Ink on my Apron: Malaysian Seafood Curry
Venturing into the kitchen to try your hand at global cuisine needn’t necessarily be inaccessible, nor does it have to burn a hole in your pocket.
If there’s one misconception I constantly endeavour to alter as a passionate home cook, it is to change the way people feel about world cooking on a modest budget. Venturing into the kitchen to try your hand at global cuisine needn’t necessarily be inaccessible, nor does it have to burn a hole in your pocket. What one must be willing to demonstrate, however, is a certain degree of resourcefulness and an eagerness to improvise. It’s about finding flavours you love and working out ways to replicate them with store cupboard ingredients and regional seasonal produce that is, quite literally, grown in your backyard.
The way I like to navigate my way around what may initially seem like the mind-boggling maze that is a newly-discovered cuisine is to taste and do lots of it. Stage two is when I allow my competitive sniffer-dog instincts to fully kick in as I sit back and try to identify what similarities the cuisine in question bears with flavours closer to home and more specifically, with the way I cook. My motivations aren’t always noble or the same – sometimes it’s a competitive urge that drives me to try and outdo something I’ve tasted at a restaurant and on occasion, it’s a more self-indulgent outlet for me to take a journey without actually travelling or the added pressure of knowing what the real deal tastes like.
While recently flipping through renowned London-based Malaysian chef and restaurateur Norman Musa’s cookbook Amazing Malaysian, I stumbled across the recipe for a seafood curry called Kari MakananLaut that definitely looked like it packed a punch. With a ground coriander, cumin, and fennel paste as a rich aromatic spice base to give the curry that inimitable fragrant depth and the heavy-handed use of curry leaves and red chillies soaked in boiling water, I couldn’t help but draw the obvious parallels to Malayali cooking. The best part, without a doubt, was that somewhat divisive element (when it comes to my family) of coconut milk. When given a choice, I’d ladle it into everything I possibly can; certain members - who shall not be named - will wrinkle their noses in distaste whenever the coconut version of our Maapilah chicken stew makes a cameo at our dinner table.
Versatility or being able to pick ingredients beyond a specific one-time use is also something you need to become adept at when it comes to world cooking. Try to think of ways to stretch things beyond a single elaborate recipe. Most Indian pantry staples make an appearance in several global cuisines. Ground cumin and coriander are used in Lebanese cooking; coconut milk in South East Asian food; ginger-garlic pastes are reached for as readily in Pakistani and Sri Lankan cooking, and chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils in many Middle Eastern cuisines.
So the next time you find yourself confronted with the same old, do some homework and change things up. You might pleasantly surprise yourself when you discover how the sole addition of one unique ingredient – such as dry-roasted shrimp paste as in the case of this Malyasian curry – to a bunch of your regular suspects leaves you completely transformed.
Norman Musa’s Aromatic Seafood Curry (Kari MakananLaut)
• 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 star anise
• 5cm cinnamon stick
• 2 cloves
• 1 sprig of curry leaves (or 2 bay leaves)
• 4 raw king prawns – shells and heads on
• 150g mussels, in their shells
• 100-150g squid tubes, scored
• 50ml coconut milk
• ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
• ½ tablespoon lime juice
For the paste:
• 2 shallots
• 3 cloves of garlic
• 2.5 cm fresh turmeric (or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric)
• 2.5cm ginger
• 5 dried chillies, soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes
• ¾ teaspoon shrimp paste, dry toasted
For the spice mix:
• 1 tablespoons coriander seeds
• 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1) Blitz the paste ingredients together with a little water if necessary, in a food processor or using a hand blender, then transfer to a bowl. Add the ground spices and mix thoroughly
2) In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and cook the star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and curry leaves, until fragrant. Add the paste mix and cook for 2 minutes. Now add the prawns, mussels (discarding any that are open and do not close when tapped) and squid, along with 150ml water. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the prawns turn pink, the mussels open and the squid curls up. Discard any mussels that have not opened.
3) Add the coconut milk and salt, give it all a good stir and cook for a further minute. Finally add the lime juice, give it another stir and turn the heat off. Transfer to a serving dish and serve straight away.
*Note – I only used prawns as I didn’t have any other seafood on hand and I opted for curry leaves over bay leaves.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.