Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Burmese Shrimp Curry

I have very limited familiarity with Burmese cuisine.  It's a country I have wanted to visit, but I never felt comfortable contributing to a government that was so unabashedly oppressive to its people.  For years the military dictatorship used any and all means to crush the slightest dissent.  Recent reforms suggest that the country may be transitioning towards a more democratic government.  Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of the man who negotiated Burma's independence from Britain in 1947, was released from prison in 2010 (she had been sentenced to 3 years hard labor because an American had swum across a lake to her house where she had been under house arrest for almost ten years; her sentence was commuted from hard labor to an additional 18 months of house arrest).  In May of this year, Suu Kyi was sworn in as a member of parliament.

While this apparent willingness to allow their people a voice is undoubtedly good news for the people of Burma, I fear Starbucks, McDonald's, and Pizza Huts may also be on their way to the country.  With the end of isolation, regional and cultural differences may also be threatened.  Traditional foods and customs come to be seen as quaint, out of touch with the modern world, kampungan, and are abandoned in favor of mass processed and marketed food that connects to the world outside.  One of the worst things I have eaten in Indonesia was a slice of Pizza Hut pizza that my nieces (whose mother is an excellent cook) pleaded for.  I still remember years ago when I was traveling in Padang (a city renowned throughout Indonesia for its food) and asked some teenagers where I could find the best food in town.  They thought about it and discussed it amongst themselves for a few minutes before telling me, triumphantly, "California Fried Chicken."  What will happen in Burma in 20 years?

Fortunately, Naomi Duguid has been visiting Burma and actively exploring its foods and markets for much of the last four years.  Burma: Rivers of Flavor, is her most recent cookbook exploring an Asian cuisine.  Having first gone to the country in 1980, Duguid's interest in and affection for the people and cultures of Burma are clearly apparent in the photographs and writing.  Like her previous books which she co-authored with Jeffrey Alford, Burma is as much an exploration and celebration of the culture and people of the country as it is of the cuisine.

Duguid's books are visually rich with photographs of the lands and people of her focus.  They are not traditional cookbooks that simply present a collection of recipes.  Cooks looking for elaborately staged photographs of finished dishes or step-by-step photos of how to prepare the included recipes may be disappointed by Duguid's Burma.  However, those who are interested in getting a glimpse of this long isolated nation will likely enjoy her anecdotal, informative approach.

The recipes presented in Duguid's book are straight forward, unfussy dishes.  Most of the ingredients can easily be found in any Asian supermarket.  Shallots, tomatoes, and various herbs (cilantro, lemongrass, Vietnamese cilantro (rau ram--daun laksa) are featured in many of the recipes. I have only tried a few of the recipes so far, but the book contains many that I look forward to trying.

I first served this shrimp curry with roti jala.  I have also served it with rice.  It is similar to sambal udang, but it is milder than most and contains no coconut milk.   For anyone put off by incendiary curries, consider giving this one a try.  

Shrimp Curry,  adapted from Burma: Rivers of Flavor

Generous 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 cup minced shallots 
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and minced
3 TBS peanut oil
1/8 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 cups chopped ripe tomatoes or canned crushed tomatoes
3/4 cup water
2 tsp fish sauce
2 green cayenne chiles, seeded and minced, or to taste
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
About 1/4 cup cilantro leaves (optional)
1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)

Rinse the shrimp and set aside.  (I boil the shells in water, strain and reserve the water and use this in place of the water called for in the recipe.) With a mortar, pound the minced shallots and garlic to a paste.

Heat the oil in a wok or a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the turmeric and stir, then toss in the shallot and garlic paste.  Lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, about two minutes until softened but not browned.  Add the tomatoes and cook for several minutes at a medium boil, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are well softened and the oil has risen to the surface.

Add the water and fish sauce, bring back to a medium boil, and add the shrimp.  Cook just until the shrimp start to turn pink, then toss in the minced chiles, stir briefly, and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.  

Turn out into a bowl, top with the cilantro leaves, if using (and they certainly add to the dish), and put out lime wedges if you wish. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Roti Jala

I gather from my nieces that in recent years Malaysia has tried to claim credit from Java for the development of batik.  While I'll definitely side with Indonesia on this issue, I believe Malaysia gets the nod for roti jala.

A crepe-like bread to accompany curries, roti jala is not something I have actually come across in Malaysia or Indonesia.  I first became aware of it several years ago when I bought a copy of Authentic Recipes from Malaysia, which calls them lacy Indian pancakes.  Named for its fishnet resemblance, roti jala is traditionally made with a special funnel with four or five spouts to form the net-like pattern.  I was at a Sundanese restaurant last summer that had several varieties of the funnels as decoration on its walls, suggesting that, at least in the past,  roti jala was enjoyed in Java.  The funnel I use is an inexpensive plastic one that I picked up in Singapore.  One could get much the same effect with more effort using a plastic squeeze bottle.

The recipe here is adapted from Resep Klasik Jajanan Pasar (Classic Market Snack Recipes), which contains 270 recipes for snacks that are often sold in Indonesian markets.  As supermarkets supplant the traditional markets, some of these snacks will undoubtedly disappear. One of the interesting things about the book is that one of the co-authors is a Japanese woman, Tomomi Kimura, who was studying at UGM in Yogya.  She collaborated with a catering company in compiling the recipes.


Roti Jala

1/4 cup thick coconut milk
1 3/4 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
pinch of turmeric (optional)
vegetable oil to grease the pan

In a bowl, whisk together the coconut milk, water, salt, turmeric (if using), and egg.  Gradually whisk in the flour until you have a smooth batter, about the consistency of whipping cream.  Strain the batter through a fine sieve to remove any possible lumps.  This is important if using a roti jala funnel because even the smallest lumps can clog the spouts.

Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Pour in a splash of vegetable oil and rub it into the surface with a paper towel.  Ladle some batter into the funnel (if using), holding the funnel about a half-inch to an inch over the skillet.  Move the funnel in circular pattern to form a lacy, fishnet-like crepe.  Cook until the crepe is set and the edges begin to lift and curl from the pan.  Slide onto a clean plate.  Roll or fold into eighths.  Continue until all the batter is finished. 

This makes about 16-20 crepes.  Serve it with curries or other saucy dishes.  I served it here with an excellent Burmese shrimp curry from Naomi Duguid's Burma: Rivers of Flavor.  I'll be posting my take on this dish soon.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nasi Tim Ayam Jamur--Steamed Rice with Chicken and Mushrooms

Nasi tim ayam jamur is a dish that qualifies for Indonesian comfort food.  A Chinese influenced dish, it is not widely seen on menus outside of Java.  In fact, it's a dish I don't recall seeing very often in restaurants on Java.  If you do encounter it, it's likely to be in a city with a fairly sizeable Tionghoa population.

It is not a difficult dish to prepare, and it has the added benefit of being a dish that can be assembled ahead of time and served when you are ready.  It can be made as a communal dish or in individual servings.  Traditionally it might be served with acar (a cucumber and carrot pickle), but since I had recently made some do chua (Vietnamese pickled carrot and daikon), I served it with that.  A quick stir fry of caisim (choy sum) with chilies and garlic completed the meal.

I used a whole chicken in preparing this dish, using the breast for this dish, the wings and legs for some ayam pong teh, and the backbone and ribs to make the chicken stock.  Tjing doesn't care for chicken breast usually, so this is one way to make it palatable for her.  You could, of course, just buy some boneless, skinless chicken breast (or thighs), and use some canned low-sodium chicken broth instead of making your own.

Nasi Tim Ayam Jamur
printable recipe

1 whole boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 cups rice, rinsed and drained
4 cups chicken stock (divided)
1/2 lb fresh mushrooms (in Indonesia, fresh straw mushrooms are the mushroom of choice, but you may choose to use oyster, button, shitake, or other mushrooms--I used shimeiji, Japanese brown beech mushrooms, because they were available and cheap)
4 TBS oil (approximately)
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1-inch slice of ginger, peeled and finely minced
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 TBS oyster sauce
2 TBS kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
1 TBS kecap asin (regular soy sauce)
4 green onions, sliced

Cut the chicken into small cubes.  Chop the mushrooms so that they're about the same size as the pieces of chicken.  Heat a wok or skillet over medium high heat and add about 2 tablespoons of oil.  When the oil is shimmering, add the ginger and garlic and fry briefly, not allowing them to brown. Stir in the chicken and fry for about a minute before adding the mushrooms.  Add the oyster sauce, kecap manis, kecap asin and white pepper.  Cook for about a minute longer.  Remove from heat.

In a sauce pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat.  Stir in the rice.  Stir well, making sure all the grains get coated with oil.  Add 2 1/2 cups of the chicken stock.  Stir and bring to a boil.  Once the stock comes to a boil, cover and remove from heat.  Allow the rice to absorb the liquid, about 10 or 15 minutes.

In heat proof bowls (you may choose which size you prefer--I have used both 1 1/2 cup ramekins and 3/4 cup ramekins) place a layer of the chicken mushroom mixture on the bottom.  Top this with a layer of rice to the top of the ramekin or bowl.  Spoon an additional tablespoon or two of the chicken broth over the top.  Place the filled bowls in a steamer and steam for 15 minutes.  The bowls may be filled earlier in the day (or a day earlier) and steamed when you are ready for dinner. 

To serve, invert a plate over the top of a ramekin.  Holding on tightly to both, flip them over, tap on the ramekin, and the chicken and rice should release, forming a mound of deliciousness on the plate.
Traditionally, a cup of the broth seasoned with the slices of green onion is served along with the rice.