You could subtitle this post “Or, a recipe that uses all that fresh coconut meat you just produced, because you followed my previous post’s instructions like the awesome person that you are.” Yes, it’s a shrimp curry that features fresh coconut. This is loosely inspired by South Indian spices and ingredients, and requires a medium amount of work because, hell, I like doing work in my kitchen. Why do you have to have everything done so fast?
So, let’s say you have a coconut. Maybe you bought it, maybe it was a gift. Maybe you smuggled it out of a tropical island on a speedboat. Doesn’t matter – you’ve got this coconut, and it’s hard as hell. You want to get inside it, and get into that creamy coconut heaven but you just. Can’t. Crack. This. Damn.
Roti Jala translates to “net bread” from Malay. For obvious reasons. In the simplest terms, it’s a coconut crepe. The batter is a similar formula to a crepe or thin pancake, except that coconut milk replaces regular milk. That sounds good, right? It is.
The tricky thing about this is achieving the pretty lace quality of the crepe. In Malaysia, they have these little plastic things called Roti Jala Molds. Here is a photo of one in action. I imagine they are ridiculously cheap, but unfortunately, they are not sold in Toronto – or, at least, I have no idea where I’d find one. I tried making roti jala without a mold (using a free-pour style out of a measuring cup) and I got a lot of blobs and large streaks of batter in the pan. It tastes fine, but does not make my eyes happy. I tried punching holes in the bottom of a styrofoam cup. That didn’t really work, either. The batter wouldn’t run through the holes until I punched them quite large, and then it just dripped out in blobs, making a mess.
Historically, this beef dish originates in Western Sumatra, Indonesia with the Minangkabau ethnic group, and dates back at least 500 years in literature. Or that’s what I’ve gleaned from Wikipedia, anyway. My personal experience with the dish dates back to a lunch-time cafeteria in Singapore. I remember enjoying the dish, but otherwise have completely forgotten the flavour. Maybe that’s a good thing, since cheap cafeterias ordinarily don’t produce the greatest versions of things. Who knows?
Whatever it was, though, it impressed me enough to inspire an ongoing quest to make rendang (pronounced ren-dahng, daging is dah-ging) at home, here in Canada. I found some Indofoods rendang spice packets at Loblaws, so it is popular enough to infiltrate the Western marketplace in some form, but the resulting mess was sub-standard. Hell, most of those spice packets produce only a pale imitation of the real thing. For many Southeast Asian foods, you need fresh ingredients. Lemongrass, ginger, shallots, garlic, and so on. Which means I needed a real recipe. For rendang, specifically, you need all of those aromatics and spices, plus one more crucial ingredient: infinite patience.
Once upon a time, I was vacationing in Thailand and, instead of staying in one spot, I took buses and trains all over the country. One of the places I stopped was Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand. I had my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to get around, and one of the restaurants recommended in the book served a dish described as a “Shan-Yunnanese concoction of chicken, spicy curried broth and flat, squiggly noodles”. I’d never heard of it, but it sounded interesting and seemed to be popular in the city.
As it turned out, khao soi is something of a regional specialty and has inspired a small cult following (including blogs like The Quest for Khao Soi) as the dish is rarely made outside of Northern Thailand. It’s a shame, really – outside of Chiang Mai, it is somewhat difficult to find this dish on a menu, despite it being very Western palate-friendly, visually appealing and relatively cheap and easy to make, not to mention addictive as hell. However, it may be obscure because its roots are as peculiar as its isolation – it was invented through the travels of Chinese Muslim spice traders through Northern Laos, Thailand and Burma. The curry’s spice is flavoured with imported Burmese and Indian spices such as cumin, coriander seed, turmeric, fenugreek and cinnamon. Then it’s grounded in more commonly Thai ingredients like cilantro, galangal, chilies, kaffir lime, coconut milk broth seasoned with fish sauce and perhaps a bit of palm sugar.
Nasi Lemak / Coconut Rice
Nasi Lemak translates literally to “rice in cream”. Nasi means rice and lemak is the cream. Due to it’s relative simplicity and versatility, it can be served on it’s own as a breakfast, accompanied by sambals, or paired with heavier curries for later meals. Hence it’s designation as the national dish of Malaysia.
Hot Chili-Coconut Masala
You like your food spicy? Then this is the masala for you. Dried chilies and toasted coconut provide the main flavour punch, while a myriad other spices provide texture and colour. This is a western Indian-style spice blend, and is not for the faint of tongue. It’s hot, and I say that as someone who likes my food fairly spicy compared to the norm. It’s quite hot. You’ve been warned.