Having lived Down Under for two decades I got exposed to just about every Asian cuisine you care to mention. But first a little background, taken from Things Asian, a site I visit regularly for its sheer breadth of information on, you guessed it, all things Asian.
The first impression a visitor gets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, is its aura of multi-racial exotic cultures and architectural splendour. The city is saturated with Moorish arches and exquisite minarets, seemingly out of the Arabian Nights. Amid this oriental atmosphere, the friendly and hospitable Malaysian Muslims, Chinese Buddhists, Indian Hindus and tribal peoples from Sarawak and Sabah – Malaysia’s eastern provinces – work, play and dine together. In the country’s cultural melting pot, each of these ethnic groups have left their way of life and culinary traditions.
From time immemorial Malaysia, a tropical lush-green land, has been a trading center where the peoples of southeast Asia, the Indian sub-continent, the Arab world and, later, those from Europe settled or met to trade. All who came left traces of their foods. Borrowing and adapting from each other’s cooking techniques and ingredients, they developed a rich and spicy Malaysian kitchen.
A twin of the Indonesian, which has a similar history, Malaysian cuisine consists of many exotic and tasty dishes – a tribute to the conglomeration of people who developed a colouful, healthy and satisfying cuisine. Today, a culinary journey through that East Asian land is a delight to the senses – an experience rarely matched in the world of dining.
When I was young & newly married I didn’t have much money; as a recent arrival in Sydney, Australia, circa 1969, I got into the habit of meeting my wife once a week for lunch near her office, where she was the personal assistant of one of the up and coming creative advertising guru. The nearest (and reasonably priced) place was a no nonsense Malaysian eatery. And thus began my love affair with this wonderful Asian country. Being a creature of habit I stuck to the same two dishes for the first year: Prawn Laksa and Char Koay Teow and I have learned over the years how to cook these two to perfection, well, for my taste anyway.
What can I say about Prawn Laksa that hasn’t already been rhapsodized endlessly about? First it is simple and if you don’t like prawns (or shrimps, as you call them) you can substitute it with chicken or for vegetarians, tofu or tempeh, or both. It is easy to prepare and can be done in a matter of minutes. First make your Laksa paste and you’re away.
This is for 4 to 6 persons:
1/2 tbsp peanut oil; 400ml coconut milk; the juice of 1 fresh lime; 500ml (1 pint) chicken stock (vegetable stock for vegetarians and vegans); a big pinch of brown sugar; 1/2 tbsp Fish Sauce; 300gr yellow wheat noodles (or egg noodles); 500gr (a little over a pound) uncooked (and de-veined prawns, frozen ok); 100gr bean sprouts; a generous handful of coriander (cilentro to you) leaves and salt to taste. I usually have a small amount of chili flakes on hand.
For the Laksa paste: 1 tsp ground coriander; 1 tsp ground cumin; 1 tsp ground turmeric; 1/2 chopped red onion; 1 cup of coconut milk; 1/2 tbsp fresh ginger finely minced; 4 garlic cloves, crushed; 2 sticks of lemon grass finely chopped; 2 red chilies, seeded (unless you like it hot) and least but not last 4 tbsp of shrimp paste (roughly 1 tbsp per person is what I do) Start your blender and add the above ingredients one by one until you have a smooth paste.
Have your wok ready, on a high flame, and pour a little peanut oil, then add the paste, cook it briskly for half a minute, add the stock, brown sugar, coconut milk, fish sauce, lime juice and bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer for a further 10 minutes. In the meantime bring to boil water in a pot for your noodles, cook for 2 minutes, drain and set aside.
Add the prawns/shrimps into the soup, stir until cooked (shouldn’t take more than 1 minute), add the cilentro leaves, the bean sprouts then the noodles, give it a good stir, add salt if desired and more chili flakes if you want it really spicy, and serve into bowls.
Now for my other favorite, the Char Koay Teow, a well known Malaysian dish using flat pasta, a bit like pappardelle. This dish, btw, is equally good cold and great as hangover food. It tastes great if you can find cockles, as an added bonus.
For 4 to 6 persons:
4 eggs; 4 garlic cloves, crushed; 2 tbsp of grape seed oil (although I prefer using peanut oil); 1 packet (500 gr) of flat rice noodles (Koay Teow); 200 gr of bean sprouts, 200 gr of crab meat (you can substitute this with either shrimp or cooked and diced pork meat); 4 Chinese sausages, cut into little bits; 2 tbsp soy sauce; 1 tin of cockles (fresh would be better but that’s hard to come by); 1 small bunch of chives; 2 tbsp brown sugar and next is the chili sauce. You can buy it already prepared but it’s fun and more economic to make your own.
Chili Sauce (use the blender):
2 tbsp shrimp paste; 4 chilies, de-seeded, 1 tbsp brown sugar; 4 peeled garlic cloves; a pinch of black pepper; a pinch of ground coriander and
1 1/2 cup of water (12 fluid ounces)
Prepare the noodles in hot water according to packet instructions and set aside.
In a wok, over a high flame, pour a little peanut oil, or grape seed. Add the shrimp or crab meat, the garlic, then the noodles, stir for a minute, add the sausages, then the cockles, pour some of the chili sauce, keep stirring, make a well in the center of the wok, add the broken eggs and stir to scramble them, add more chili sauce, then the chives, the sugar, the soy sauce, and finally the bean sprouts, Stir for a few seconds and you should be done. Note that there are quite a few versions of that dish, some add Bok Choy to it, some add mangetouts even peas. Obviously for vegetarians and vegans you omit the meat(s) and use tofu or tempeh.
By the way, here is a site where you can convert cups into table spoons and liters into fluid ounces et cetera.