Feast for the senses
Phillip Reay is a good friend with whom I have experienced many fine culinary moments, a number of them in the Pacific.
One of the most memorable was a curry meal in a small upstairs restaurant in Suva. It was there I discovered how easily a person can sweat on the top lip when encountering a little too much chilli, more than his delicate constitution could cope with.
Delicate constitution is hardly accurate, really, as Phillip is one of the very few people I know who has eaten the entire animal (take your pick) and is proud to tell the story.
A total adventurer when it comes to food, he is prepared to try anything once.
He recently told a Chinese restaurateur in Wellington: "Bring me the things that no Westerner is prepared to try." His ensuing meal of rooster comb and feet did little to stimulate the desire for more.
Phillip has also cooked me the best Thai food I have ever eaten and I think he has a particular talent and feel for creating an Asian table.
He and wife Jane and daughter Evie have just returned from a holiday in Malaysia and I grilled him for details of his culinary exploration and asked him to create a Malaysian table to share, that would not involve the use of the fifth quarter of the animal carcass.
While there, he did of course try fish intestines in some intestinal porridge. I was happy for him not to share that recipe with me.
Phillip says that the thing he really likes about Asian food in general and Malay in particular is the combination of tastes and textures.
The array of tastes put together in one meal is very different to the European idea of a main dish with accompaniments.
The Chinese, for example, have the oldest cuisine in the world and like many cuisines, a lot of dishes are born out of poverty and the need to eat everything available to survive.
Flavours and food items are combined to work on all levels of the senses with some food items consumed principally for health benefits - ginger and ginseng being two of those.
What makes Malay food so interesting is the fusion of Indian, Malay and Chinese - Nyonya, to be precise. These were early Chinese settlers who came to the Malay Peninsula in the 18th and 19th century. This fusion produce a unique cuisine.
Phillip loves the balance of the food. Cool dishes complimenting hot dishes, smooth and rough textures as counterpoints. No one dish overpowering another, and not outrageously spicy. In Malaysia, nasi kandar is such a meal and each village will have at least two restaurants that serve it. Rice is accompanied by up to 20 dishes (the number often depending on the wealth of the host), each dish a different taste explosion with the rice as palate cleanser and counterpoint to the richly flavoured food that could be vegetable, meat or fish and is generally all three.
Fish is common but nowhere near our standard of quality and variety, says Phillip.
Dried fish is ubiquitous and appears in many dishes.
An explosion to the senses can be experienced by visiting a market specialising in dried fish.
Phillip and Jane visited a place as big as a supermarket with every dried fish you could imagine. In plus 30 degrees heat, the smell was intense and unforgettable.
Like so many countries in the world with hot climates and little refrigeration, food is consumed on the day it is picked or killed, or it must be dried.
You must suspend your Western ideas of food and service and relish the difference, the tastes and the smells.
Malay people love the texture in food and it is very important that there is a good mouth feel to a dish.
The following Malay table, nasi lemak, exemplifies this variety and texture. It is very common and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
It consists of an array of tastes that make a wonderful and quite unusual combination. Phillip has combined it with a dry meat curry, rendang, that is cooked for hours until all the liquid has evaporated and the meat caramelises.
Nasi lemak has as its centrepiece coconut rice served with an anchovy sambal, ikan bilis, roasted peanuts, dried fish, hard-boiled egg and sliced cucumber.
You will need to purchase some items from an Asian market.
The one in Hardy St in Nelson has these supplies: pandan leaves for the rice, dried anchovies, dried shrimp paste (belacan), tamarind paste, Asian hot chillis, curry leaves, lemon grass.
DRY FRIED BEEF CURRY Serves 8
Phillip goes to the butcher and asks for the toughest meat. He says this is very important as you don't want the meat to fall apart in the long, slow cooking. "Don't tart it up," he says. Leave the fat on and cut into thick pieces.
1.5kg of chuck steak or blade steak
2 medium onions
6 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp chopped fresh ginger
6 fresh red chillis, seeded
2 cups thick coconut milk
1 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric
3 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp ground coriander
6 curry leaves
1 stick of fresh lemon grass or 3 strips thinly peeled lemon rind
½ cup tamarind (use the method described below to extract the tamarind)
2 tsp sugar
Cut beef into chunks. Put the onion, garlic, ginger and chillies into a blender with cup of coconut milk. Cover and blend until smooth.
Pour into a large saucepan and add the rest of the coconut milk and all the ingredients except for the tamarind and sugar. Mix well and then add the meat. Bring the mixture to the boil then reduce heat to moderate.
Add tamarind liquid and cook uncovered until thickened, stirring occasionally. Turn heat to low and cook about 2.5 hours until the sauce has almost evaporated, stirring to make sure the mixture does not stick to the pot.
When the oil separates from the sauce, add the sugar and stir constantly, allowing the meat to fry and darken. The more you fry the darker and dryer the dish will become.
KAN BILIS (Dried anchovy sambal) "A grown up dish," says Phillip.
1 cup dried anchovies
10 dried hot red chillies
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp dried shrimp paste
A ping pong ball of tamarind paste
1 cup water
3-5 Tbsp peanut oil
1 Tbsp sugar
Salt to taste
Wash the anchovies and fry until golden brown in a little peanut oil. Keep some aside for sprinkling over the finished dish.
Pound together in a mortar and pestle: the chillis with seeds removed, the shallots, garlic and shrimp paste.
Soak the tamarind in the water for about 20 minutes. Keep on squeezing the tamarind into the water. Strain the mixture and keep the liquid.
Fry the paste in more of the oil , add the anchovies and the tamarind extract. Simmer slowly until the sauce is thickened. Add sugar and salt if desired.
COCONUT RICE Serves 8
2 cups rice
3 Tbsp peanut oil
3 pandan leaves
2 cups coconut cream
2 cups water
Saute the rice in the oil for a couple of minutes then add the pandan leaves tied together, water and coconut cream. Bring to the boil. Turn the heat to very low and cover with a tea towel and then a tight lid. Cook until the liquid has evaporated. Turn off the heat and let the rice sit for at least 15 minutes.
Hard boil enough eggs for ½ for each person. Slice a cucumber and dry roast some peanuts. Arrange the meat and rice on the plate with the other ingredients.