Honestly, I don’t know where to begin about Penang and food. This has been such an amazing revelation. The most incredible thing about the food in Penang is probably the beauty with which the different types of cuisines (Malay, Indian and Chinese) mingle to arrive at myriad variations of delicious ingenious dishes. The abundance of incredible fresh produce, mind-boggling variety of types and cuts of meat and poultry make, range of spices and a whole world of herbs make cooking in Penang an experience of beauty!
Smitten by the markets, I was trigger happy with the camera and so have endless pics to share with you on the produce alone in another post but here is a bit of what it was like to walk around in the markets and pick fresh produce for the dishes of the day with two fine cooks Pearly and Nazlina.
The fresh sights, sounds, smells and energy in the wet bazaars in India have forever been a source of inspiration to me. While we seem to be losing a lot of that in Mumbai, Penang has a lot of that alive. If you read my last post you have gotten a hint of this but my first day in Penang was a mixed bag. Excited to be in a new space but also overwhelmed at the unfamiliar smells, it took a tour of these beautiful wet markets to help me really appreciate the depth and variety of what Penang has to offer in terms of food and its culinary heritage.
I had opted for cooking classes that as much as possible could give me a taste of variety of the unending foods and techniques that Penang-ites use in cooking. Pearly’s class was on traditional Nyonya food and Nazlina’s in Georgetown on Malay food. The two were similar in that they both started with a wet market tour but each was also defined by their own individual areas of passion – local inherited cuisine and how it affects your mind and body for Pearly; and cooking the traditional way – the slow food perspective for Nazlina.
Pearly’s class (which was the first one I did) was my first foray into food in Malaysia. We worked on 3 dishes.
At the end of about 4 hours, we had a beautiful lunch of the incredible dishes we had prepared. Mint seems to always appear as a garnish for the spicy dishes. And while we seldom do that in India (and my mom would be shocked at doing that to her beloved fish curries), that makes so much sense.. the lightness and fragrance of the mint against the spicy sauces was just right.
Pearly made us a lovely dessert of rice flavoured with pandan, cooked with palm sugar and longan berries, drizzled with fresh coconut cream.
Nazlina’s class was all about the prep. My favourite dish here was the chicken rendang. This gravy is unbelievable. Everything you want – sweet and sour, spicy and aromatic from the kaffir lime and lemon grass. It took us about half an hour.. yep, I kid you not, to crush a million chillies into a paste. And then garlic, ginger, shallots among other things. But it was oh so worth it. Crushing chillies releases and retains flavour best vs whizzing it in a blender which incorporates air and cause oxidation of the ingredients.
The rice was flavoured with pandan leaves which to be honest I am not sure what I feel about. I sometimes love the fragrance of pandan and sometimes find it sort of overwhelmingly basmati-ish. It does seem to work beautifully in the sweet dishes though. The palm sugar is another interesting constant in all the dishes counterbalancing the tamarind. This probably comes from the chinese idea of balance – the yin and the yang.
- ½ chicken (cut into 6 pieces)
- 6 fresh large red chilies; (The malaysian chillies are large, with thick skin and no spice. I would probably replace this with any mild thick versions found here in India (maybe even the green but not the capsicum) and add some roasted deseeded dried red ones
- 2 cloves, 1 star anise, I cardamom, 1 cinnamon stick
- ½ inch fresh turmeric (or ¼ tsp turmeric powder)
- 4 cili padi (birds eye chilies – optional) – if you wish it to be more spicy
- 2 pieces tamarind apples (“asam keeping” in Malay) OR 2 thick tbs of tamarind juice
- 200ml thick coconut milk
- 2 tbs kerisik (coconut paste) Detailed description how to make kerisik can be seen here: http://www.pickles-and-spices.com/how-to-toast-coconut.html
- 2 young turmeric leaves (shredded) – If u can find them
- 4 kaffir lime leaves (shredded finely. I so love these that I am determined to hoard and freeze any I can find)
- 1-2 lemon grass (bruised)
- 5 candlenuts - replace with double the number of almonds if required
- 1 inch ginger
- 1 inch galangal
- 10 shallots or 4 purple onions
- ½ head of garlic
- 1 tbs dark brown sugar or palm sugar, chopped small
- 1 cup water
- Salt to taste
- Boil chicken with slow fire with 3 cups water. Remove some water till only the chicken pieces are half merged in the water.
- In another wok or saucepan, heat up ¼ cup cooking oil then add in all ground spices—fresh chilies, ginger, garlic, galangal, turmeric, onion and candle nut with whole spices (cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, star anise and cloves). Wait until the oil separates, then add in chicken pieces with some of the broth.
- Add tamarind apple or tamarind juice together with bruised lemongrass .
- When the sauce is reduced, add in thick coconut milk, salt, brown sugar (or palm sugar), turmeric leaves and kaffir lime leaves.
- When the mixture bubbles gently, put in kerisik, let simmer slowly for about 20 minutes then serve.
- Note: if you make in a larger quantity, it takes longer to cook.