Whenever I travel to a new country, I make a point to visit at least one grocery store while I’m there. They’re like living museums; collections of objects that comprise and nourish a culture. I generally find them more interesting and exciting than the arts and antiquities found in actual museums, which belong to distant epochs and echelons, and may be fascinating in some abstract sense, but don’t give me any immediate understanding of the people around me. Plus, in grocery stores you can buy, cook, and eat the exhibits – how awesome is that?
One of the great things about living in London is that this experience is just a quick train ride away. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s famous words, when you’re tired of London, you’re tired of food, for there seems to be no limit to the sheer variety of food and food shops to be found here. But I’ve done my time walking the beaten paths down the aisles of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, Scandinavian, and Polish supermarkets. It was time for something new, something different: Malaysian food.
Unfortunately there is no dedicated Malaysian grocer in London, but Five Crops in Charlton is the next best thing. An emporium of east and southeast Asian ingredients, they have a large section of Malaysian larder staples. I was charitably shown around by Ben, a veteran manager who clearly knew the fundamentals of Malaysian cooking. I had a shopping list of things I thought I’d need to make some killer Malaysian food of my own, but for the most part I just followed his expert advice. The first items into my basket were:
– kicap lemak manis: thick, sweet soy sauce
– kicap lemak masin: light, salty soy sauce
– sambal: a paste made from chilli, onions, garlic, fish, prawns, and tamarind
– belacan: a crumbly brick of dried, salted shrimp
Together, these four ingredients will form the foundation to a wide variety of Malaysian dishes; in concert they add sweetness, saltiness, heat, and savoury depth, and their applications go beyond traditional Malaysian preparations. I am particularly enamoured with sambal and belacan, the former for its intensity and complex sweet, sour, and spicy character and the latter for its pungent, fishy aroma and concentrated flavour. You only need a teaspoonful to season an entire pan full of food, and it works wonders for stocks in need of a little extra something. I think of it, in a way, as the prawn equivalent of Bovril (though I’m not sure how it would taste stirred into hot milk).
I had my foundation. Now it was time to start building. I stocked up on both white jasmine rice and black glutinous rice, as these provide the bulk of so many Malaysian dishes, both savoury and sweet. I got a packet of ikan bilis, adorable little dried fish that provide flavour and crunch to the national rice dish, nasi lemak. I also bought Malaysian sweet chilli paste, which is smoother and tangier than the versions from nearby countries, as well as tamarind paste. Preparing fresh tamarind is an arduous process, Ben explained, involving much washing, boiling, peeling, grinding, and straining, so the pre-made paste is what most people keep in their homes. It has a sourness unlike citrus or vinegar, somewhat like green apples but richer, with a slight brown sugar-like sweetness to it. And because it’s a paste and not a liquid, it can help thicken sauces and glazes. Another awesome ingredient to have on hand, even if you’re not making Malaysian food.
Finally I filled my basket with various aromats: curry powders for fish and meat, a packet of spices used in the Malaysian pork hotpot bak kut teh, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and ginger. I was well on my way to making my own terrifically fresh and delicious Malaysian meals.
But there was one last thing. In my travels around southeast Asia I encountered one particularly controversial item, known to cause many first-time tasters to retch, but reverently dubbed “the king of fruits” by its many dedicated fans. Banned on Malaysian public transport for its unusual (okay, nauseating) smell but also adored for its rich, creamy flesh and complex flavour, durian is perhaps one of the weirdest foods on earth. When I first tried it five years ago, I didn’t like it. But knowing how much others do like it, I couldn’t escape from the thought that the problem is not with durian, it’s with me and my own tastes. I was determined to make a durian dish that wouldn’t disguise its flavour but harness it and perfume it and make it taste delicious to people who profess to hate it, like me.
At Five Crops they had a stack of big, beautiful durians, and Ben showed me how to choose one. (And how to handle them – their spikes can draw blood!) By pinching two adjacent spikes together, you can gauge a durian’s ripeness – no give and it is not quite ripe; if they bend slightly towards each other, ripe; and if you can touch their tips together, very ripe, and very stinky! Another way to test ripeness is to fiddle with the stem; if it’s flexible at the base, the durian is ready. I chose a very ripe one, and Ben then showed me how to open it. Holding it with gloves or a thick tea towel, find the natural seams where the spikes come together. They look like little valleys in mountainous terrain. Cut through the seams with a sharp knife, and pull the durian apart.
So there I had it. My very own durian, and a boxful of amazing new ingredients to play and experiment with. I could hardly wait to get home, get tasting, and get cooking – and that’s exactly what I did.
Visit Malaysia Kitchen for more info!