Posted by beer_chris on 27-January-2008
OK, I've been in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for just about 2 weeks exactly. No posts during that time has not been for a lack of material. A mixture of just about constant work and equally constant headaches has really led to quite limited time for tip-tapping away on the keyboard – I'm either at the office or asleep, it seems.
However, a lack of posts hasn't meant that the culinary scene in Malaysia is lacking – the truth is the opposite, in fact. Again – here for about 14 days – so far I've had authentic Malay food, chinese, singaporean, hainanese, southern indian (tamil muslim cuisine), southern indian vegetarian, japanese, american, continental/malay fusion, vietnamese and fresh seafood.
Whew! Although I've dined on room service and here at the hotel an embarrassingly high number of times, there are just so many options for meals here. The following represent a few thoughts on the experience to-date:
- Malays love rice – maybe more than any other culture. 'Nasi' (rice cooked in coconut milk) is served with everything – and there are no rules meal to meal. You eat the same foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Tamil muslims are here in large numbers, and their 'mamak' stalls are everywhere. Mamak is a Bahasa Malaysia (BM – the malay language) word meaning 'Tamil Indian Muslim' and stall is what they call a food stand here. The mamak stalls are open 24 hours, and specialize in dishes served with 'roti' – a circular unleavened bread not unlike a tortilla. Mostly you get these filled with lamb (2 thin roti pieces with lamb meat in between and grilled) and with various curries on the side and with dhal (split lentils cooked, pureed and mixed with chili oil)
- The other famous dish at mamak stalls is something called the tarik – pronounced 'tay tah-reck' and literally translated from BM as 'stretched tea'. It is hot tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk, and then poured back and forth from cup to cup (stretched) until frothy and mixed well. This sweet, milky drink is really tasty, and the way it is made is a 'Cocktail' style performance – the guys never spill even a drop, and often pour it in strange ways – basically throwing the liquid from cup to cup. It is quite a sight. Malaysia has to be the worlds number one consumer of sweetened condensed milk. And all this time I thought this was a singularly American canned food product.
- Food is cheap here. Lunch at a nasi lemak stall or laksa (singapore noodle soup) stall with a drink runs somewhere around 6 ringgit – about 2 dollars. At a restaurant you would pay maybe 10 ringgit ($3.50, 4 bucks)
- Places like Chili's and Tony Roma's are very popular here – but only serve beef ribs. No pork in this Islamic state! It's kind of strange not seeing baby back ribs at Chili's – but the kitchen cannot be halal if pork is even inside the restaurant.
- McDonalds has a 'local' sandwich for Chinese new year called the 'Prosperity Burger'. It is just a beef McRib without the sauce. If that's what prosperity tastes like I'll stick with my poverty quarter pounder.
- Malaysians love to eat, and they love to talk about food. I have so many conversations with my coworkers about what I ate last night, what I thought of it, what I am eating next. It's an obsession I can definitely relate to. Additionally, when Malaysians go to a food court or even a mamak stall, the first task is to find a table. They leave nothing to chance. Someone holds the seats while everyone else gets their food, and then that person goes to get their food. It sounds like perfectly reasonable behavior, but imagine doing this in a mall food court – it just seems strange to me, I can't get used to it.
- Doughnuts are a big deal here. Apparently there is a place here called 'J Co' that has copied Krispy Kreme – and the lines start at just about 5 AM each morning for the pillowy things. I've not headed over to the mall where J Co is supposedly located, but everyone cannot wait to hear the American's opinion of these doughnuts.
Well, that's it for now. I'll be in Dubai in a week and home in two!
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Posted by beer_chris on 8-January-2008
Quickly – had an esoteric experience for dinner tonight. This week as I prepare for a trip to the far east I am trying to get as much home cooking in as possible – but I still have evening meetings with Malaysia every night this week. As I meal planned on Saturday for the first time in months, I was trying to come up with things that would be easy to put together and would create tasty leftovers for Jaime. Sunday, made a cheesecake to munch all week and that night filleted chicken breast with a pan sauce & rice – I used my Penzey's adobo seasoning on the chicken and it was sublime.
Monday night was spaghetti and a marinara (not Ytees Mighty) with a tomato sauce I made back in June from fresh fruits from Caninos.
Tonight, though. Ahhh…tonight.
First, back up to Saturday. I was home most of the day, and so put the plan together I decided to pull out one of my fave cookbooks – Marcella Hazan's 'Classic Italian Cooking'. I've rarely been disappointed with her recipes, and this huge book is full of a lifetime of experiments. I was feeling in the mood for a polenta dish, and so I pulled out her recipe for a polenta lasagne. This was basically sliced polenta layered with a bolognese sauce and parmesan cheese. I looked at her referenced recipe for bolognese, and it had a cooking time of at least 3 hours – more if possible. Given that I had all day I went for it. I got started once I returned from the store. It was very simple and cheap ingredients: a mirepoix, ground chuck, milk, wine (1 cup only), tomatoes, a dash of nutmeg and some salt to taste. Simmered for 3-5 hours and these humble ingredients become something truly magical.
I put the result (ab out two cups of sauce) in a container and watched it congeal magically in the fridge – waiting for its moment on Tuesday.
This morning I made instant polenta while I waited at home for my furnace inspector to show up. Hazan said instant was OK for lasagne, as long as it was an Italian brand (i.e. using Italian cornmeal, which is of a finer grind than American cornmeal). Instant is apparently (according to hazan) not OK as a dish in it's own right. When it was done I promptly burned my hand and then formed the hot polenta into a square using my bench scraper, let it cool completely and stuck it into the fridge. This took all of 30 minutes start to finish.
Tonight I heated the bolognese back up, made a bechamel (to mix in with the thick chunky bolognese sauce and thin it out a bit), grated some parmesan and sliced the polenta into 'noodles'. Layered into a lasgna pan and baked for 20 minutes this was one of the most flavorful dishes I believe I have ever cooked. The smooth polenta had a bite to it but was very mellow underneath the saucy sweetness of the bolognese – Hazan says the sweetness comes from the meat and it's fat – the fat absorbs the sweetness from the mirepoix – the wine – and the milk and combines it with the acidity of the tomatoes to make something really magical. The combination of salty cheese, sweet sauce and slightly al-dente cornmeal mush was really awesome, and definitely a winner of a recipe I recommend to anyone with 4 hours to watch simple ingredients become something special.
A total of about 6 hours work went into this dish, but very little of that was actual work. The hardest part was probably preparing the mirepoix and making the bechamel. The rest was simple waiting – and boy was it worth it.
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Posted by beer_chris on 1-January-2008
Spent the day cooking. What a nice relief after a busy month. Had a number of folks over, and the plan was to cook a boneless rib roast I've had for a month or so now in my freezer – I got it in the 40% off bin at Kroger some time ago.
As usual when roasting something I depended on Barbara Kafka to guide me through with the dry and abrupt writing style that makes her recipes so darn easy to understand. That and they are so effective – good results every time. It was Barbara (via Nigella Lawson – but I give Barbara the credit) that convinced me to use high heat roasting – basically not to be afraid to turn my oven up all the way to 500 and trust that my home will not burn down. It seems like all Americans – me included – seem to think that 500 is just there for show – like the 140 MPH on my Mazda speedometer. Something to know is there but never use at the risk of extreme danger, recklessness or both. Even now when I make my chicken – a recipe I've cooked probably a hundred times – there is still a sliver of doubt about 10 minutes in to the high heat roasting when I begin to believe that *this time* something is going to go wrong and I might be generating charcoal in that smoky oily mess in the oven.
But every time the high heat approach works out JUST RIGHT! I think learning to trust Barbara's recipes is part of using them – it just seems to be a lesson that is learned each time, almost like an ingredient.
So here I was today – with a nice cut of meat and guests on the way – putting my faith in Barbara again to bring me through as she always has. Yet I found myself doubting her recipe:
'But, my roast is boneless, and her examples are all bone-in! Maybe I should decrease the time at 500 degrees!'
'Oh no, it's really smoking now! I bet the little thing is a dried up beef raisin!'
Luckily my mother bought me a roasting timer/thermometer for Christmas – and at about 30 minutes in to the 45 minutes at 500 degrees called for in the recipe I was convinced that Barbara had led me astray – that my poor rib roast must be like sawdust on the inside – easily 300 degrees through-and-through – I inserted the probe and voila – 105 degrees.
At this point the Kafka-trust began to come back – I followed the remainder of the recipe to a tee – down to 325 for 3 minutes a lb (the timing for a medium-well roast) 9 minutes total – then back up to 450 for 15 final minutes. On the plate to rest for 15 – and the temp peaked at 160 on the serving plate – perfect!
Made some other newbie dishes today as well:
- Yorkshire pudding
Made with the drippings of the roast, of course. This came out of Barbara's 'Roasting' cookbook as well.
- Mayonnaise-free cole slaw
A good recipe – marinated in a celery seed/vinegar dressing all day. I pulled this off of Epicurious, and it was a hit.
- Black-eyed peas
Spicy and regular – I used the recipe out of my B&GH cookbook, but used melted Crisco instead of cooking oil. I think it has a cleaner flavor. For the spice in my hot cornbread I used a third of a cup of Matouk's spicy sauce in the liquid – this came out well.
- Christmas cookies
Not exactly what I'd hoped – these turned out to be drop sugar cookies but I intended them to be sturdy enough for cut outs. Oh well – we had a good time decorating them. Another recipe off of Epicurious, and it called for two whole vanilla beans – that's like $11, and not really worth it flavor-wise.
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