Friday, October 03, 2008


Sometimes you just have to eat the funky stuff. Because it tastes like home, that's why.
And it's almost a guarantee that unless you are a tofu-white Midwesterner, nothing where you are now really tastes like home unless you make it yourself.

Here are two recipes that taste like home to me, though my mother would have been shocked and horrified had she known that I ate stuff like this (or even brought it into the house).

The first one is an almost black meat soup-stew from Java, made with kluwak nuts (the seed of the Kulape tree (Kepayang; Pangium Edule). Kluwak which are available in the west are thoroughly processed and have been dried - they must be made soft by steeping in a little hot water for about ten or fifteen minutes, whereupon they may be mashed to a smooth paste with ease. They add a nice 'rusty' fragrance to dishes, and change the colour to brown-black. Very delicious.

[Javanese black soup-stew]

One pound stew beef or lamb chunks.
One onion, chopped.
One stalk sere (lemongrass), bruised.
Three to five cloves garlic, mashed, and an equivalent amount of ginger, ditto.
One teaspoon ground coriander.
Half a teaspoon each: turmeric, cayenne, cumin, langkwang powder.
Half a dozen soaked kluwak nuts, mashed up in a little hot water.
A few daon parot (kaffir lime leaves).
Pinches salt, pepper, sugar.
Scallion and cilantro to garnish.

Gild onion in oil, add the garlic and ginger, stir briefly, add the spices, then the meat. Cook, stirring, till the meat is no longer pink and the fragrance rises. Seethe with a little water and add the mashed kluwak, stirring to dissolve. Add everything else, plus water to cover generously. Simmer for about an hour. Garnish with scallion and cilantro.

[Tamarao potato and bamboo shoot curry]

Three cups match-stick cut potato.
One cup bamboo shoot, ditto.
Two or three shallots, minced.
Three to five cloves garlic, mashed, and an equivalent amount of ginger, ditto.
Three to five Roma tomatoes; peeled, seeded, chopped.
One and a half teaspoons each: cayenne, ground coriander.
Half a teaspoon each: ground cumin, turmeric.
Half a tablespoon shrimp paste, OR a suitable pinch of salt.
Generous pinch of sugar.
Half a cup each: ricewine or sherry, coconut milk, meat broth.
Cilantro and sliced green chilies to garnish.

Gild shallots in oil, add the garlic and ginger, stir briefly, add the spices, stir till fragrant, and seethe with a little water. Add the potato, cook for about five minutes till the liquid is gone. Add everything else, including the liquids, and cook for another ten or fifteen minutes (depends on how thick your matchstick cut potatoes are). Garnish and serve.

Taken together, these two dishes, with a bowl of clear broth, a plate of plain boiled rice, some sambal (hot chili paste), plus a few raw or blanched vegetables to dip in the sambal, will make a very satisfying meal. Have lime wedges on the side, both for squeezing over the dishes as well as acidulating the broth - especially if it is a fish broth.

As regards sambal, Dutch people usually serve it directly from the store-bought jar and glop it onto the plate (sometimes right onto the food!), Indos and well-bred Javanese have a bowl of sambal freshly made on the table, from which each diner will transfer some to a small condiment saucer. This may be tailored to personal taste with a dash of patis (amber liquid fish sauce), ketjap manis (sweet dark soy sauce), lime juice, or black vinegar. In the Indonesian countryside it is often served in the mortar in which it was mashed, and the diners will scoop some onto their plate as needed.

One eats these foods using spoons and forks off of porcelain (spoon to eat, fork as a pushing device). The table setting includes a plate for each diner, as well as condiment saucers, soup bowls, and a bone bowl (for refuse and inedible bits). Almost no-one eats off of banana leaves anymore, and dulang (centre-footed round wooden presentation and serving trays) are also seldom used, though prized as cultural objects and heirlooms.

Note regarding ingredients mentioned in the recipes:

Sere: Lemongrass (sere, serai, sae). A tropical stalk-grass that smells like candied lemon. Available in S.E. Asian markets. Keeps away bugs, so worth growing in your backyard.
Langkwang: Galangal (lengkuas, laos); related to ginger, has an old-fashioned almost medicinal smell. Do not use the dried LengKeung available in Chinatown, though - while it is a close relative, it is more suited for cooking bushmeats (!) as tonic than regular meats as dinner table food. The proportions used are also different.
Daon Parot: Kaffir lime leaf; a leaf that adds a fragrance between tea-rose and citrus. No substitute, but not absolutely essential. It can be purchased in markets catering to a Thai and Indonesian clientele.
Bamboo shoot: Edible young bamboo (called 'rabong' in Indonesian languages). Can be purchased in Chinatown in cans already blanched and sliced matchstickwise - simply rinse and drain before use.
If using fresh bamboo shoot, peel them, and trim away the root and any overly fibrous parts. Cut to the shape desired, and boil in a large pan of water for about twenty minutes. Do not cover the pan. This process removes the bitterness that makes raw shoots appealing only to pandas. Taste a little afterwards. If there is still some remaining bitterness, change the water and boil for another five minutes or so. Drain and rinse. Don't worry, they'll still be crunchy after cooking. Bamboo shoots are very low in calories, but a great source of fibre (hah, what a surprise!). They are reputed to be good for the heart, and both anti-viral and anti-cancerous in their effect on the body. Plus they taste good. That last bit is the most important reason to eat them. Really the only reason.
Shrimp paste: Trasi is the Indonesian version, being a dried dark brown smelly substance reminiscent of a bouillion cube..... A salty fishy rotten bouillion cube.
The Philippinos have various similar preparations, generically called bago'ong, which represent various stages of fragrance and chemical instability - not recommended.
Nowadays I use the Cantonese version (鹹蝦醬 - haam haa jeung), which is a pungent purple-grey goop in a jar that keeps forever. It is high in salt, but also other minerals. Not very nutritious, but when cooked it is oh so tasty. Dipping green mango into a little of this is pure heaven. It should be in every kitchen, right next to the jar of sambal and the bottle of black vinegar.


Anonymous said...

"This daon parot is no more: he has ceased to be. He has expired, and gone to meet his maker. He has run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible."

Anonymous said...

that's Hinvisible.

---Grant Patel

Anonymous said...

One billion Chinese can't all be Wong.


Where in San Francisco do you buy the black nuts?

Search This Blog


Research six years ago established that more Mississippi natives are drunk, horny, and yearn for Kim Kardasian, just before midnight. Presum...