Saturday, April 4, 2009

God of Cookery

Malay women treat their recipes as their most valuable secrets. They get approval, recognition and sometimes money from these things.

As an eternal student, I have had the pleasure of observing how my mother cooks.

She is an expert in all the basic cooking styles. There's hardly any Malaysian dish she can't cook.

Her style is different than my father's who cooks with a scientific, measured approach. She cooks as she pleases and her mood influences the ingredients and the subsequent taste of the dish.

I have learned a lot, but am too lazy to cook for myself.

I can do a decent curry, or masak merah, because it's all about throwing things together and turning up the heat.

My version of the curry has an imperfection, though. SInce I couldn't be bothered to stir it all the time, tiny little soft granules would appear. And I use fresh milk instead of freshly-pressed coconut milk.

There are other tips and tricks I have learned.

My mother is a master at baking cookies. Not the bland chocolate chips, but a whole range of stuff. And there are lots of tricks for these things.

For example, in making Biskut Jakarta - basically small coconut tarts - the dough has to taste different and you can't use butter. Normal people use margarine, which makes it taste cheap and oily. There is another secret ingredient that can make it have a salty tang without being too oily.

Biskut Arab or Biskut Makmur uses ghee. The right amount of ghee will create the distinct flavour. Too little or too much, and it sucks.

My mother's most complicated recipe is Puding Raja. It has two components - a kind of fruit pudding and a type of roti jala called Jala Emas using only the yolk of duck eggs, and other things.

There are ways to make a bread rise, without using too much yeast that could leave the bread dry and bitter.

Tempeh has to be stirred constantly, or it won't cook properly.

Cutting Biskut Dam is least effective using a knife. There is a way to cut it to leave these little texture marks that ensure it's crispier than normal.

I love Malaysian dishes, and have had the chance to observe Southern style cooking, and Eastern-style. Though truth be told, I would often change Eastern-style because it's too fucking sweet. I do not like Kelantanese cooking because they use too much sugar and oil.

When cooking chicken rice, my family would turn to the Chinese side of the family. I also know how to make emperor chicken, though one of these days, I'd love to try making General Tso's Chicken.

My family, though, usually cooks the chicken twice. Once by steaming it, and the second time by lightly pan-frying it. This ensures a very tasty outer layer and soft, moist inner flesh.

While baking a whole chicken, you can use two temperatures for two different heating sessions. That's the secret of having crisp skin and soft flesh.

While making lemang, the type of bamboo plays a part and you use daun lerek instead of banana leaves. Banana leaves have a slight influence on the taste, which is a no-no.

To ensure really good lemang, you have to boil the glutinous rice in the bamboos for six hours first before putting it to the fire. This ensures the right thickness of crust and a singed flavour while making most of the lemang soft and chewy.

My mother has also mastered traditional kuihs like Kuih Bakar and Kuih Akak. Cara berlauk, temosa raja, karipap pusing, tepung bunga and kuih koci.

I love any kuih that uses glutinous rice flour. Like tepung bunga and kuih koci. When used properly, the flour is the basis for the soft, mochi texture.

Any idiot can do kuih koci (the counterpart to the Japanese mochi), but the most important part is the glazing. Without it, the kuih sticks annoyingly to the banana leaves.

The nasi lemak I often find in KL is not up to par. Real nasi lemak, you have to cook it with coconut milk AND pandan leaves. In KL, in order to save costs, they simply put pandan leaves in. That's it.

If I have the time and space, I think I'm going to start baking bread, as that is one thing my mother has failed to do.

The best bread I have ever had in my life was made by this old Chinese dude in Sungai Lembing. He used an old English brick oven. As dinner breads are an English specialty, brick or earth ovens are the best in making really good white bread.

The best white bread is soft and fluffy - due to an excellent leavening process and top-quality yeast - but does not contain too much of the microbes so as to ruin the taste.

Unfortunately, the old dude is dead. And his bread is lost forever.

Later in life, if I do become a millionaire, I am going to construct an earth oven, so I can bake bread. I will try out petalite and feldspar or whatever, to see which kind provides the best heat for making the best bread.

Am also thinking of buying a steamer so I can make steamed bread. And steamed chicken. And vegetables. And potatoes.