quartered lime to wrap things up... the laksam's all done!

Now... to the recipe!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Green Beans Omelet 四季豆炒蛋

This is your quick and easy 15-minute recipe (and my short and simple 1-hr-at-most post lol). Eggs have always been my best friend; their versatility has never failed to impress me. Easily paired, mixed and matched, you can have them the simple way (fried, boiled or poached simply), made just slightly complicated with them used in all the many kinds of omelets and simple stir-fry dishes like...

Or they can be incorporated into a little more complicated ones. Say...

That's quite a list of all the everything egg-related dishes I have posted thus far! But truth be told, the eggs have always been the really reliable one single ingredient that somewhat makes my life easy at times. They have come to my rescue time and again - when time is a limiting factor and you need to whip up a meal in no time; or you simply just run out of ideas as to what to put onto the dining table any nights; or you have an extra guest or two that you need a little something more to be served all too soon.

This omelet with green beans generously scattered all over - it's simple and totally inexpensive, tasty and nutritious - pretty much all the essentials in a single serving.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Braised Chicken with Bitter Gourd 苦瓜焖鸡

A classic home-cooked food, making this Braised Chicken with Bitter Gourd 苦瓜焖鸡 easily reminds me of what it feels like to take a trip down the memory lane. Revisiting the comforting feeling of dining at home and enjoying mom's cooking, these home-cooked dishes are the food that we have most of our lives growing up, at times taken for granted even. I didn't actually have much of this Braised Chicken with Bitter Gourd 苦瓜焖鸡 back then; it's not exactly a dish that would always make an appearance on our dining table. But there's something about this dish that I would always tag and class it together within the same comforting group of feel-good, home-style dishes.

Most people do not have a natural affinity for food with a bitter taste; and I'm no exception myself growing up. I didn't particularly like gourds of any kinds (I wonder... was it their texture or was it their appearance in general really?); and I certainly didn't appreciate anything bitter should they ever be present. So the bitter gourd - it had always been a NO-NO in my case. But as you grow up, it's just so common to realize later and agree that certain food that you used to dislike as a child are not that bad after all. It's pretty much like an acquired development of a whole new spectrum in taste and flavor. From a hatred feeling, you may even find yourself actually loving some of them later in life.

Liking and then loving the bitter gourd was indeed a development that happened ever so gradually in my case. From a total avoidance, I started being rather selective - avoiding the really bitter ones, accepting the rest. Then I got choosy - I only liked them fried with eggs or stuffed with fish paste and made into Yong Tau Foo 酿豆腐. Yup, I basically liked their taste masked. But things took a turn (AGAIN). I have no idea as to when and how the transition actually happened, but now... I love everything about it.

And I especially love the natural bitterness that makes the bitter gourd all unique.

One of the first few dishes that I started learning when I first picked up cooking, this is now one of the regulars at home. A comfort food that easily makes an everyday meal more appetizing, they are best made just a little in advance (at least half an hour will be good!) and left to braise right until serving time. The end result - a serving of tender and well marinated pieces of chicken and softened cuts of bitter gourd drenched in sweet and savory gravy accentuated with the salty fermented black bean sauce and yellow bean sauce.

One last note - just be sure that you cook a little more rice when you make this part of your meals! It IS that good!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Durian Freeze 榴莲冰

A post in continuation to the previous three consecutive others all within one same chapter - this is one ending the episode on hubby's birthday celebration this year with a sweet note. A dessert and a drink long loved, a promise to try recreating it at home long made. Presenting... the "king of fruits" freeze!

Another big time favorite of his, I have not an exact idea as to when and how he started falling in love with this durian freeze. I have never known the durian freeze myself until we made a trip to Chicago a couple of years back, my first ever trip there. It was then when I was introduced to this restaurant chain by the name of Joy Yee's Noodles in the Chinatown-Downtown. It may be well known for its extensive menu with a range of real attractive food replicas displayed behind all those huge glass panels as you walk pass, but I have always loved it better for its drinks - specifically, the bubble tea drinks. My personal all-time favorite - the papaya milk tea with tapioca!

The durian freeze - it took me a while to accept the fact that such a drink actually exists. I mean, it's DURIANS made into an ice blended drink! lol. But taking a sip, it really isn't bad at all. In fact, it makes pretty good a drink! It is rich and creamy, sweet and tasty, not forgetting the fact that it comes packed naturally with the durian's unique flavor and fragrance. Seriously, whoever so creative that first came out with the idea must have quite a great sense of taste adventure in life!

A fruit with conflicting opinions like none others, the durian is indeed one that you either love or simply dislike. And this durian freeze, it is all the more so. Hubby's #1 choice for a while now, the durian freeze has always been a not-to-be-missed these days whenever we make a trip there to Chicago.

And he's certainly not the only person that I know who really does love this durian freeze. We have another friend who loves this just as much, if not more. Traveling together at times, it has almost been an unspeakable practice that we would usually end our trip there in Chicago with a stop to this place, starting our journey back after with a cup of drink of our choice in hand.

And have you ever been warned of the durian burps? lol. When you have two big fans of durian freeze, each with their cup of favorite drink traveling within the same car, the moment they take their last sips will be the moment when your nightmare is just about to begin! lol. Even with a world-class level of courtesy practiced to shield and protect the innocents, an experience of the aftermath is almost always guaranteed - it's inevitable!

Well... good for them - I will never despise them for just that few belches (although they may at times last the whole journey home) lol.

Back to this homemade version - having very little idea as to what really are the different ingredients to a cup of durian freeze, this set out to be an experiment, done with a little imagination (and my fingers crossed). Well good for me (and the birthday boy too, of course) - it turned out awesome! Naturally flavored with the durian itself, it is sweetened a little further with the use of just the pure coconut water and nothing more. The cooling coconut water balances the rich durian; and of utmost importance - its presence does nothing in altering the unique taste of the KING OF FRUITS.

durian, coconut water and ice cubes made of coconut water

And a real huge plus - this homemade version of durian freeze is real simple and all-natural!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Matcha Kasutera (Green Tea Castella)

Green tea castella - this is totally a love at first sight story! The first time I saw Eugenie's post Green Tea Castella (Kasutera) Marble or Zebra Japanese Sponge Cake on her blog, it literally took me no time to decide that this is it - hubby's birthday cake this year!

Eugenie's page comes complete with a video on its making - short and concise, fresh and charming. Which really is a plus! Especially considering the fact that I have never dreamed of making or baking anything this fancy but now finding myself in the kitchen with my very first attempt at making this. I have a very limited history with castella. Apart from it being my all three sisters-in-law's favorite cake, I know not much about this popular Japanese sponge cake. And other than those times that we would make sure that we got a couple loaves of these cakes in the Japan Narita airport when we had a layover there on our way back to Malaysia, I have only had a couple other really countable times that I had had this elsewhere.

So making this was something totally new to me. And when you are making it for someone special and for some momentous occasions, there goes the stress building up, naturally. But it rounded up with a pleasant surprise - with all the hassle over and the cake done at the end of the day, it has then officially made me a fan of castella lol.

Light and delicate, moist and fluffy - it makes such a pleasant dessert that goes perfectly with a cup of hot Japanese green tea. And for a change (and a break from the super buttery Butter Cake that we last had not too long ago), it's rich without having the need to have butter, margarine or oil; and it's soft (and a little crumbly) without having to call for any leavening agents in it. Sweet but not overly so, I believe that this will now be a regular for us at home...

With no intention to make any changes to Eugenie's recipe, I set out trying to get everything that was needed for the making but still found myself short of two - the acacia honey and the cake pan with the specified measurement. Instead of the recommended acacia honey (one with a mild and delicate floral taste best suit the castella), I settled for the most widely available honey in the market - clover. I wouldn't be able to tell how one is better than the other (yet!) but I have got to say that I'm more than happy with this clover-version of castella. But the hunt will continue! And someday I'll be back with some extra notes when I have finally secured some acacia honey in hand.

Not having the right pan (one of a real adorable size 6.3"x2.4"x3.1"), I resorted to making some castella mini cakes using the muffin pan instead, the alternative as suggested by Eugenie in her post. 9 green tea castella mini cakes (only 8 shown, the lucky #9 went down my tummy as soon as it was ready lol) and a little decoration and there it goes - all ready for the mini celebration!

And that started the love story - one with me and the castella...

Having done and tried that first batch of the castella mini cakes, I had since really looked forward to making another - I assumed as soon as the mini cakes get polished off. And the time is here! I haven't got the right size of pan still; this is done using what I have in hand - the 9.25"x5.25"x2.75" loaf pan. With that, I tripled the amount to each ingredients - more than enough for just a loaf of castella but waste them not! The rest can be made into more of those mini cupcakes... a bonus!

Spreading the layers nice and neat takes a little patience (and practice too), pretty much like an art itself. In fact, I think the same elements apply well to the whole making in general. Sadly, my block of castella didn't turn out to be perfect. It browned pretty well on the top, but it wasn't exactly a smooth one - not even close to perfection. So pardon me with this not-so-perfect castella of mine this time around. "It adds a little human touch to the blog", says hubby... lol.

Doing a little more reading post baking, I probably know (I think!) what and how I should have done differently back then. Instead of letting it rest upright coming out of the oven, turning it upside down would probably be wiser a move to make. I guess it's pretty much the same with how a chiffon cake should be handled once it's removed from the oven. I'll be glad to have someone to enlighten me on this! That said, there will definitely be a next time for me with this part done right (and hopefully it IS the right thing to do lol). And when that happens, I'll be sure to be back with more updates!

As for now... I shall just sit back and enjoy this heavenly dessert while they last.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Malaysian Chicken Satay

Continuing from the previous post on the Satay Peanut Dipping Sauce, here comes the chicken satay! Easily any Malaysian's favorite, this is by far hubby's big time favorite. He would crave for these skewers once in a blue moon, but it has never crossed my mind to actually make my own batch of chicken satay at home. Back then I didn't have what I needed in the kitchen - I haven't got a set of mortar and pestle; and I haven't got a good spice blender either. So anything with spice was basically out of the question in my culinary world. So much so that I have never bothered keeping that many different types of spices at home.

the extensive ingredients in picture

That aside, looking at all the many different recipes available online made it all worse - they just put me off even further. Unlike plenty other Malaysian food that I so love and adore, making this chicken satay uses a lot more spices than any others. There are the dry and pre-packaged ones that you can still get (with some luck and a little time looking for them) from either the Chinese grocery stores or the Indian grocery stores; but the list also includes a number of other fresh spices that took me a real long while before I finally got to seeing them in one of the Vietnamese grocery stores. So, it is indeed one with quite a lot of preparation, before the cooking even comes into the picture.

But of course, those were just me and some of my personal problems (or excuses lol). A close friend, Siew Gee (the very same friend who makes awesome Chicken Rendang) - she makes superb chicken satay! And the best part of it - she does it even without necessarily having all the ingredients needed in hand. She's one who is perfectly comfortable and competent in having those in the recipe easily and readily substituted wherever and whenever she deems fit. And as much as I would love having her special recipe for this chicken satay, she works the way most professional cooks work - there's never a written recipe in black and white; she goes by experience.

You will love her chicken satay if you have tried it!

The idea of going against my own norm and finally giving this spice-laden a thought came as I was getting hubby's birthday plan laid out. Having not had them for quite sometime, I thought it should fit pretty well into the picture. Provided it turned out good, that is.

Getting all the ingredients ready was not too much a problem now that I have got them figured out as to where they are each available in which different places. But just like the Satay Peanut Dipping Sauce, it was not having a ready-for-use recipe in hand that really had somewhat made it rather complicated for me.

This is a recipe that I first stumbled upon in a blog by Selera4U. The post came with a link (which sadly no longer works) to another source. Searching online, it traced down to a recipe originated from the one by NoorMasri. A search for this recipe of hers revealed that it has been used and featured by many other bloggers everywhere ever since it came about online back in 2006. Not exactly sure if she keeps all these brilliant recipes of hers anywhere online that I should have credited instead but this probably is the best that I can do on my part having adapted hers and made my own.

Commonly served with cucumber, onion wedges and nasi impit, this is easily almost a Malaysian pride. Not exactly a breeze with its making I would say, it involves a rather long preparation time in fact - from getting the marinade ready, getting chicken marinated overnight preferably, skewing them the next day all the way to getting them grilled - indoor or out. But this first try of mine turned out great. All the effort paid off - the birthday man had a real great time polishing off one skewer after another. And a happy hubby with a happy tummy makes a happy wife lol!

And the good news (at least to hubby) is that there'll definitely be a next time having done this once (which hopefully will be a lot less chaotic then). But I will probably make sure that the next time will be done in a weather well enough for outdoor grilling instead of getting them done indoor. Because honestly, nothing quite beats a batch of chicken satay with some real smoky flavors as they get basted in oil steeped with crushed lemongrass and then grilled to perfection.

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