A journey through Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam in search of the best cooking classes and culinary advice from chefs and grandmothers alike. In this three-part series she presents the top dishes, tips, and tricks she learned along the way.
After Thailand, for an adventure in curry pastes, here is the second stop: Penang, Malaysia, for a vegetarian variation on nasi lemak, the hot, sweet and salty national dish.
THE PLACE: GEORGE TOWN, PENANG, MALAYSIA
Nazlina Hussin's morning cooking class offers an insider's view of George Town, Unesco World Heritage Site. While touristy, hot, and fraying at the edges, the former British port town still proudly houses Penang's original Chinatown and Little India neighborhoods, as well as mosques and stellar halal Malay, Thai, and hakka restaurants. After breakfast of roti canai—crushed flaky flatbread—at a local café followed by a market tour in search of herbs, fish, vegetables and freshly ground coconut milk, the class heads to Hussin's home kitchen. There we prep and cook a Malaysian feast: spicy carrot, cauliflower and green bean achar pickle with toasted sesame seeds; comforting and rich Malay chicken curry; and a coconut-free Penang laksa with ground mackerel, rice noodles and fresh ginger buds; and spicy sambal with eggs and mint. We cook all this on two gas burners, and all before her daughter comes home from school for lunch.
THE CROWNING DISH: SPICY SAMBAL CHILI PASTE WITH EGGS AND MINT
The traditional Malay breakfast dish of nasi lemak uses the same incendiary sambal chili paste made with belacan (Malaysian fermented shrimp paste) and combines it with coconut rice, salted and dried anchovies, toasted peanuts, fresh cucumbers, hardboiled eggs, and a small serving of chicken curry. This vegetarian version with eggs and fresh mint focuses on the most important element: the hot-sour-salty-sweet balance of the sambal. If there’s leftover sambal, having its preparation out of the way leaves more time to make everything else for a complete nasi lemak on day two.
THE TECHNIQUE: TOAST AND BELACAN SHRIMP PAST INTO REMPAH
Whereas Thai and Vietnamese cuisine use fish sauce for umami (body and depth in flavour) and salt, Malay cooking uses belacan, a paste of fermented shrimp. Unlike other shrimp pastes, it’s solid at room temperature. In this dish, you have to cut it into slices and toast it in a dry skillet, like whole spices, to bring out its flavour before grinding it together with rempah, a ground mix of aromatic herbs and spices. In this sambal the rempah includes garlic, ginger, lemongrass, onions, candlenut (or macadamia nut), belacan, and a dry chili paste called cili boh. Before adding the balacan, first chop the other ingredients finely and then pound them together in a large mortar and pestle. Don’t use a blender or food processor or you’ll lose the desired texture of the rempah paste. Yes it’s work, but so is chocolate soufflé. And what’s life without chocolate soufflé?
- You need to shallow-fry the combined pastes in enough oil so that the oil separates from the paste as it cooks. This is how you know the paste is sufficiently cooked before moving on to the next steps of adding the tamarind juice and palm sugar and reducing the paste to a thick, oily sauce. If you undercook the paste it will taste raw.
- If using a flat-bottomed pan instead of a wok you’ll need more oil to prevent the paste from sticking.
- Be patient. The final paste has to reduce to the point where it’s thick, but at a low enough temperature so that it doesn’t burn. This requires near constant, gentle stirring.
- Be light on the salt. As the paste reduces, the flavors intensify. Too much salt while reducing becomes far too much salt once fully reduced.
- If the sambal does require added salt and you don’t want more fish flavor from belacan shrimp paste, add salt instead.
Hussin says that you can substitute the eggs with any kind of deep-fried meat or fish. Or go all-out and add a chicken curry, dried anchovies, toasted or deep-fried skin-on peanuts, sliced cucumbers and coconut rice for nasi lemak. Sambal makes an intense barbecue sauce or addition to pasta sauce. The use of fermented belacan is similar to the Italian love of anchovies preserved in oil and bottarga shavings (cured fish roe). Each adds umami—depth of flavor. Though the fermentation adds a certain love-it-or-hate-it funk, sambal pasta arrabiata or sambal pulled pork would be the best kind of fusion.
THE SHOPPING ADVICE
If belacan isn’t available, use an unseasoned, liquid fermented shrimp paste instead. The most common are Thai and Vietnamese. Candlenuts can be substituted with macadamia nuts or cashew nuts.