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Now here's a bit of breakfast food I tend to miss quite a bit from back home. In Malaysia, you may be able to purchase lodeh with nasi himpit (compressed rice cubes -- think of them as a square, tighter form of onigiri without the vinegar) for breakfast from the same places that sell nasi lemak. I still remember how I'd have this when I was a kid every time I had to visit the old National Registration Department in Shah Alam. The basement of the complex the NRD was in had lots of breakfast places, because the NRD office would require one to line up for queue numbers at something like seven in the morning, so everyone would head there for a number and a form, and find breakfast in the area. There was this one place we'd go to that specialized in nasi lemak and lodeh. I loved getting my rice cubes, scooping on my vegetables and then topping it all with the most gloriously oily deep fried egg. It's that sort of fried egg that only a place with a hot, greasy skillet or wok can pull off, edged in the most delightfully crisp lace of brown carcinogens. This is, by the way, my favourite method of cooking an egg.

Lodeh itself is a real comfort food. The gently stewed soft Chinese cabbages, carrots and slightly jelly-like texture of the glass noodles, in a milky gravy that's just gorgeously creamy yellow from the turmeric, makes it a very kind dish on the stomach when you can't take much else (and had it up to here with rice gruel and soups -- nice though those dishes are in themselves). Originally, one would use a mixture of water and coconut milk, which can be hard on the cholesterol, and unfriendly to people with allergies to coconut. I prefer to use a combination of dairy milk and a bit of coconut milk for flavouring, which offers a mild, sweet flavour. It should further be possible to substitute dairy with soy, which would work out well with the tempeh and tofu that can be added to this dish. This dish can be as vegetarian as one wishes.

Nasi himpit refers to a Malay dish of boiled rice compressed into squares. After cooling, it is further cut into cubes and usually served with curry or rendang. It is derived from ketupat, which is made by weaving a square case out of coconut leaves (giving the cooked rice the fragrance of coconut) and generally served to guests during festive occasions. I found this pretty nifty recipe for simple nasi himpit using a square baking tin. Alternatively, Adabi makes instant nasi himpit, which can be easily boiled in water to create enough impressive (and authentic) nasi himpit in abundance. Finding instant nasi himpit might take some work, however, as one would have to look up a pretty complete Asian grocer carrying Southeast Asian goods, or alternatively purchase this product online. You don't really need nasi himpit to go with lodeh though. Regular steamed rice will do just fine. I've also tried this with molded and cubed polenta, which turned out to be awesome. The custardy polenta holds it shape well when served in the thick, creamy stew.

Steamed rice can be quickly made up without the presence of a rice cooker. All you need is a deep casserole dish and a microwave. (Stoves are old-fashioned, honest.):

a. Wash 2 cups of raw rice in a small amount of water. Drain.
b. Level the surface of the rice by gently shaking your casserole dish until the grains settle.
c. Add cold water. The approximate level of this water should be up to the height of the first segment/joint of your finger from the top of the flattened rice. Alternatively, lay your hand flat against the surface of the rice. The water should just about cover your knuckles.
d. Cook rice in your microwave oven uncovered on HIGH for 6 minutes.
e. At the end of 6 minutes, cover the rice and cook for an additional 12 minutes on MEDIUM.
f. Fluff rice with a rice scoop or a fork. Serve hot.

Sayur Lodeh

8 leaves Chinese cabbage (cut into thick strips)
1 carrot (sliced thinly width-wise)
1/2 cup French beans or long beans/snake beans (cut into 1/2 finger-lengths)
1/2 cup cauliflower (chopped)
1/2 cup firm tofu (cubed) (optional)
1 onion (finely chopped)
3 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
1 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 bay leaves (optional)
1 stalk lemongrass (sliced thin) (optional)
2-4 tbsp coconut milk (optional)
2 tbsp sambal/chilli paste*
1 tsp instant belacan granules* (optional)
1 handful coriander leaves (finely chopped) (optional, garnish)
use either purely milk, half-and-half milk and water or half-and-half coconut milk and water

Any of These May Also be Added at Will:

1/2 cup mushrooms (roughly chopped)
1 piece cloud ear fungus (soaked in hot water until softened and julienned)
1/2 cup tempeh (cubed)
1/2 cup small/medium fresh shrimp (shelled and deveined -- reserve shells and boil for 10-15 minutes in water to create a seafood stock) (optional)
1/2 cup blanched glass noodles

1. Fry the onion, garlic, turmeric powder, bay leaves and lemongrass until fragrant.
2. Add belacan and/or belacan granules. Sizzle.
3. Add all the vegetables (and shrimp, if applicable). Stir fry until the beans turn colour.
4. Add enough milk or water to cover the vegetables. Bring to boil and turn down heat. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the cabbages and carrots are tender.
5. Add tofu and/or glass noodles.
6. If you're adding coconut milk, make sure the gravy is barely bubbling. Adding coconut milk at high heat separates the coconut oil from the milk, and can make sauces taste very oily. Stir coconut milk in thoroughly.
7. Turn off heat. Serve stew hot with your choice of rice or polenta. You may additionally add a fried egg or half a hardboiled egg on top. Garnish with a sprinkle of coriander leaves.

* Sambal refers to a simple chilli paste made from ground chillies, onions and garlic. This is the basis for virtually all Malaysian curries and many sauces. It can be quickly whizzed up in a blender and frozen for months in advance. I've put up a recipe for sambal before here.

Belacan is a dried shrimp paste traditionally sold in blocks that require dicing and pounding in a mortar and pestle before being fried for use -- way too much work, and the smell will stick to every inch of upholstery you've ever owned. Luckily, the people at Nestle/Maggi invented Instant Belacan Granules. These only need to be sprinkled on any dish that requires an extra splash of shrimpy goodness (and Malaysians use this on everything). It's made from real belacan, and other chemicals we shall not discuss. But it tastes and smells like the real deal.

While many Malaysians would shrink in horror at the thought, belacan is an optional ingredient wherever it appears. If for whatever reason you have allergies, food restrictions or complications in finding this ingredient, do without it.

The easiest way around everything, if you would like some of that belacan flavour and refuse to blend your own sambal, is to simply purchase a ready made sambal in a jar with belacan added. Look in the ingredients list of your desired product for "shrimp paste" -- that's belacan. Sambal and instant belacan granules are usually sold at any Asian grocerer's that carries Southeast Asian products. There are quite a large number of brands of sambal available. I recommend most Indonesian brands, or Yeo's or Ayam (Malaysian). Do be careful about reading the label for their heat quotient though. If you even remotely suspect you have an intolerance to spicy foods, get something Mild.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 10th, 2007 05:33 pm (UTC)
This sounds absolutely delicious! I have been craving anything with Chinese cabbage in it recently. And I've never been known to pass up a fried egg.

I'm supposed to be on a diet, too :(
Nov. 10th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
Diet possibilities exist! Use the half-and-half water and milk version of this recipe, use low-fat milk and skip the coconut milk. Vegetables are unfattening. And instead of a fried egg, poach an egg or two in the gravy while you cook. Egg absorbs all the nummy flavours of the sauce. :)

Also, Chinese cabbage is pretty much my favourite vegetable ever, next to leek!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )