South East Asia is rich of strange fruits. We enjoy funny tasting fruit. Snake fruit, mangosteen, sawo and durian to name a few. These are all tropical fruits, that might be found in tropical countries only. You would love them but you can also hate them. If you have these in the country of origins, most probably they would taste like the way they are supposed to. But when they have been shipped thousands of miles away, they might not be their best, or even rotten. And for the unknowing, you might immediately think that is the rotten taste is the real taste. I read in a foodblog how someone bought snake fruit in Europe and, of course, they are pretty rotten. The beautiful fruit then got labelled ‘inedible for human consumption’. That is pretty sad.
Snake fruit is what we call salak. Obviously the skin is just like snake skin, with scales and thorns. When you peel off the skin, starting from the pointy part on top of the oval-ish fruit, you will see a plump (or two or three) creamy color fruit. The plain white ones are usually sweet, but sometimes they could be very tangy too. When you get the reddish color fruit, it would be very tart. The tartness would make you regret you’d ever taken a bite. It is not easy to spot sweet salak. If you buy 10 salak, most of the time you’d only get 2 sweet ones.
Our grandmother used to pickle the tart salak fruits. Using a very simple pickling technique, every each one of the salak fruits can be enjoyed. The fresh fruit is very crunchy, like crunchiness of an apple. When pickled, it is soft and tender.
The fruit is blanched with hot water to soften it and makes it able to absorb seasoning added and pickled by using fruit seasoning salt (bumbu semboi).
The following step by step pictures may come to be a bit strange, but I actually met a lot of people who have never seen nor peel it. So here they come.
Do not wash the fruit. You should peel the fruit with dry hands too. Start peeling from the tip of the fruit using your finger and pull the skin down.
August is always a festive month. It is our nation’s independence day. It also coincides with the 8th month of Chinese calendar. Many weddings and business openings because it is considered an auspicious month. Since the Ramadhan fasting month is also in August this year, work has been quite slow and I am taking it easy by staying home most mornings. Mother has made us promised not to eat meat for the whole August, mainly for being grateful that we have passed the tough four months in our family business. Before the vegetarian month started, I managed to squeeze this dish right on the last day.
We love a good steamed chicken rice at home. A lot of work goes into the cooking, but what’s new? When you are cooking for people you love, I don’t think anybody would mind a bit of extra work. There are many version of soy sauce-based steamed chicken rice around and this is just one of them. Famously known as ‘Nasi Tim Ayam‘, it is sold at traditional Chinese eateries. The halal version is to omit the pork.
The rice is steamed and cooked with other ingredients in an individual serving size bowl. Serve with lots of fresh coriander leaves and pickled cucumber. I can have two bowls of these. The rice is so flavorful and gooey and rich. Three steps are involved in the preparation. Getting the rice ready, cooking the meat and steaming the rice and meat using chicken broth.
Soak rice for an hour or so to hydrate the grains.
It is strange that we don’t use lotus root enough in our cooking. It is crunchy. It is starchy. It is very cute. It is also my most favorite root vegetable. We only use lotus root for pork rib soup. Lotus and pork soup is as homey and heart-warming as Western-style chicken soup. The three most important ingredients are fresh groundnuts, lotus roots and pork ribs. For sweetness, tomatoes or carrots are usually added. For that extra flavor, dried seafood bits are used. This can be dried scallop or dried oysters. Sometimes a pinch of dried shrimp is added in absence of scallops and oysters.
Wash the roots and peel using your peeler. Slice them into 1 cm thick round slices. Too thick would not be nice to bite, too thin slices would cause the root to fall apart after hours of cooking. 1.5cm thickness is the right way to go.
We grew up eating this never knowing the name. My auntie’s mother in law was from Penang and she taught her many years ago. My mother and I really love this although we only refer to it as “That Nyonya Dish”, but none of the family knows how to cook. Auntie makes a big batch and distribute to everybody once in a while and it is kept refrigerated and enjoyed sparingly. She showed me how to cook this and she claimed that I am the second person in the family who knows the recipe.
I did some reading and found out that most of the Penang versions are prepared without coconut milk. Our version is prepared with coconut milk and very rich, almost resembles very spicy and pungent curry dish. My auntie is a vegetarian, and she couldn’t shop for fish stomach (or perut ikan). So she omitted that particular core ingredient and substituted it with dried salted fish. I have never had pickled fish stomach before, and it is certainly not sold here. Again, very sorry for the perut ikan recipe, without the perut ikan (fish stomach).
The flavor of the dish only improves with time. The texture is soft and mushy, but you can actually taste each ingredient in every bite. The pungent smell of shrimp paste and shredded herbs are so beautiful. If you are wondering how the Chinese Straits cuisine taste like, this bowl of dish sums everything up pretty nicely. The dish is served with hot steamed rice.
The main herb ingredient is the betel leaves (or daun kadok) is not sold in the market. The betel leaves we have in our area is the narrower and longer type, also known as daun sirih. These particular leaves are round. My auntie has very keen eye, that when she is out on a tricycle riding around town, she takes notice of people’s front yard. She knows which houses grow the leaves. We went for betel leaves hunting a couple of weeks ago, snatching a bunch of them off people’s front gate and on the side walk. I decided that I am going to grow this on my front yard so she doesn’t have to pick them off people’s garden. I think it is now growing, but it would be a couple of months till I can harvest the leaves for cooking.
I can’t help but thinking how strange this is, with all the similarities of our Medan dishes with Penang, this is the one that we don’t have. I am so grateful to be able to learn this. The following step by step is done in panic, as there are so much ingredients that would go in there and so little time to do it. I have to do the washing, the cutting, the grinding, the shooting and the step-by-step shoots. I didn’t manage to get every single shot, but I will try to explain the steps that I missed.
What is that ugly melting but yet freezing bowl of ice cream there, you might wonder. I am on the verge of giving up taking shots of ice cream, but this is just too delicious to let pass. Chocolate sherbet is one of those ice cream that I make repeatedly. No one in the house actually share my love for bitter but sweet chocolate, so I am at bliss.
I think David Lebovitz is the most generous guy in the world. Very often I meet those who are so unwilling to share recipes, but he shares so generously on his site and his fabulous books.