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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kuih Makmur

My entry for BabeKL's Merdeka event this year, My Sweet Malaysia is a kuih raya. I thought the timing can't be better because we're entering the second week of Ramadhan when the bakers in us start making cookies for the big day.

Kuih Makmur is a must have in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) households during the festivities. Makmur means prosperity in Malay and the cookies are named so because in those days, ghee, the main ingredient for it is not that accessible to everyone and was very expensive. Serving this cookie therefore was considered a symbol of status.

This is one of my favourite cookies to make but would restrain myself to make it only during special occasions. It is also the first cookie I learnt to bake from my Mom. I remember her frying the flour in her big wok. I can recall the smell of frying flour in her kitchen until now. It is the mark of the beginning of Raya baking in my parent's household.

I love Makmur because it explodes in your mouth. The way to eat it is to place a ball in the middle of your tongue, close your mouth and wait for this gentle explosion and melting in your mouth. In the beginning you tongue is overwhelmed by all the different sensation then you get to taste the sweet sugar and the very fine texture of icing sugar - that is why it is very important to use only icing sugar to coat it. Then you get the rich nutty sensation of fried flour and ghee before you start to taste the peanut and raw sugar innards. My daughter tells her friends it is snow ball with a little treasure in it. Since all of her friends love peanuts and cookies - it is a very popular introduction in our little neighbourhood.

This year, I get very nostalgic as I taught my own daughter to bake it. After 2-3 attempts she got it - first roll a ball, then make a small dent, then shape it like a flower, make it deeper like a well, put in the peanut then squeeze it close, squeeze some more like making bergedil then roll it to make a perfect ball. I think she explains the process well, no?

There is no real recipe to make this but I will include a short list of ingredients and method. Take a plunge, trust your instinct and let your nose guide you... trust me, the reward is one of the tastiest thing you've ever had!

Kuih Makmur

450g flour
50g rice flour
a pinch of salt
1/2 - 1 cup of ghee
1 cup peanut - roasted and skinned
1TBSP sugar
1 cup (or more) fine icing sugar

1. Combine and sift the two flour together. Fry it in a big wok until you can smell frying flour. Don't burn the flour. It shouldn't change colour at all.
2. Place flour to cool in a wide surface, add a pinch of salt.
3. Add the ghee tablespoon by tablespoon as you need it. I didn't put a proper measurement because the quantity depends on your flour and the humidity. Mix the ghee into the flour and make a sandy dough. Knead the dough and stop adding ghee once you can form a ball from the dough. The dough shouldn't be oily, otherwise it will not melt and make a dense and heavy cookie - which is not what you want.
4. Leave the dough to rest for about 15-30 minutes.
5. Blend the roasted peanut with a tablespoon of sugar. The peanut shouldn't be too fine.
6. Preheat the oven to 160C.
7. Shape the cookies into small balls, adding the peanut mixture and then closing it and rolling it into a ball again. Place it on a baking tray.
8. Bake for about 20 minutes.
9. Leave to cool then roll it in a cup (or more) of icing sugar.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

restaurant de kas, amsterdam

The day was perfect - it was one of those rare days where not only the temperature was well over 30C, the sky was sooo blue with very few clouds hanging about and despite being stuck in a traffic jam just outside Utrecth, our reservation held and thus making the perfect start to our summer vacation.

It is perhaps because the history of De Kas is nothing short of a fairy tale. Gert Jan Hageman described himself as a man who is only happy when he sees the sky and after working with different restaurants, achieving various accolades including a Michelin star decided not just to produce Michelin quality dishes but shape the quality of his ingredients as well. He realised his dream in 2001, when along with some friends, he rescued (there is a princess in this fairy tale!) a glasshouse about to be demolished, smack in the middle of Amsterdam, at the Frankendael Park, by a lovely canal with its own wealth of wildlife and perfect for birdwatching! It's like you have wandered off to a secret haven, an oasis but also a place for adventure and magic.
The glasshouse is now what is called De Kas (glasshouse in Dutch) where all the magic happens. Hageman who no longer cooks for the restaurant, now plays head gardener at the farm just outside De Kas that produces almost all the vegetables that is used in the restaurant. It is a pity that he was on vacation when we were there for lunch because I would love to have a chat about gardening with him. Elle Eten said the restaurant is part medicine cabinet and the owner is a little bit of a shaman himself.

The ambiance in the restaurant is perfect with the clean lines of the architecture and interior by Piet Boon
and yet the very warm and casual hospitality. It is very easy to be precious and preachy when you are advocating something organic and locally produce as we have experienced in other restaurants before, but the team in De Kas manage to deliver the goods in an almost non-chalant chic.
And yes, you can walk staight into the kitchen and take pictures ;-) or arrange to be in the heart of the whole operation for an exclusive chef table dining experience.

When we arrived, we were briefed on the concept of the restaurant and were asked if there is anything we absolutely won't eat or try. There is only one fresh daily menu which always begin with three starters. Nabila was delighted to find them making a mini version of our menu just for her instead of getting the kroket and frietjes so common in other restaurants' kinder menu. They even prepared a special bowl of summer red fruits for Q, on the house. We didn't even ask what's on the menu that day and was prepared to be swept off our feet.

Our starters were made of an aubergine salad with aubergine caviar, with greens and tomatoes from the farm; melt in the mouth tartar with potato crackers and colourful salad and deep pan fried sardines on a bed of beans, zucchini and greens from the farm. We enjoyed each salad and they were a hit with the children. The sardine was so fresh, I can taste the sea! The vegetables were crunchy and so unbelievably sweet, I would think they were seconds from being lifted off the ground to grace our table. And you know what? They did... we saw the host, Xavier Giesen snipping some herbs as we were enjoying the nibbles with Moet just before the starters were served.

Our main was plaice pan fried on the bone, on a bed of pappardelle with roasted leek and fennel and Beurre blanc sauce. it was delicious with a hint of lemon. The fish was flaky and sweet and the pasta was cooked al dente. I have always loved fennel and in this dish, the aniseed flavour just enhances all the other tastes to come together.

The lunch was special because not only that we had the most amazing meal that is also organic, wholesome, healthy, fresh, sweet and totally delicious, the whole thing worked. The service was friendly, attentive with such a great understanding of great food, produce and good eating, you feel secure to be surprised and letting them make all the decisions for you.
Sometimes in going to places like this, you have to psyched yourself into feeling virtuous that you're doing something good that even when flavour is somewhat compensated, you should be smug with your decision. There is no chance at all of that happening here. Not only all the flavour, texture and tastes were present; you can taste the love from the way they are prepared and presented. The level of understanding of source and produce is so high that there were hardly any fuss made with the dishes. They were all presented as if that was the only way they ought to be cooked. It was as if there was no skills required from the chefs at all when actually you can only produce something so magical when not only you have the aptitude to recognise a good thing but also the instinct to stop when everything is just right.
We chose not to have dessert or cheese but had some coffee with madelines and cookies instead. We only realised that we have been there for almost four hours when we left for the Hermitage.

We left giddy, nourished and in dreamstate... knowing it won't take us too long to make another reservation to dine there again!
De Kas
Kamerlingh Onneslaan
31097 DE Amsterdam
T +31 (0)20 462 45 62
F +31 (0)20 462 45 63E

Saturday, August 15, 2009

planting parsley in a plastic bottle

I may not be able to provide a recipe, but what I can offer is a food related how-to that I learned from a container gardening workshop at my local farm, the Red Hook Community Farm.

A few blocks away from where I live is an urban farm. It was once a playground that fell into disuse but the folks at Added Value, a non-profit organization, saw potential in the dilapidated space and converted it into a farm. In addition to providing fresh produce to the surrounding community at their weekly farmer’s market, the farm also runs programs for local youth, training them in the business of running a farm and building a just food system.

It’s become a fad to “go green” but anyone who’s seriously considered what damage our every day habits do to the earth and the people that inhabit it, and tried to make lasting changes in their lifestyles knows how difficult it is. Eating locally and with the season, for example, can be fun. Not only do I get to acquaint myself with unfamiliar vegetables (purple beans!?), try out new recipes, eat freshly harvested food, but also revel in the fact that what I’m doing is good for the environment. And, yes I do feel a bit smug in that when I say I eat local food, I literally mean locally grown food.

Eating locally on the go. Wicked Delicate's truck farm spotted in the neighborhood.

But if I’m serious about this habit sticking, it would mean having to carve out time to plan ahead and cook meals when my schedule gets more hectic. Do I really want to come home after a stressful day at work to chop vegetables and cook when I can do takeout or microwave food from a box? It might mean making some sacrifices because buying locally—ironically—is more expensive. Do I want a new pair of shoes or do I want to eat more ethically and healthfully?

For it to be meaningful, going green is not “the new black,” as they say in fashion speak. It should never go out of season. It’s about unlearning old habits and letting new ways of doing take root and grow.

And with that gardening metaphor serving as a transition, onto the how-to!

One of the things that the farm has inspired me to do is to learn how to grow things. Growing your own vegetables is part of what it means to eat locally, but unless you’ve got experience doing it, it can be an incredibly daunting task. But it doesn’t always have to be, not if you start small. Small like you don't even have to buy a pot small. Using materials you can find around your house and seeds that can be easily obtained from a nursery, the following is how to plant parsley in a plastic bottle.

What you’ll need:

1 empty plastic bottle. Anything above 1 liter is fine

Potting mix to fill the bottle with.

Seeds to plant. I used parsley, but other herbs work great, as do flowers.

A wad of cotton.

  1. Cut the bottle cross-wise approximately 2/3 from the mouth. The idea is for the mouth to touch the base of the bottle and for it to fit snugly.
  2. Drill several holes around just below the neck of the bottle for water to drain.
  3. Insert a wad of cotton in the mouth of the bottle. The cotton serves as a wick that will allow water to soak up.
  4. Turn the bottle mouth side down. Fill with soil, leaving approximately half an inch from the opening.
  5. Using your pinky finger, dig a hole that’s as deep as your first knuckle. Plant seed and cover with soil. 3-4 seeds in a bottle should suffice.
  6. Fill the base with ¼ inch of water.
  7. Fit the soil-filled bottle into the base. The cotton wick should touch the water.

The great thing about using a plastic bottle is not only reducing waste but that the transparent container lets you see the roots system develop and literally watch your entire plant grow.
This is what’s called a sub-irrigated system, in which the plants are watered from below rather than above. Though not entirely fail proof, I am told that plants are less likely to die from overwatering in this system. Of course, make sure that the bottom container is always filled with water.

One week later.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

a problem of definition

It delights me to guest blog on Lekker, Lekker, Lekkerste while Lisa is away and, frankly, I’m still a little puzzled to have been bestowed this honor. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a cook nor do I have an especially discerning palate. I simply find pleasure in eating well and am generally curious about food, cooking and, well, most everything. Realizing I face an audience that likely knows a whole lot more about food than I do, I won’t pretend to have any profound gastronomical insights. Rather, I thought I’d devote my stint on this blog to sharing how living abroad has made me more aware of food, what I eat and how I think about it.

Living abroad, I am often asked what Malaysian food is like and it’s a question I find difficult to answer simply. Let me explain by charting a day’s itinerary of meals I could have on a visit home to Malaysia, realizing that there are easily hundreds of other variations I could come up with:

Breakfast: the bestest roti bom ever at Warung Mak Jah with a serving of nyonya kueh on the side (she also makes a mean meehoon goreng).

Lunch: Yong Tau Foo or banana leaf rice at Mathai’s.

Dinner: at Suzy’s Corner, where I could have anything from chicken tandoori with naan bread to Hainan style Western sizzling steak to a halal version of the Hokkien pork dish, Chi Kut Teh.

How does one begin to succinctly define all of the above under the category of “Malaysian food”? And to think I haven’t even ventured outside of Ampang…

Over the years, I’ve come up with the simplified if imperfect answer that Malaysian food consists of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines, as well as an intermixing of their flavors. Of course, this problem of definition, I think, arises when one has to acquaint someone wholly unfamiliar with anything Malaysian. It is not just a problem of making something known using a means other than itself i.e. using words to capture the sensation of taste and smell. It is the age-old problem of trying to capture something that continually changes. Malaysian cuisine, as I have tried to illustrate, is an inexhaustible subject, not because there’s so much of it, but because it is a living mutating practice. It is a problem, I am sure, that food lovers are happy to pursue even if it will always remain unresolved.

If only the vexed question of national identity can be solved through our appetites.



Friday, August 07, 2009

op vakantie

It is summer vacation here and we've been spending a lot of time away. I feel slightly guilty about not updating but I am leaving the blog in the good hands of Fiona, Lekker Lekker Lekkerste's first contributor and guest writer.
Fiona is a Malaysian who lives in New York loves to eat and likes to experiment with baking and cooking. She has been using a few recipes from this blog - some with success and some, well let's say she taught me to think twice about using the phrase *pasti jadi* (definitely work) in my recipes.
When I asked her to contribute, she said she'd love to but there won't be recipe (yet, I hope)... but there will be photos - she just got her first DSLR and I am giving her complete freedom with the subjects, themes and contents. I will be pop in from time to time but blogging will only resume the last week of August for me.
Please join me in welcoming Fiona and I hope you and you and you are having a great summer too!