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Kerala Fish Fry In Kovalam, India

Our first glimpse of the tropical paradise that is Kovalam, was of the famous lighthouse with its distinct candy stripes. We were headed to the most popular of its three beaches - Lighthouse beach, named after the landmark lighthouse. We fell in love with Kovalam's relaxed atmosphere, sandy beaches, breathtaking views, gently swaying palm trees, warm waters and fantastic food. It is easy to see why Kovalam is such a popular tourist destination!

Kovalam at one time, used to be a sleepy little fishing village. Although it has now been taken over by hordes of tourists and resorts, fishing is still an important part of everyday life here. Fishing boats pull up right on to the beach with their haul of fresh seafood early every morning and supply local restaurants and shops for miles around. The boats are covered with thatched mats when they are done for the day, adding local colour to the beach!

Wandering around on the soft, sandy beach, admiring the beautiful views while dipping our feet in the warm water made us hungry and we decided to try one of the numerous beach shacks lining the fringes of the beach. We were sure the seafood would be really, really fresh!
We were not disappointed. The Kerala fish fry at the Kingfisher Cafe was spicy, fresh and piping hot and the calamari was like nothing we've ever had before. Done Kerala style with spices and a crisp batter, it was melt in the mouth tender. We wrapped our delicious seafood in a flaky Kerala Parotta (flatbread) and gobbled it all up.

Fish Fry

In Kerala, rice flour is used to coat the fish and crisp it up. I find that all purpose flour works just as well. I also like to add an egg to the marinade to bind it all together. The final roll around in the breadcrumbs is important to add colour, flavour and crispness to the fish fry.
Serve with a fresh green herb chutney, lemon and red onion rings.

1 1/4 lb cod or haddock fillet

4 cloves garlic

1 inch piece ginger

1 green chili

20 fresh curry leaves

Salt to taste

2 tbsp each: lemon juice, all purpose flour

1/2 tsp each: ground black pepper, turmeric, cayenne pepper, paprika, ground coriander, whole cumin seeds

1 egg, beaten

1 cup each: breadcrumbs, oil for frying

Cut fish into large pieces. Place in deep mixing bowl.

Mince garlic, ginger, green chili and curry leaves together in food processor. Transfer to bowl with fish.

Add salt, lemon juice, flour, spices and egg. Toss gently to mix well. Cover and marinate fish in the refrigerator for 15 min to an hour.

Place breadcrumbs in shallow bowl. Warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat.

Dredge each piece of fish in breadcrumbs to coat all over. Drop gently into oil and fry for about 3 min per side or until fish is crisp, golden and cooked through. Do not crowd the pan, do this in two-three batches.

Transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Serve right away.

Serves four-six

Malabar Mutton Biryani In Trivandrum, Kerala

Our first glimpse of Trivandrum was of gracious colonial buildings and lush greenery. Trivandrum still has an old world charm to it as we discovered once we set about exploring it. Our first sightseeing stop was the famous Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. This temple, with its magnificent carved entrance, dates back several millennia and is one of the oldest and richest temples in India.
Close to the temple is the royal palace as well as an art gallery. The beautiful teak carvings, sculptures, paintings and gardens make for an interesting visit.

Kerala is also home to an ancient community of Syrian Christians, said to date back to the arrival of the first apostle Saint Thomas, in AD 52.

There are many lovely, historic, old churches in and around Trivandrum with beautiful interiors and a pervading sense of peace. One of the churches, just outside of Trivandrum is said to have been built in AD 79, in the exact spot where Saint Thomas preached to his congregation. Part of the original stone structure still stands, as can be seen in the pictures below. When we visited at Christmas time, the colourful decorations added a nice festive feel.

Kerala cuisine too, is an interesting mosaic of its diverse history and you will come across many dishes reflecting its Muslim, Christian and Hindu heritage. 

 

A fun way of diving into Kerala cuisine is by ordering a thali. It comes with an array of many different curries nestled on a banana leaf - aromatic lentil and vegetable sambhar, creamy coconut chutney, crunchy cabbage thoran, spicy tomato rasam and so many more. It is a great introduction to the incredible variety this cuisine has to offer.
However, it was the fantastic seafood curries that had us hooked! We loved the spicy, sour fish curry as well as delicate stir fried calamari with caramelized onions, spicy tomato shrimp, fish fry with curry leaves and our favourite dish - Karimeen. A local variety of fish known as pearl spot is marinated in a sauteed onion tomato paste, wrapped in a banana leaf and seared on a hot tava or griddle. The spicy, smoky flavours of Karimeen are unforgettable!
We often ate these curries with another favourite, appams. These are lacy, crisp rice and coconut pancakes with an addictive spongy center. We could (and did) have them with every meal!

One of the best ways to start your day in kerala is with a traditional breakfast. This is when delicious dishes such as idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes), dosas (crisp fermented rice and lentils pancakes), uthapams (thick rice pancakes topped with onions, tomatoes, green chilies and curry leaves), appams, curries and chutneys make their much awaited appearance.

At the Taj hotel, where we were staying, I discovered a new favourite - Ramassery idlis. Never having come across these before, I was captivated by their soft, melt in the mouth texture. Named after the small village of Ramaserry, where they were first created over a hundred years ago, these thin, flattened idlis are steamed in a fine muslin cloth inside an earthenware pot. Their soft texture and earthy aroma are unique. Although this is a disappearing tradition, the Taj hotel Trivandrum is keeping it alive by training their chefs in the authentic, age old way of preparing these idlis, much to the gratitude of all those who get to eat it!

The Malabar mutton biryani at the Taj hotel, was by far the best biryani I have ever eaten. When I mentioned this, Executive chef Jose Thomas very obligingly gave me his special recipe! While fresh Kerala spices definitely give this dish its unique aroma, sprinkling the cooked rice with powdered masala, before layering it with the lamb curry is key. Sous chef Hari Krishnan uses biryani masala for this purpose. While you can buy that in most Indian stores, I recommend making your own Malabar Masala, for even better flavour.

Making a biryani can be a bit labour intensive. It helps to make the lamb curry a day ahead. Not only does that save time, it also improves the flavour! Serve biryani with a yogurt raita, salad and pickles, as is traditional in Kerala.

Malabar Mutton Biryani

For the Curry:

4 cloves garlic

1 inch piece ginger

2 green chilies

6 large canned whole plum tomatoes with puree (premium San Marzano variety)

2 tbsp oil+2tbsp butter

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

20 raw (unsalted, unroasted) cashews or almonds

1 tbsp golden raisins

1 lb boneless leg of lamb or goat (mutton), cut into bite sized pieces

Salt to taste

1 tsp garam masala, divided

1/2 tsp each: turmeric, cayenne pepper

2 tbsp Labneh or thick full fat Balkan style/Greek plain yogurt

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander, fresh squeezed lime juice

Make the curry:

Mince garlic, ginger and green chilies together in food processor. Transfer to a small bowl. Puree tomatoes in same food processor bowl, transfer to another bowl. Reserve.

Warm oil and butter together in deep skillet set over medium high heat. Add half the sliced onions and saute until golden brown, about 8 min. Add cashews or almonds and raisins to onions in skillet and saute for 1 min until raisins plump up and nuts are lightly fried. Drain from oil, transfer to a plate and reserve for later use in the recipe.

Add remaining sliced onions to same skillet over medium high heat; saute for 5 min. Add lamb or goat and brown for 5 min. Add minced ginger mixture; saute 1 min. Add pureed tomatoes, salt, half the garam masala, turmeric and cayenne. Saute 5 min until slightly thickened.

Add labneh or yogurt and stir for 2 min until smooth. Cover skillet and let mixture start bubbling. Reduce heat to low and cook for 11/2 hours or until lamb is very tender, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be very thick and clinging to the meat by this time.

Mix in remaining 1/2 tsp garam masala, chopped fresh coriander and lime juice.

For the Rice:

11/2 cups basmati rice

2 tbsp oil

4 each, whole spices: green cardamom, star anise, cloves

2 inch stick cinnamon

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

Salt to taste

1 tsp biryani masala or Malabar Masala

1/2 tsp garam masala

2 tbsp butter

Make the rice:

Wash rice well, then soak in enough water to cover for 15 min. Drain well in sieve. Reserve.

Warm oil in deep heavy bottomed saucepan over medium high heat. Add whole spices and cinnamon stick. Let sizzle for 1 min, then add sliced onions. Saute for 8 min until lightly browned.

Add drained rice to pan and saute 1 min to toast it lightly. Add salt to taste and 1 1/2 cups of water. Cover, bring to a boil and reduce heat to very low. Cook rice undisturbed for 10 min. Sprinkle biryani masala or Malabar masala and garam masala over top, fluffing rice gently and mixing it in.

Assemble biryani:

Preheat oven to 300F. Lightly grease a 9X13 inch oven safe baking dish.

Spread a thin layer of rice in bottom of dish. Top with all of the lamb curry, distributing it evenly over the rice. Top with remaining rice, spreading it gently and evenly over top.

Sprinkle reserved fried onions and nuts over rice. Dot with butter.

Cover pan tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove from oven and transfer biryani to a serving platter, fluffing rice and mixing in the layers gently as you do so. Serve right away.

Serves six

Executive Chef Jose Thomas and his talented team at The Fifth Element restaurant, Vivanta by Taj Hotel, Trivandrum

Executive Chef Jose Thomas and his talented team at The Fifth Element restaurant, Vivanta by Taj Hotel, Trivandrum

Mango Creme Caramel In Hong Kong

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Far removed from the frenetic pace of Hong Kong, in the midst of rolling green hills on Lantau island, lies the Po Lin monastery. The biggest attraction here is the world's largest bronze statue of the seated Buddha. Perched on top of a hill, it towers benignly over the countryside and is an impressive sight.

Although there are ferries, subways and buses to get to the monastery, we took the scenic cable cars to get there. Strung across several hills, these glass bottomed cable cars offer phenomenal views of the lush countryside and are a relaxed, enjoyable way to get to your destination.

This beautiful, working monastery is home to many Buddhist monks who you will see strolling about in the monastery grounds. The temples here are also beautiful and many pilgrims come from far to pray.

Strolling through the grounds which are filled with beautiful foliage, enjoying the cool mountain air while admiring the statues that line the path is very relaxing. The air is scented with incense sticks that worshipers light before going to pray in the temples.

We climbed 260 steps to get to the Big Buddha statue. Unfortunately, fog had rolled in by the time we got to the top and we couldn't see much of it. However, the peace and serenity at the top was palpable and well worth the climb! 

After you've worked up an appetite, climbing up and down those steps leading to the Big Buddha statue, you can revive yourself with wonderful vegetarian food in the monastery. Not only is the food delicious and hugely popular, you are also contributing towards a good cause, as all proceeds go towards supporting the monks.

We had the deluxe vegetarian meal in the monastery dining room, where you might find monks sitting at the table next to you, and the food is always fresh, tasty and completely vegetarian. Our meal comprised of soup, stir fried vegetables, spring rolls and deep fried sheets of tofu bathed in a sweetish lemony sauce. This was by far our favourite, although we're still not sure whether or not this was dessert!

My mango creme caramel is an Indian-Chinese twist of the traditional dessert. Adding mango pulp to creme caramel takes it to a whole new level! The texture is denser and silkier and the flavour is richer and deeper. There's no going back after this!


Canned mango pulp is easily obtained from any Indian grocery store. Make sure to buy sweetened Alphonso mango pulp for better flavour. Don't use fresh mango puree as it just doesn't work well here.

Mango Creme Caramel

Cooking spray
1 cup sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 can (370 ml) evaporated milk
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup canned sweetened mango pulp
2 tbsp finely chopped unsalted raw pistachios, optional

Preheat oven to 325F. Lightly spray 8-10 medium ramekins with cooking spray. Place on rimmed baking tray.
Place sugar in medium heavy bottomed saucepan over medium low heat. Let sugar begin to melt, then swirl pan around a few times, every so often. Don’t let sugar boil or bubble and don't use a stirring spoon. Keep swirling till all the sugar has melted and turned darker in colour, about 3-4 min. Switch off stove and let saucepan sit on warm stove another minute to darken further without risk of burning.
Pour caramel mixture evenly into prepared ramekins. Let cool 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine whole eggs and yolks with evaporated milk, cream and mango pulp. Mix well with a whisk.
Pour into prepared ramekins, filling them to about halfway to the top.
Place tray in oven, then gently pour in hot tap water into tray till it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake for 45-50 minutes until center is just firm. Do not over-bake. Check for done-ness after about 45 minutes or so by gently shaking the ramekins. If the center wiggles, give them some more time.
Remove from oven and place ramekins on counter to cool. When they are down to room temperature, loosen edges by running a sharp knife around the edges of the custards.
Cover each ramekin with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 24 hours. When ready to serve, leave custards on counter top for 15 min. Shake ramekin gently to loosen caramel, then unmold by holding a plate over each ramekin and turning upside down. The custard will settle onto the plate with the caramel pooling around it.  Garnish tops of each with chopped pistachios (if using).
Serves eight-ten

Dim Sum In Hong Kong

Hong Kong was built as a city where people from different parts of the world could come to exchange goods and money, but over the last two centuries it has become celebrated as a crossroads for ideas and cultures. The British seized the island to establish a base from where they could trade with China, but it was soon populated by people from every part of the British Empire. Parsi traders from Bombay, Gurkha soldiers from Nepal and Sikh policemen from Punjab were as common a sight in early Hong Kong as the English and Scottish merchants who ran the banks and trading companies, or the Chinese businessmen, tradespeople and peasants who were drawn by the opportunities available in the city. This history has made Hong Kong one of the most unique places in the world, an intoxicating swirl of languages, fashions and cuisines that never seems to pause or sleep!

There is much to see and explore in Hong Kong. Kick off your sightseeing with a visit to Victoria Peak. The highest point in Hong Kong island, Victoria Peak is reached by a steep tram ride, culminating in spectacular views of the city and harbour below. A ride on the historic Star ferry is another must and you will be transported to a bygone era, when for about a 100 years, the only way to cross over from Kowloon to Hong Kong island was on this ferry. The views of the skyline alone are worth the mere pennies it is going to cost you for the ticket!

One of the joys of walking around the different neighborhoods of Hong Kong is sampling street food. Food stalls or Dai Pai Dongs as they are known, are always bustling with hungry people looking for a cheap and tasty snack, but it is at night that they truly come to life. Hong Kong's legendary night markets feature not only excellent food stalls but also discounted designer clothing, household goods, toys and souvenirs. We had fun strolling through the famous Temple Street night market just watching the action, inhaling the intoxicating aromas and trying to identify the huge variety of food on offer!

Hong Kong is justly famous for its world class cuisine. But for us, the main reason to go there was the chance to eat authentic dim sum all day long! And we weren't disappointed. Step into any restaurant, even if it looks like a hole in the wall and you will be assured of amazing food. Although there are very few dim sum restaurants left with old fashioned dim sum carts, we managed to find one!


Lin Heung Tea House is the oldest tea house in Hong Kong and dates back to 1926. The food there is good but we had also gone for the experience (of which we had heard a lot!). We had to fight our way through the lunchtime chaos, grab a couple of stools and share a large table with locals. There was no menu, the food carts were mobbed before they even made it out of the kitchen, the conversation around the table was lively (even though we didn't understand much of it) and the people sitting around us were really sweet in helping us choose dishes. All in all, it was an enthralling experience - a taste of a bygone era!

Chinese traders from Hong Kong and Shanghai settled in India a couple of centuries ago and opened restaurants. The food they featured was specially designed to appeal to their new clientele, and combined elements of both Indian and Chinese cuisines. Hakka food, as it came to be known, uses a lot of fresh coriander, mint, ginger, spices and chilies as well as soy, sesame and vinegar to create unique dishes that only an Indian would recognize!

 Hakka style dumplings are hugely popular all over India and are sold as street food from pushcarts in crowded bazaars, in food courts of large upscale malls and in Chinese restaurants everywhere. The stuffing in these dumplings can vary from vegetables, leafy greens, noodles, chicken or mutton to paneer and curry!

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Chicken dumplings tend to get a bit dry. I find the combination of chicken and lamb to be a good balance in terms of flavour, richness and juiciness. In my recipe, fresh herbs and spices add extra flavour to the dumplings, making them the perfect Indian Chinese fusion. Serve with dipping sauce and a pot of jasmine tea!

Hakka Chicken and Lamb Potsticker Dumplings

1 medium onion, quartered
2 cloves garlic
1-inch piece ginger, halved
2 green chilies, stemmed
1 cup loosely packed fresh coriander leaves and tender stems
½ cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 lb each: ground lamb, ground chicken (not breast meat)
1/2 tsp each: garam masala, ground coriander, ground cumin
2 tbsp each: rice vinegar, soy sauce
1 egg
1 pkg dumpling wrappers
Sesame oil as needed

For Filling:
Process onions, garlic, ginger, green chilies, fresh coriander and mint in food processor until well minced. Transfer to a deep bowl. Add lamb, chicken, spices, vinegar, soy and egg. Mix well until well combined. Refrigerate covered until needed.

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For Dumplings:
Place a wrapper in the palm of your hand; add 1 tbsp meat mixture in center of wrapper. Moisten edges of wrapper with water. Fold over both sides to enclose filling, press tightly or pleat edges to seal completely. Repeat with remaining filling and wrappers.

Warm a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp sesame or vegetable oil. Swirl to coat pan. Place about half the dumplings in a single layer (or as many as pan can hold). Do not over crowd pan. Pour 1/4 cup water around edges of dumplings, cover pan and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium low and cook 10 - 12 minutes or until water has been absorbed and bottoms of dumplings are lightly browned and crisped. Transfer to serving platter. Repeat with remaining dumplings.

Makes about 30 dumplings

Special thanks to Adora Tam for making the dumplings in these pictures!

Nasi Biryani In Batu Caves, Malaysia

Indian traders, sailors and religious missionaries have been travelling to Malaysia for millennia, their passage still marked by the remains of Hindu and Buddhist shrines that are found all over south-east Asia.  In the nineteenth century, when Malaysia was under British rule, many more people from the Indian subcontinent came to find work on plantations, in businesses and in the government bureaucracy. Malaysia today has a large Hindu population, with a majority having roots in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

 

The Batu caves, located just outside Kuala Lumpur, are home to a Hindu temple that is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. The temple is built inside naturally occurring rock formations in the limestone hills that rise north of the city.

it was in 1890 that a wealthy Indian trader first installed statues of Hindu deities in the caves, dedicating it as a shrine. Since then several more temples have been built, along with a 140 ft high statue of the god Murugan near the entrance to the caves.  The temple complex has become an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, especially during festivals.

 You have to climb about 300 steps cut into the mountainside to reach the caves. Once you have climbed to the top, an impressive view of the city spread out below greets you. The main temple in its cavernous hall and vaulted ceiling is also an impressive sight.

 

 

One of the first things you notice before you even get to the caves are the monkeys. Considered sacred, the monkeys are allowed to roam freely all over the temple complex and you will see them scampering everywhere.
These monkeys keep a watchful eye on tourists and pilgrims. At first we thought they were cute but after we saw them impudently snatching at food and grabbing bags, they stopped being adorable! This little fella knows a thing or two about good ice cream but isn't quite sure which way to hold the cone!

At the base of the steps leading up to the caves are a small collection of shops selling fresh flower garlands and a variety of sweets to offer in the temples, as well as green coconut water to quench your thirst and delicious south Indian snacks such as chaklis (deep fried rice flour pretzels) and pakoras to revive you after the arduous climb!

Malaysian food is an intriguing blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines with unusual dishes such as Nasi Biryani or curry noodles that are hard to find elsewhere. Arab and Indian traders introduced spicy curries and biryanis to Malaysia and over time local ingredients and cooking techniques were incorporated to create uniquely Malay dishes. We tried nasi biryani in a hawker food center just after visiting the caves and it's carb rich, spicy flavours went a long way towards restoring our flagging energy levels!

This colourful biryani is like a burst of radiant sunshine at the dinner table. Cooked just the way it is in India, this style of biryani, layered with meat or poultry, is usually reserved for special occasions. In most Malaysian restaurants, Nasi Biryani or Beriani refers to just the spiced rice cooked without meat, with a variety of curries offered on the side.

Follow the same recipe to make vegetarian briyani by substituting assorted vegetables or paneer for the chicken. To save time, make the curry beforehand. Nasi Biryani is good served with Nyonya Chicken Curry Kapitan or Lamb Rendang.

Nasi Biryani

Chicken Curry

1 medium cooking onion, quartered

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 inch piece ginger

2 green chilies

6 large whole canned plum tomatoes with juices

2 tbsp oil

2 each, whole spices: cardamom, cloves, star anise,

1/2 inch piece each, whole spices: cinnamon stick, mace flowers, nutmeg

1/2 tsp each: cumin seeds, cayenne pepper

8 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces

1 medium raw potato, peeled and cubed into bite sized pieces

1 tsp each, ground spices: garam masala, coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric, dried fenugreek leaves

Salt to taste

2 tbsp each: plain full fat yogurt, lemon juice, chopped fresh coriander leaves

Biryani

2 cups basmati rice

2 tbsp each: oil, melted butter, slivered almonds, raisins

A generous pinch of saffron strands or food colouring

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

For chicken curry:

Combine onions, garlic, ginger and chilies in food processor. Process until well minced. Transfer to a bowl.

Add tomatoes with juices to processor and puree until smooth. Transfer to another bowl and keep handy near stove.

Warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat. Add whole cardamom, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and cumin seeds. Sizzle for about 30 sec, then add reserved minced onion mixture. Saute for 5-7 min until onions no longer smell raw. Add chicken pieces and potato, brown for 5 min.

Add reserved tomato puree and cook for 5 min until slightly thickened.

Add cayenne pepper, salt and ground spices - garam masala, coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric and dried fenugreek leaves. Stir 1 min, then add yogurt, stirring all the while.

Cover skillet, reduce heat to low and cook for 30 min or until chicken is done and sauce is very thick. Uncover skillet, mix in lemon juice and fresh coriander. Curry can be made up to 3 days ahead of time and kept refrigerated until needed.

Meanwhile, cook rice. Bring 8 cups of water to boil in large saucepan over high heat. Add rice, reduce heat to medium and cook for about 8 min until rice is just done but not mushy. Drain rice and spread on a tray to cool until needed.

For biryani:

Heat oven to 325F. Lightly grease a large flat oven safe dish, big enough to fit the briyani comfortably.

Combine melted butter and saffron or food colouring.

Heat 2 tbsp oil in non stick frying pan. Add sliced onions and cook for about 8 min or until they are lightly browned. Add almonds and raisins to the onions and cook for 2 min. Reserve in bowl.

Spread half the reserved chicken curry on bottom of biryani dish. Top with half the rice. Spoon out remaining chicken curry over rice and spread remaining rice over. Lightly embed boiled egg pieces all over. Scatter fried onions, raisins and almonds over top. Drizzle saffron butter all over. Cover dish tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour.

Let biryani sit, covered for an additional 15 min. Then uncover and transfer it to a serving platter, mixing it gently as you go.

Serves eight




Lamb Rendang In Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is a city that has been transformed in a relatively short time, evolving in a few decades from a sleepy outpost of the British Empire to one of the modern world's great cities. Today you can find traces of this metamorphosis everywhere, with gleaming skyscrapers towering over old colonial buildings and bustling street markets next to huge shopping malls. The population is equally diverse, with Malay, Chinese and Indian communities dispersed throughout the city.
This makes Kuala Lumpur a food-lover's paradise: the breakfast buffet at our hotel not only had eggs and bacon, but also Chinese noodles, Malay satay skewers and South Indian curries. Our biggest problem was deciding where to start from! All these cuisines not only coexist but also influence each other, creating flavours that are unique to the city. My absolute favourite dish was chickpeas cooked in a spicy coconut milk sauce, poured over freshly steamed idlis (rice cakes). I have never come across this combination before and it was heaven!

Kuala Lumpur's ultimate street food destination is Jalan Alor, a long winding street filled with food vendors selling their wares from pushcarts, the back of motorcycles, and makeshift stalls. It is best visited at night when pavements are lined with happy diners seated around tables, surrounded by food of every description, with that indefinable aroma from innumerable charcoal grills filling the air.

Walking down this street, dodging cars and throngs of passers by, weaving your way through the tables and food stalls that are everywhere, you begin to wonder whether anyone cooks at home. And with food this good, exciting and cheap, why would they even bother!

One of our favourite ways to get out of the fierce day time heat was to duck into the myriad food courts that dot Kuala Lumpur. They are a wonderful, inexpensive way of exploring the staggering variety of food on offer. Some of these food courts or hawker centers are charmingly laid out under spreading trees, offering a green oasis in the middle of the city, while others are in shopping malls or office buildings.

Petaling Street or Chinatown is a lively, bustling shopper's paradise with a fascinating night market. This is where you will find brand name knock offs for almost every item imaginable as well as street food that is hard to find in most restaurants.

In between bouts of bargaining and shopping you can revive yourself with dishes such as salted roast duck, deep fried sweet potato balls, grilled beef jerky, meat buns, roasted chestnuts, fruit juices and iced tea!

Just around the corner from Petaling Street is the famous Old China Cafe. Housed in the guildhall of a defunct laundrymen's association, this cafe retains all its glorious original furnishings, exudes old world charm and serves fantastic Nyonya food.
Having heard so much about this little cafe, we resisted the heady aromas of street food vendors around us and went here for dinner. It is reputed to have the best Beef Rendang in town and we were not disappointed!

Rendang is a spicy meat preparation popular in Indonesia and Malaysia. The meat is cooked for a long time with coconut milk, spices and other ingredients such as shallots, lemongrass and galangal. The process of cooking progresses from sauteing to simmering to frying as the liquid evaporates and the meat absorbs the wonderful flavours, caramelizes as it becomes spice crusted and literally falls apart in your mouth. This is an age old preservation cooking technique for hot climates in the days before refrigeration.

We first came across Rendang a few years ago in an Amsterdam restaurant. Beef rendang was part of our Rijstafel menu and the chef himself came out to warn us that no one had ever managed to finish an entire bowl of it in his restaurant. While we scoffed at this, assuring him that as Indians we had an innate ability to handle spicy food, we couldn't finish it either. It was just too hot!
Even though we couldn't eat too much of it the first time, we loved it's complex, spicy flavours and often sought it during our travels. We discovered (much to our relief) that rendang doesn't have to be searingly hot and it is possible to finish an entire bowl of it!

Lamb rendang is easy and satisfying to make at home. Although the cooking process requires a bit of time and patience, tantalizing aromas fill up the house and whet the appetite! I like to leave a bit of sauce clinging to the meat so that it is nice to eat with rice. In most restaurants though, the sauce is cooked off till only the oils remain and the meat is cooked in this till it is a rich brown colour and falling apart tender. If you wish to do that, simply uncover the skillet and cook for an additional 15-20 min till the desired result is achieved. If you want a hotter dish, add more cayenne pepper to taste!

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I love adding baby potatoes to my lamb rendang. They absorb and thicken the sauce and become very flavourful. Serve with plain rice or Nasi Biryani as is traditional in Kuala Lumpur.

Lamb Rendang

1 cup roughly chopped red onion

4 cloves garlic

1 inch piece ginger or galangal

6 macadamia nuts

2 fresh hot red chilies, optional

1 inch piece fresh turmeric, optional

1 tsp each: ground coriander, sugar

1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric, paprika, tamarind paste

1/4 tsp each, ground spices: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel

Salt to taste

2 tbsp olive oil

2 each, whole spices: cloves, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon stick

2 lb boneless leg of lamb, cubed into bite sized pieces

1 can (400 ml) unsweetened coconut milk

6 lime leaves, optional

2 stalks lemongrass, ends trimmed, crushed lightly with mallet

Combine onion, garlic, galangal or ginger, macadamia nuts, red chilies, fresh turmeric (if using), ground coriander, sugar, salt, cayenne, turmeric, paprika, tamarind paste, ground cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and fennel in food processor or blender. Process until well combined and finely minced. Transfer to a bowl.

Warm oil in large non stick skillet over medium heat. Add whole cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and star anise. Sizzle spices 1 min, then add spice paste from bowl.

Saute for 3-4 min until paste is fragrant, then add lamb pieces. Fry lamb for 3-4 min to seal flavours.

Add coconut milk, lime leaves (if using) and lemongrass. Mix well, cover and cook on very low heat for 2 hours or until lamb is very tender and sauce is very thick, stirring occasionally. Garnish with slivered lime leaves or mint and serve.

Serves six-eight

 

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Roasted Cauliflower With Madhur Jaffrey In Toronto

It isn't everyday that we get to meet a culinary trailblazer. So when we had the opportunity to chat with renowned cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren't dreaming!

Meeting someone who has always been an idol of yours creates a moment of apprehension - can she possibly match the image that you have created in your mind over the years? It was exhilarating to talk to Madhur Jaffrey and realize what a warm, wonderful and interesting person she is!

Madhur Jaffrey has long been my lodestar in the kitchen. When we first moved to America, I often wrote to my mother in India, asking her for recipes. In the time that it took for her letters to reach me (this being before the time of emails!), I would turn to Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks for sustenance. Her description of how, decades earlier, she would write to her mother for culinary guidance seemed to create a bond between us! Many of her recipes are ones that I grew up on, as they are traditional favourites. Her simple, yet detailed style of writing recipes made me feel that she was right there beside me in the kitchen, guiding me every step of the way.

Madhur Jaffrey's new book Vegetarian India doesn't disappoint. It has a fascinating narrative of her travels, fabulous recipes gleaned from the most interesting home kitchens and simple, concise instructions on how to cook them. One of my favourite stories from our chat is one where she is driving around Coorg (a region of India) and comes across women tending to a field of bright red chilies. She stops the car, talks to the women and asks to see what is in their lunchbox. There is rice with a simple fresh tomato chutney in one of them. Being Madhur, she immediately asks for the recipe and jots it down!

She invited me to choose a recipe from her book for this blog - she says she has no favourites because they are all special to her. I couldn't resist the roasted cauliflower as featured on the stunning cover of her new cookbook! The tangy, spicy flavours of this dish and it's quick and easy prep make it perfect for a busy work night dinner.

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Marinating the cauliflower in lemon juice and spices not only increases depth of flavour but also helps tenderize it. And frying the cumin seeds before adding them opens up a whole new dimension of taste! I served this dish with warm naan and my favourite Chana Masala!

Roasted Cauliflower With Punjabi Seasonings

1 1/2 lb cauliflower florets (from one large head of cauliflower)

1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp each: turmeric, cayenne pepper

1 tsp each: salt, minced ginger

2 tsp each: ground cumin, ground coriander, 

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves

4 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp whole cumin seeds

Place cauliflower in large mixing bowl. Pour lemon juice over. Mix in turmeric and salt. 

Add remaining ingredients except oil and whole cumin seeds. Mix well, and marinate for 2 hours, tossing cauliflower occasionally.

Preheat oven to 425F. Line a baking tray with parchment.

Warm oil in small frying pan over medium heat, add whole cumin seeds. Once they start to sizzle and splutter, pour the spiced cumin oil over the cauliflower. Mix well, then spread cauliflower florets in single layer on parchment lined tray, drizzling leftover marinade over top.

Roast in oven for about 15 min, then turn the pieces and roast again for 10 - 15 min or until lightly browned and cooked through.

Serves four

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Madhur Jaffrey was in Toronto recently to promote her new cookbook Vegetarian India - A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking (Knopf) and to participate in the Up Close and Personal series organized by The Chefs' House (George Brown College).

 

 

 

Pan Fried Trout In Ontario

Ontario is at it's most beautiful in the Fall. The leaves change colour to shades of red, yellow and orange, the air turns cooler and fresh produce fills the markets, tempting me to get creative in my kitchen!

My favourite Fall activity is taking long, scenic drives around the country side, marvelling at the glorious colours, exploring farmer's markets along the way and stopping at scenic spots for an impromptu picnic of the goodies we have picked up.

Ontario is dotted with many beautiful provincial parks that provide the perfect opportunity to hike wooded trails, canoe on the lake or just sit by the waterfront and soak it all in. On a recent extended road trip, we explored northern Ontario with stops at Killarney park, St. Jacob's farmer's market and Lang Lake to name just a few. The peace and tranquility of the area, the stunning scenic beauty and the flavours of fresh, local food will remain golden in our memory. 

Locally caught fish such as trout and pickerel were featured on most restaurant menus during our recent trip. We loved their delicate flavour and the myriad of ways they were prepared in the form of soup, chowder, deep fried, grilled, steamed or bathed in a cheesy, creamy sauce. My favourite was a simple preparation of crisp pan fried trout, seasoned with herbs and lemon juice. Not only was it flavourful and healthy, it really let the taste of trout shine through.

In my recipe here, I have followed a similar cooking technique but punched up the flavours a bit by adding my own favourite spices - garam masala and cumin. It's surprising how well these spices blend with the delicate flavour of trout.

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Pan Fried Masala Trout

You can play around with the spice and herb profile of this recipe. Simply substitute the cumin and garam masala with herbs du provence or oregano and the coriander with fresh basil or Thyme. Serve with Fall tomato jam and a nice salad!

1/4 cup each: all purpose flour, fine breadcrumbs

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp each: ground black pepper, ground cumin, garam masala, paprika

1 lb trout fillet, or any other fish of your choice, cut into 4 pieces

2 tbsp each: oil, chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Line a tray with parchment to hold dredged fish. Have another platter ready to hold fried fish.

Combine flour, breadcrumbs, salt and spices in medium shallow flat bowl or plate. Dredge each fillet in spiced flour mixture and place on tray. Do not stack fish on top of each other. 

Warm oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Fry fish in batches so as not to overcrowd pan. Place dredged fish skin side down in pan and cook for 3-4 min until skin is crisp and cooked through. Gently flip fish and cook for another couple minutes until it is golden and lightly crisp. 

Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over fish and garnish with fresh coriander. 

serves four

Credit for the lovely produce pictures in this blog goes to my friend Karen Bergmann. Thank you!

Nyonya Chicken Curry Kapitan In Malacca

The Lord of Malacca, it was said in the fifteenth century, controlled the spice trade of the world. For it was through the straits of Malacca that ships laden with pepper and cardamom sailed from India to China, and cargoes of nutmeg, mace and cloves from the Indonesian islands were carried to the markets of Alexandria, Damascus and Venice. The town was founded in 1400 by a Malay prince, to serve as a hub for the trade between east and west. For over a century Indian, Chinese, Arab and Malay merchants met there to trade spices, cotton fabrics, silks, porcelain, and hundreds of other products, creating a rich and vibrant city that welcomed all visitors.  

There are always those who covet such wealth and in 1511 the Portuguese, who had only recently discovered the sea route to Asia, captured Malacca. It was a story that was to be repeated often, for the Dutch seized the fortress from the Portuguese in 1641, only to be defeated by the British in 1798. The British did not have much use for Malacca, preferring to divert trade to their nearby port of Singapore, and the city slumbered peacefully, seemingly forgotten by the world.  The benefit of this neglect was that Malacca still looks much as it did two centuries ago.  

Walking through Malacca is like peeling back layers of history, for you can visit the ancient palace of the Malay Sultan and see the tombs of the courtiers who were part of the entourage of his Chinese queen, a princess of the Ming dynasty. A stroll past the crumbling walls of the Portuguese fort brings you to the harbour where is anchored a reconstructed version of the Flora de la Mar, a ship laden with treasures that sank nearby while returning to Portugal. The centre of the town is dominated by the red brick Stadthuys, the former residence of the Dutch governor, surrounded by British administrative buildings. 

While European conquerors came and went, local life and business carried on without interruption. Chinese merchants who had lived for generations in Malacca controlled much of the day-to day trade and commerce and they often intermarried with Malays, creating a unique, hybrid culture. The men in this community were known as Babas and the women as Nyonyas, and there evolved distinct Baba-Nyonya styles of living, dress and cooking. Several old houses have been converted into museums, preserving the rich culture of the Straits Chinese.

The main action in Malacca is on Jonker Street. This long street is lined with restaurants, shops, art galleries and also becomes the scene of a vibrant night food market on weekends. People travel from far to visit this famous night market and you will see long lineups at most of the popular street food stalls.

There are many Nyonya dishes that originated in Malacca and are unique. We tried all of them and found them to be delicious! One of our favourites was an appetizer called Pai Tee or Top Hat.
This consists of little deep fried baskets, made from rice flour and shaped like a hat. Accompanying them are crunchy vegetables and fiery sambal. You stuff everything into your 'hat' and eat it in one big bite!

One outstanding and unusual dish that I fell in love with was Nyonya green chili pickle, shown above. Long hot green chilies are stuffed with grated green papaya, then pickled in vinegar and spices, the whole lot doused in seasoned chili oil before being brought to the table. The hot, sour, spicy and sweet flavours are guaranteed to wow your taste buds! Interestingly, this is also known as achar, demonstrating it's Indian influences as the Hindi word for pickles is also the same.

Other typical Nyonya dishes that we really enjoyed were Chap Chye - a medley of stir fried vegetables, crunchy okra with chili sambal, sour tamarind fish curry with whole okra and Sambal Petai - shrimp in a red chili sambal sauce with bitter beans.

Savouring a Cendol is the best way to cool off in Malacca! This unusual dessert is an unlikely concoction of shaved ice, coconut milk, slithery green noodles, red kidney beans and palm sugar, that works surprisingly well.

Chicken Curry Kapitan is a popular dish that embodies the history of Malacca. It combines Indian curry with Malaysian and Chinese ingredients. The result is a rich thick curry, infused with the aromas of lemongrass, lime leaves and spices. 

I love the harmony of unusual flavours in this curry where the spices mingle with coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal and dried shrimp, with delicious results.

One of my favourite stories behind it's creation is one where this dish was first created on board a ship. When the captain of the ship asked his cook what was for dinner, the cook replied "chicken, kapitan". The ship's captain mistook this as being the name of the dish and it came to be called Curry Kapitan after that.

 

Garnishing this curry with a grated egg might seem unusual at first, but believe me, it transforms the curry sauce, adding richness, flavour and texture to it as it gets folded in while serving. The halved eggs in the curry are also delicious, taking on the flavours of the sauce they are cooked in. In fact, I prefer them to the chicken! 

Nyonya Chicken Curry Kapitan

Most of these ingredients such as fresh turmeric, galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves can easily be found in any Asian grocery store. You will end up with some extra spice paste. You can either freeze it or use it like I do - by frying up leftover plain cooked rice with it. Freeze unused portions of coconut milk or use in other recipes such as coconut rice. It is the perfect accompaniment for this curry!

1 lb (450g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces

3 tbsp oil, divided

Salt to taste

2 tbsp Nyonya curry powder, divided

For spice paste:

1 inch piece ginger or galangal

1 stalk lemongrass, inner white parts only

4 cloves garlic

1  2-inch piece fresh turmeric

1/4 cup chopped red onion

2 fresh + 2 dried red chilies

6 macadamia nuts

1 tsp each: brown sugar, dried shrimp powder or paste (optional), lime juice

For the curry:

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 cup each: prepared spice paste (from above), coconut milk, water

2 lime leaves, slivered

3 boiled eggs, peeled

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Combine chicken with salt to taste and 1 tbsp each of the oil and curry powder in large bowl. Mix well, cover and refrigerate 15 min or longer, until needed.

Meanwhile, make the spice paste. Blend all spice paste ingredients together in a blender until you achieve a smooth paste. Add a couple tablespoons of water if necessary. Transfer to a bowl and reserve until needed.

To make curry, warm 2 tbsp oil in a deep non stick skillet over medium heat. Add onions, cook until lightly brown, about 5-7 min. 

Add marinated chicken, brown for 5 min. Add 1/2 cup of the prepared reserved spice paste, fry 2 min. Add coconut milk and water, salt and lime leaves. Mix well, cover and let contents start to bubble. Reduce heat to low and cook for 15 min, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, halve 2 of the eggs and grate the remaining egg with the larger holes of a grater. Add the halved eggs to the curry and cook another 15 min until chicken is very tender and sauce thickened. Fold in chopped fresh coriander. Taste for seasonings, adding some more lime juice or salt if needed.

Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with grated egg.

Serves four

A group of lovely young women dressed in traditional Nyonya costume, posing with me! 

A group of lovely young women dressed in traditional Nyonya costume, posing with me! 

Red Curry Fish In Phuket Islands

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 Once you've had your fill of all that Phuket has to offer, try exploring nearby islands, for another great adventure awaits you! Many of these gorgeous, lush islands are just a day trip away from Phuket and offer spectacular scenery, sandy beaches, peace and serenity. And if you want to step a little outside of your comfort zone to try new things such as scuba diving, snorkelling, canoeing and exploring ancient caves and lagoons, your adventure becomes even more memorable.

We rented a speedboat and spent a lovely, leisurely day exploring the islands in Phang Nga Bay.  
The feel of the breeze on our faces as island after island sped by our speedboat, was an exciting start to our adventure. Each of these islands is a showstopper in it's own right, but you can't possibly see them all in one day.
We took in the highlights, stopping to admire the limestone cliffs, bat caves, glow in the dark stalagmite formations, ancient artwork on cave walls and incredible, never ending scenery that you don't get tired of.
We packed so many once -in- a -lifetime experiences in that one day trip that everything we had seen and done in Thailand before paled by comparison!

Our boat dropped us off at the famous James Bond Island, so named because one of the films 'The man with the golden gun' was shot here. We couldn't stop marvelling at it's breathtaking scenery, lush greenery, emerald waters and limestone cliffs that loomed in the water, making it the ideal locale not only for shooting films but just to walk around and admire the view.

During our island hopping, we came across a small Muslim fishing village, called Koh Panyi, built entirely on stilts in the water. This little village had a beautiful, golden domed mosque, a children's school and about 350 families living in houses built on stilts, to raise them above sea level! 
Legend has it that this place was first settled about 150 years ago by some Indonesian fishermen. These days the villagers sustain themselves mainly by fishing, selling souvenirs and cooking for tourists. 
 

It was lunchtime by the time we reached Koh Panyi. Having heard about it's heritage, we were dreaming of eating some nice Thai Indonesian fusion food, perhaps a tasty biryani, Mussaman curry or a kabab skewer or two. Alas, it was not to be! While we didn't get any of that, the food we were offered was reasonably good and prepared fresh. 

One of the most memorable adventures on this trip took me out of my comfort zone, attempting things that I wouldn't normally dare do.
We boarded flimsy looking, small inflatable rafts and sailed off merrily to explore lagoons and caves. Some of the caves had such narrow, low slung openings that we had to lie flat on the raft while paddling in complete darkness. It was difficult to see and I think I may have let out a shriek or two!

Once we got through, we emerged into a stunning lagoon filled with crystal clear water, ancient overhanging trees and an atmosphere of such utter peace and serenity, unmarred by pollution, traffic, noise or crowds that it almost made us want to give up everything and move there permanently.

It was one of those exhilarating, once in a lifetime experiences we didn't even know was on our bucket list until we did it. Next time though, I am going to make sure I take a few swimming lessons first!

Fiery Thai red curries were a staple with us when exploring the islands. The abundance of fresh seafood made them taste even better! Red curry fish in a creamy coconut milk sauce, made with local, freshly caught fish was one of my favourites. 
Making red curry paste at home is very rewarding and it produces a paste that is far better tasting that anything you might buy in a jar. Extras can be frozen or used as a marinade to grill chicken, pork or shrimp.
Using good quality, premium coconut milk is paramount as it helps mellow out the heat from the red chilies and adds a smooth creaminess to the sauce. I also like to add some paprika to help the red colour along.

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You can add halved cherry tomatoes or pieces of pineapple to the sauce to mellow it out further. Serve with steamed Jasmine rice to soak up the wonderful sauce. For a complete Thai meal, serve with Thai Chicken Satay Skewers as starters and Mussaman Potato Curry on the side.

Red Curry Fish

For Red Curry Paste:

8 dried red chilies (use an assortment of hot and mild)

4 each: fresh red chilies (hot or mild), garlic

2 shallots

1 inch piece ginger or galangal

1/4 cup fresh coriander leaves and stems

1 tbsp each: Thai curry powder, fish sauce, olive oil, rice vinegar, lime juice, brown sugar

For Fish Curry:

1 lb (450g) skinless fish fillets such as Red Snapper, Halibut or Tilapia, cut into 2 inch chunks

1/4 cup each: all purpose flour, oil to fry fish, red curry paste

2 tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 can (400ml) unsweetened coconut milk

Salt to taste

1 tsp good quality paprika

1 tbsp each: sliced or whole red chilies, chopped Thai basil and fresh coriander leaves for garnish

To make the red curry paste, combine all ingredients in blender and blend to a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl and reserve.

To make fish curry, dredge fish fillets in flour and place on a plate. Have another plate lined with paper towels ready nearby. Warm 1/4 cup oil in large non stick frying pan over medium heat. Fry fish in batches until just cooked through and slightly crisped, about 7-8 min. Drain on paper towel lined plate. Reserve.

To make sauce, warm  2 tbsp oil in deep skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook until lightly brown and softened, about 5 min. 

Add 1/4 cup of reserved red curry paste and cook 1 min until it is fragrant. Add coconut milk, salt and paprika, stir to mix and cook until mixture starts to bubble, about 4 min.

Taste sauce and add another tablespoon of the curry paste or a dash of curry powder or some more sugar and lime juice if desired. Add fish gently to the sauce and cook until warmed through, about 2 min.

Serve garnished with chilies and fresh herbs.

Serves four

 

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