Comfort Food From Outside The Comfort Zone - South East Asian Food

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What does 1970s food make you think of? Retro dinner party classics like prawn cocktail and beef wellington, perhaps. The sweet nostalgia of blancmange, peach melba, knickerbocker glory and trifle (always trifle). Pot luck dinners and so-uncool-it-never-goes-out-of-style fondue. Leaving for work or school only after a Proper Cooked Breakfast. More pre-packaging – TV dinners and fish fingers anybody? (didn’t think so...).

Lots of those things have a rather stodgy waft of comfortable familiarity. Some are rib-sticking and hearty and even dishes that once seemed the height of sophistication (devils on horseback and duck a l’orange?) are something to be tucked into and enjoyed, rather than a delicate morsel artfully arranged on a plate.  They can evoke feelings of childhood and a sense of innocent – even naive? – pleasure in food, even in people who didn’t grow up in the 70s. But not all the recipes from back conjure up images of Kath & Kim crossed with Enid Blyton.

South East Asian Food by Rosemary Brissenden
South East Asian Food by Rosemary Brissenden

The idea of what was exotic was very different to now. Unless they were part of your native culture, things as simple as espresso, pumpernickel, souvlaki and felafel were curiosities that didn’t lurk on every corner (although 20 odd years later, I used to get funny looks eating pate sandwiches for lunch at school…). Chinese food was likely to begin with spring rolls and end with sweet and sour pork. But some people had a broader frame of reference…

Rosemary Brissenden first visited South East Asia in 1957 when she was a student at Melbourne University. South East Asian cuisine was largely unknown beyond those who’d experienced it first-hand and Australian food at that time was yet to stake out its territory as a global pick-n-mix held together with something of its own. Brissenden set to and wrote South East Asian Food, which was first published in 1969 and was the definitive guide to food from that region.

Over forty years later, a substantial new edition of the book has been released. In the cluttered and growing cookbook market full of next big things and toqued experts, South East Asian Food has become an enduring classic while staying relevant and up to date. It can be described as a seminal work without a trace of hyperbole – an assertion supported by Elizabeth David providing a ringing endorsement on the book’s warm chartreuse cover.

A book that every serious cook should possess - Elizabeth David
"A book that every serious cook should possess" - Elizabeth David"

I first approached South East Asian Food with a degree of caution; its initial impression is of a Book That Means Business. Its heft reminded me of Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion which, I learned to my surprise, was only published in 1996.

South East Asian Food isn’t like the majority of modern recipe books. It isn’t a glossy coffee table book designed for show (or showing off) as much as for cooking. Nor is it a magazine-style format to flick lazily through on a weekend afternoon before, with a rumbling tummy, pottering into the kitchen to try out whatever caught your eye. It has more in common with a textbook – investing some time reading carefully and planning your approach will reward you by unlocking flavours that – for me, at least – I’d not imagined being able to recreate at home.

Lamb and spinach curry - it tastes more exotic than it sounds
Lamb and spinach curry - its not-so-exotic name belies its depth of flavour

The book’s authoritativeness and detail could make it initially a bit intimidating for readers who are new to recipes from the region, or who favour cookbooks full of glossy pictures showing the finished product. However, Brissenden is a patient teacher. Her style is instructive and no-nonsense, a little like being taught by a slightly stern but very wise and generous aunty. The instructions are direct and clear, and explain why things are done a certain way (satisfying both my curiosity and my ignorance). A touch of lightness is provided by Daniella Germain’s illustrations (now taking centre stage of their own accord in My Abuela’s Table).

Daniella Germain's illustrations in South East Asian Food
Daniella Germain's illustrations in South East Asian Food
A couple of Daniella Germain's illustrations in South East Asian Food

South East Asian Food traverses a culinary journey from Indonesia to Vietnam, passing through Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia along the way. The recipes are arranged by country and then into categories – grills and barbecues, braises, fried dishes, curries of almost every sort and persuasion. Brissenden gives an insight into each country’s culinary history and traditions, important ingredients and how meals are served. This follows a meaty introduction to ingredients and techniques, which instructs on everything from ‘making prawns crunchy’ to the uses of fresh coconut and making your own Javanese soya sauce.

If the 1970s are, at first glance, all about comfort food, South East Asian Food took me far outside of my comfort zone. I can safely confess to being a complete novice in relation to cooking Asian food of any variety and most of my experiments tend firmly towards sweet rather than spicy. The first recipe I tried was a lamb and spinach curry from Malaysia, and involved making my own curry powder. The finished dish had a depth of flavour that grew on the Other Penguin and me with each mouthful. It was quite mild, but had a subtle intensity – the freshly made curry powder made a noticeable and refreshing difference. As it turns out, this recipe was comfort food - just perhaps not the kind I'd first think of...

Lamb and spinach curry
Lamb and spinach curry

Being in such new territory, I tried to minimise my tinkering with the recipe. There were a few items where I used some pre-ground spices because they were what I had to hand, but I was keen to stay true to the instructions to get a good sense of the intended flavours.

The recipe, with my extra notes and comments, is as follows:

Meat Curry Powder
(The quantities below are for a quarter of the recipe shown in the book – the original recipe makes a substantial amount, and I thought it was worth seeing how it tasted before making a giant batch (especially as the Other Penguin has quite a low chilli threshold))

What you need
25 g coriander seeds
8 g cumin seeds (I used ground cumin)
8 g fennel seeds (I used ground fennel seeds)
3 tsp turmeric
1 tsp black peppercorns
9 dried chillies (or more to taste – even twice as many if you like it hot…)

What to do
1.     Roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and turmeric lightly in a dry pan for around a minute and a half.
2.     Remove the spices from the heat and place in a mortar or the bowl of a small food processor (I used the attachment for a stick blender), add the peppercorns and dried chillies and whizz (or grind with a pestle) to a powder. 

Making lamb and spinach curry
Making lamb and spinach curry

Lamb and Spinach Curry

What you need

1 tbsp grapeseed oil (the recipe uses ghee or other vegetable oil)
1 large brown onion, cut in half across and then sliced finely
1 cardamom pod, broken open
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed and chopped finely
1 tbsp meat curry powder, from the recipe above
500 g very lean lamb, cut into 2 cm cubes (I used two lamb backstraps, which felt a little extravagant, but gave a tender and juicy result)
2 tomatoes, skinned and chopped or 2 tbsp yogurt (I used half a tin of peeled plum tomatoes, roughly chopped, and opted to not include yogurt)
Salt to taste
1 packet (which is a mysteriously unspecified quantity) of frozen spinach, or 500 g fresh spinach (I used 150 g of fresh baby spinach – a bit more would’ve been good, but my local shop was running out in a big way… terrible excuse, I know!)
A little chopped mint (optional, and I can’t stand it, so I left this out)
Pinch of ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala, or to taste (I also left this out as, having been positive there was some in the cupboard, I discovered I was mistaken – gah!)

What to do
1.     Heat the oil (or ghee) in a pan. Add the onion, cardamom and cinnamon, and fry until the onion is deep golden (and enticing smells have suffused the kitchen).
2.     Mix the garlic and curry powder with a little water (to add enough moisture for it not to burn) and add with the lamb to the pan. Stir well to combine.
3.     Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browned all over and the spices smell “cooked and fragrant”. (The scent develops a bit more complexity as this happens).
4.     Add the tomatoes or yogurt and stir well. Check for seasoning, and add salt if needed. Then, add the spinach, a splash of water if the consistency is getting a little dry. Add the mint now, too, if using it.
5.     Simmer until the meat is cooked through and the sauce and flavours are smooth. Add the cumin and garam masala before serving.

Served with jasmine rice, the recipe serves two for dinner, with enough leftovers for two (or one very hungry Other Penguin) for lunch.

Lamb and spinach curry from South East Asian Food

There are lots of other recipes I’m keen to try out in South East Asian Food after such a successful first experience. Some of these are…

- Ayam Semur Jawa (chicken in soya sauce)
- Dadar Jawa (Javanese omelette)
- Abon Daging (tasty meat floss… I’ve seen pork floss rolls in Chinese bakeries and am intrigued by the idea of trying to make meat floss – this one is an Indonesian recipe)
- Hainanese Chicken Rice
- Roti Canai (because I’ve read so much about it on other food blogs!)
- Khao Tom Kai (chicken rice porridge)
- Bubur Ketan Hitam (black rice pudding – because desserts are thin on the ground in this book, so I’d love to try at least one of those that are included)

South East Asian Food - a few desserts
A few more desserts - though I'd love to learn more about making Asian sweet treats

Brissenden explains that desserts “are few because main meals in South East Asia traditionally do not include them. Sweets are usually enjoyed as snacks and between-meal indulgences and warrant a book of their own”. Now there’s something to wish for…

Tina on November 7, 2011 at 6:26 AM

The curry dishes here are amazing! It is fun trying something new in the kitchen, especially something that is outside your norm. These two look like they were well worth it. I have saved the lamb spinach curry recipe. Thanks for sharing.

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