Malaysian dish is student's 'breakfast of champions'

Posted: November 11, 2010

Most college students complain about the cafeteria food. Just as some students crave their grandma's cooking, international students also long for a taste of home. For me, that means a taste of Malaysia, and that's not so easy to find in Lawrenceville, N.J., where I attend Rider University.

Luckily, cooking is a skill that has helped me to survive four years of studying abroad. I'd say I've come close to re-creating some of my favorite dishes from home.

I live in a dorm with a shared kitchenette, which is put to good use by the Rider International Student Association (RISA). Students share culinary delights by preparing a traditional spread for RISA theme nights every other Wednesday. It is by far the club's most popular event, often drawing twice as many members for the dinners.

But it isn't just about the food. The guest chefs explain the cultural significance of the dishes, and a little information about their country. Then the wolves jump right in.

For my turn, I made Nasi Lemak With Beef Rendang, a spicy meat dish served with jasmine rice soaked and cooked in coconut milk, Malaysia's number-one breakfast.

And yes, Americans find it odd that we would eat this for breakfast. But when I go to the college cafeteria for breakfast, I see the eggs, greasy bacon, hash browns, bagels, and waffles. If I want to clog my arteries and indulge in a calorie-laden breakfast, I would rather opt for Malaysia's national breakfast.

Nasi Lemak is a versatile dish that works for any meal, including late-night snacking, but it is my version of the breakfast of champions.

The direct translation for Nasi Lemak is "fatty rice." With a name like that, you know it is not an everyday breakfast choice. Probably the most familiar Nasi memory comes from my high school, Sri Kuala Lumpur Secondary School in Subang Jaya, Malaysia. The school cafeteria offered a small serving, wrapped in banana leaf, for one ringgit (approximately 33 cents) 11/2 ringgit (50 cents) if you wanted chicken. The rice was tightly packed with a small piece of chicken, a slice of egg, and sambal, a spicy-sweet chili sauce.

Looking back, it was not the very best Nasi, but it did hold a lot of fond memories. That is why I think every Nasi eating experience is unique.

My mom didn't make it often at home, but when she did, it meant a big party was on the way.

More often, we would order it at a restaurant or as take-out. Nasi Lemak is sold at almost any if not every mamak (a Tamil Muslim food establishment) or hawker stall or roadside eatery in Malaysia. A typical serving consists of coconut rice, deep-fried anchovies, a few slices of cucumber, half a hard-boiled egg, sambal, peanuts, and a choice of meat, rendang, or fried chicken. For takeout, the Nasi Lemak is usually wrapped in a banana leaf, with a layer of newspaper wrapping on the outside. The breakfast is accompanied with "teh tarik," a local black tea with condensed milk, and a frothy top that is created by pouring the tea back and forth between two vessels from a height.

When I had a craving for some good Nasi here, and the closest Malaysian restaurant was at least a 20-minute drive away, I had no choice but to learn to make the dish myself.

I bought most of my spices from an Asian food market, although cumin, fennel seeds, and lemongrass can be found at almost any grocery store.

As long as you have the jasmine rice soaked and cooked in coconut milk, a serving of meat (spicy or not), and the sambal, you're ready to go. Some say that the sambal makes the Nasi Lemak. If the sambal doesn't have the right kick, then your whole effort is wasted. I think if the sambal is a tinge sweeter than the meat, that's good enough for me.

Rendang is normally made with beef, sometimes with other types of meats or vegetables. I like my rendang with a little sauce to drizzle onto my rice. You could also simmer the rendang longer to dry the liquids. The great thing about dry rendang is that the slow cooking allows the meat to absorb all the spices, making it tender and flavorful.

You don't necessarily need all the sides to enjoy the dish, which can be made to your personal taste. I add sugar to the rendang to control the level of spiciness; more sugar, less burn. Making this dish at home guarantees freshness, and you get to enjoy the lovely fragrance of the coconut-soaked jasmine rice. Plus, it sure beats having to pay to eat out.

Another dish satisfying my craving for foods from home is a cold dessert of honeydew melon and sago. It is a Cantonese dessert in a sweet soup or syrup, normally made with honeydew melon puree, coconut milk, and evaporated or sweetened milk. Sago are small, opaque starch pearls that have a soft and spongy texture, similar to tapioca pearls, and little or no taste.

This dessert is categorized as tong sui, a Cantonese term for sweet, hot or cold soups and custard desserts. With my sweet tooth and my love for tapioca and sago for their texture, this is the perfect dessert for me. My first attempt came out better than I expected, and with little effort and time spent.

If you're unable to find sago, there are many substitutes, such as glutinous rice balls, tapioca pearls, or even other fruits.

In Malaysia, this is also a dine-out dish, normally served in restaurants or hotels at the end of the meal. There are some truck vendors that are dedicated to these desserts. These trucks park by the roadside at an easy-to-spot location near other hawker stalls and restaurants. I've seen long queues of people at these trucks, their arms folded, the line almost snaking onto the roads.

If you're interesting in sampling Malaysian delicacies, the spicy and savory rice dish, the Nasi Lemak and a sweet, chilled dessert (see accompanying recipes) are a great way to start.

The best part about making your own meal at home is that you're in your comfort zone. You can make it as spicy and as often as you want.


Nasi Lemak With Beef Rendang

Makes 3 to 4 servings

11/4 pounds of stewing beef

Salt, about 1 teaspoon or so

1 tablespoon red chili

   powder

1 cinnamon stick (small)

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

2 tablespoons cumin

1 stalk lemongrass, minced

2 tablespoons oil

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 red onion, minced

3 red chilies, chopped

3 thin slices ginger

1 cup coconut cream

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon sugar, to taste

1. Cut beef into bite-sized cubes and season with some salt.

2. Measure out spices into a bowl: the chili powder, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, fennel seed, and cumin.

3. To prepare the lemongrass, chop 2 inches off the top and bottom, and remove the hard outer layer. Use the yellow-white inner part of the lemongrass for cooking.

4. Preheat the pan and add oil. Saute the lemongrass, garlic, onion, chilies, and ginger until onions turn soft and light brown. Stir in the spices and cook for about five minutes. Then add the beef.

5. Brown the beef, then add the coconut cream and water. Cook over low heat for about 60 to 90 minutes, or until tender. Add sugar to lighten the spicy flavor.

Per serving (based on 4): 628 calories, 52 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 38 grams fat, 116 milligrams cholesterol, 131 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.


Sambal

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1/2 cup anchovies

1/4 ounce tamarind

1 cup hot water

1 red onion, sliced thinly

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 red chilies, minced

2 teaspoons turmeric

   powder

1 tablespoon red chili

   powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup raw peanuts

1. Wash anchovies and remove heads. Deep-fry until golden and crisp. Set half aside.

2. Soak the tamarind in hot water for about 10-15 minutes. Strain tamarind juice into a container.

3. Fry onion, garlic, shallots, and lemongrass until onions are soft and brown. Add the spices and sugar and fry. Add the tamarind juice and half portion of fried anchovies and fry for another 2 minutes.

4. Fry or roast peanuts in oil until golden brown, and use as garnish along with remaining anchovies.

Per serving (based on 6): 142 calories, 9 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Coconut Rice

Makes 3 to 4 servings

2 cups raw rice

1 cup coconut cream

2 cups water

1. Mix together rice, coconut cream, and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed.

3. Let rice rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Per serving (based on 4): 549 calories, 9 grams protein, 81 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 21 grams fat, no cholesterol, 3 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Honeydew Melon Sago

Makes 4 to 6 servings

5 cups water

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup evaporated milk

1 cup sago (see note)

1. Boil water, sugar, and evaporated milk until sugar has melted. Let cool.

2. Boil a new pot of water. Pour the sago into a strainer and put the strainer into the boiling water (covering the sago with the boiling water); leave it there until the sago is translucent. Keep stirring with chopsticks or a fork to prevent sago from sticking.

3. Transfer the strainer to a pot of cold water and then back to the boiling water for 5 more minutes. Run the sago through cold water again.

4. Puree half of the honeydew, and slice the other half into cubes.

5. Add sago and honeydew to the syrup and chill.

Note: Sago is available at Asian food markets.

Per serving (based on 6): 130 calories, 3 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 66 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Rachel Gouk at 215-854-2244 or rgouk@phillynews.com.

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