The year of the Dog is upon us, but I'm not cooking dog for New Year's Eve dinner - for one very good reason. It's not seasonal. Dog is for winter, it's heaty. But here's a personal request: anyone in central Auckland have a banana-tree in their back-yard they wouldn't mind me hacking down and eventually eating? I was thinking about making my Burma-born mother some real Moh Hin Gha for Chinese New Year's Eve dinner - y'all love my ma, right?
Maybe I'm overdoing it. Chinese New Year's Eve Dinner on Saturday, and I start cooking on Monday night in preparation. You know you're getting on top of a good chilli sambal bajak when the neighbourhood dogs start barking and you can hear the children next door screaming: "That's where the smell is coming from! Number thirteen!" And their parents out on the stoop, just under your Chinese New Year banner, are saying "oh that smells wonderful dear" [cough, choke] "what is it?"
So - mental menu planning... a nice light nasi lemak to start with the abovementioned fried chilli sambal, and will purchase some fish-heads to pre-prepare the base for Nonya fish-head curry knocked off from the previously mentioned Nyonya Restaurant, Howick. Which will eventually include the whole fish though, for New Year tradition's sake. If I can't manage the Moh Hin Gha, maybe I'll have a go at a Burmese pumpkin curry. It's at this point that I realise none of these dishes are actually Chinese. Hmm. I know - Yunnan/Sichuan-style peanut-butter/tahini cold noodle salad, as we'll have two original vinegar-crazy Yunnan ladies present (my mum and her visiting sister) and a Sichuan-in-law.
That's right, feminists do cook. Also, due to a high level of brain-engagement on other things at the moment, I've been forced to compound the slow-news-summer syndrome by blah-ing on more about food and recipes in this post rather than get all socio-political on it. More on the 'kiwi' thing next week, if I have recovered from all the eating and can be bothered (didn't I tell you guys to sort it out amongst yourselves?).
You're meant to learn your national cuisine from your mother, but in my family, most of our Southeast Asian recipes are actually granted to us by a Sri Lankan we've never met - Charmaine Solomon, and her peerless 'Complete Asian Cookbook', 1976. Her Malaysian and Indonesian sections are excellent, the Burmese recipes are rare, and of course the Sri Lankan pages are a highlight. It's damn near impossible to find in print these days, and so our family copy spends its time being stolen by me from my mother, or vice versa. Why do we need a cookbook to cook Malaysian food? My mother never learnt Peranakan fish-head curry or chilli sambal from her mother to pass on to me, because we're not Peranakan, and my mother's mother was not from Singapore, Malaysia, or the coastal provinces of China like nearly every other Chinese in those countries, but from Yunnan.
After my mother, the most famous child of Yunnan is Zheng He - the Muslim eunuch Admiral of Uzbek descent who circumnavigated the globe for the Ming Emperors pre-Columbus and yet refrained from colonising and plundering anyone at all. Top fellow that. They have that map of his down Waikato-way at the moment. In the 1400s Zheng He got the Sultan of Malacca hitched to some Ming princess. Single male Han Chinese traders followed, married Malay women, then got those Malay wives to cook their crazy Malay food with pork and Chinese spices - et voila, Nonyas, Babas the Peranakan people and their awesome food were born.
Five hundred years later, they produced Lee Kuan Yew - go figure. His mother has a famous Peranakan cookbook, seemingly owned by all Singaporeans. Maybe it was a compulsory national purchase, I'm not quite sure. Ma got rid of her citizenship, but kept the cookbook, which says something. Here it is: 'Mrs Lee's Cookbook', 1974.
The recipes are mostly impossible for people who work anywhere but the home. In the foreword, she instructs on how she was brought up to be a Real Peranakan Woman. It involved a lot of pounding rempah, no schooling, and being incredibly obedient to one's husband (hence the need to pound a lot of rempah to work out one's frustrations).
So via Zheng He, Yunnan plays a key role in the evolution of the Nanyang as we know it. But in terms of food style and flavour there is really very little crossover between Singaporean/Malaysian Chinese (Hokkien, Canto, Hakka, Teocheow, Malay, Indian, Nonya) street-food and Yunnan/Sichuan cuisine. I know the Yunnan/Sichuan stuff from observation, so any of my recipes would come out a bit useless, eg: 'add black vinegar until it tastes right.' This is rather like, as every Chinese girl will recognise, when your mother teaches you to cook rice. How much water are you meant to add? 'Put your hand in it,' she says. What the fuck does that mean? It doesn't ever make sense, until one day it does. And from that point, whenever anyone asks you how much water to add to rice, all you can say is 'put your hand in it.'
The other stuff I can describe properly though, because Charmaine went and observed and wrote it all down. Here is the sambal, which you can have with anything, but if you want a nasi lemak experience steam some rice in coconut milk, water, salt and a pandan leaf, fry some ikan bilis and dried shrimp and peanuts, boil an egg then cut it in half, slice up some cucumber, and there you go.
Neighbour-disturbing Sambal Bajak as recorded by Charmaine Solomon
6 large red chillis
6 cloves garlic
1 large onion
3 Tbsp peanut oil (or other high-temperature frying oil)
8 candlenuts (Also known as kemiri nuts. I've never really been able to figure out whether these are just wizened old Malaysian macadamia nuts - it's entirely possible)
1/2 tsp laos/lengkuas/galangal powder (these are all words for the same thing)
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp belacan/trasi (the Malaysian stuff comes in blocks wrapped in paper, the Thai trasi is just as good really but comes in convenient little tubs which are sealed in with wax so your flatmates don't give you funny looks when they open the fridge and sniff)
5 Tbsp assam/tamarind liquid
2 Tbsp gula malacca/palm sugar (or Billington's brown sugar, which is a pretty good substitute. Though if you're going shopping for galangal powder, belacan, candlenuts etc you could probably find some palm sugar while you're rummaging around in Tofu Shop)
Contact lenses protect your eyes, and give you superhuman fried chilli sambal-making powers. Of course, you must put in your contact lenses before you handle any chillies.
Food process the candlenuts finely first so that you don't have to clean out the food processor later. Put them with the salt, galangal powder (fresh lengkuas where to get?), and belacan, set aside. Prepare your tamarind liquid, set aside with the sugar.
Food process the chillies (roughly chop first) and peeled garlic and onion until fine. If you were a Real Self-Respecting Peranakan and/or Malay Woman you would get up at 6 am and pound it in your mortar and pestle, but you probably have a job.
Alert your neighbours and people you may be living with, and pets, to the fact that you are making fried chilli sambal. Apologise in advance.
Fry the chilli, onion and garlic mixture for about five minutes, until well cooked but not brown. Add the belacan, salt, galangal and candlenuts, blend well and crush the belacan well into the mixture with the back of your cao-cai-can. Stir until mixture is well blended, then add the tamarind liquid and sugar. Stir and simmer until well-fried and the oil is separated. It should be a nice dark reddish brown. Leave to cool, then serve in a big dollop with nasi lemak or any other kind of rice, or anything at all except maybe ice-cream. You get versions of it in little saucers with your mee goreng at foodcourts.
It's bloody good. But if you're not Southeast Asian it's probably freaking you out already.
Almost Nyonya Restaurant's Nonya fish (head) curry
Okay, this involves another pre-mix spice packet. Just to clarify for all those (well, one) Real Indians who wrote in to protest that No Real Self-Respecting Indian Woman would use a pre-mix - yes, there are indeed precious few pre-mixes worth bothering with. One is Baba's, for that one easy lamb curry. Baba's reputation in the Nanyang speaks for itself, but if you use it for all your curries, they'll all taste the same kids. It's best to keep it for that one recipe. There's only one other pre-mix I use, and that's for this Nonya fish (head) curry that I've been trying to copy off that one from Nyonya Restaurant for a while. Have a look at the ingredients packet and you'll see why a pre-mix is necessary in our current context. Red ginger flowers where to get? I'm not a Nonya, how would I know? Here's what I do anyhow.
2 onions (equivalent weight in shallots is better, but I don't have any)
lengkuas if you can find it or ginger if you can't
4 sticks lemon-grass
lots of fresh curry leaves
(so far so Malay. Where does this 'Peranakan' thing come into it? Well, you'll notice the Chineseness of the rest of the flavour-base ingredients...)
Several star anise
ditto cinammon sticks
double-plus those crazy big fat Chinese cardomoms
and 1 packet of this:
Hup Loong Kari Tumis. It's the only Nonya fish curry premix anywhere right now in Auckland that has what I'm looking for. On the back it says "Soury fish curry". It's good. It's not Lee Kuan Yew's mother squatting illiterate over a mortar and pestle, but neither am I.
1 and 1/2 kg fish-heads (snapper)
brinjal sliced length-wise
red capsicum pieces or tomato
tao pok halved (prefried spongy tofu cubes)
Scale the fish heads. Hey man, no-one said it would be easy being a Real Peranakan Woman, even if you, like me, are still cheating with the Hup Loong and aren't a real Peranakan anyway. But damn there's good eatin' on a fish-head, especially a snapper-head at only $2:50 a kilo from the Auckland Fish Markets, all fresh and liquid-eyed... mmm, fish eyes... drool. (are you non-Asians grossed out yet?)
Follow the usual curry technique as outlined in previous post. Fry until oil separates, add spice powders, fry. In this case, add liquid, then add fish.
There are two ways you could approach it from this point - the fancy way or the simple way. The simple way is to cook it straight, with fish in first, veges later. The fancy way is to use some of the fish heads first to prepare the stock-gravy, and then remove the preparation heads. This way you get a lot of flavour out of them but avoid the old 'fish-head-falling-apart-in-curry' fate which more expert cooks seem to be able to avoid, but not this one (probably because I'm a feminist). Then you deep fry the 'presentation' fish/head and vegetables separately, the fish until crispy, and serve piping fresh hot out of the oil with the gravy freshly poured over the top. It's prettier that way. A pain in the ass, but pretty. And crispy. Mmmm, crispy fish head...
And yes, you can do it with the other parts of the fish too if you are grossed out by fish heads. But it's not as good.
Southwest China dressing for cold noodles to serve with shredded chicken and pressed julienne of cucumber
Roast chilli oil
dark soy sauce
light soy sauce
Black Chinkiang vinegar
peanut butter or tahini
a little brown sugar
Combine until a Yunnanese or Sichuan person tells you it tastes right, in exchange for the core of a banana-tree.
Happy New Year!