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Bitter…

It seems to be getting more and more popular these days – bihun, hung ngang or kway teow served in bitter gourd soup…and I seem to see it being served at a number of stalls all over town now. Usually, the vegetable is cooked in soup with minced meat but the other day, I decided to use the fish cakes that my missus made sometime ago. After all, they do sell bitter gourd stuffed with fish paste in the middle at those yong tofu places and I do enjoy that.

First, I boiled three cloves of garlic and two slices of ginger in some water…

Step 1

You may want to fry them in a bit of oil first for a bit of extra fragrance but I did not fancy the extra oil used. For one thing, my missus had deep-fried the fish cakes so there would be some oil from there already.

I let it simmer for a while before adding the fish cakes, thinly sliced…

Step 2

…and once done, you may wish to add some salt and msg or some fish sauce, according to taste but I just threw in half an ikan bilis (dried anchovies) stock cube and a sprinkling of ground pepper. As you can see, there were a lot of air holes in the fish cake – probably my missus did not slam it enough in the making, I wouldn’t know, but it did not really matter as it would taste the same, just as good, and it was for our own home consumption.

Then I put in the bitter gourd, thinly sliced…

Step 3

…but just the amount that I needed at that point in time. I had intended to keep the rest of what I cooked for our soup to go with the other dishes for lunch and dinner later that day and for that, I would add the bitter gourd slices later when heating it up as I don’t like the bitter gourd over-cooked and soft. In fact, it’s the same with any vegetable soup that I cook, be it sawi or cabbage or one of those leafy ones that would turn all soft and soggy when over-boiled.

There wasn’t any bihun nor hung ngang nor kwayteow in the house so I used noodles instead…

Bitter gourd fish cake noodles 1

…and topping them with the bitter gourd and the fish slices…

Bitter gourd fish cake noodles 2

…and a bit of chopped daun sup (Chinese celery), that was what I had for my breakfast that morning.

Yes, it was very nice – I certainly enjoyed that…

Bitter gourd fish cake noodles 3

…and of course, if you wish to add your own ingredients – some chopped spring onions and fried shallots…or even a poached egg, perhaps, that is all up to you. I would say that I was quite happy the way it was but no, the bitter gourd was not bitter at all, not even a little bit. I wouldn’t mind a bit of bitterness…actually.

Dazed and confused…

Have you ever tried googling for a recipe only to find different people telling you different ways to cook the same thing? That was exactly what happened when I went in search of the way to cook nasi lemak kukus (steamed coconut rice). There was one that had three or four 10-minute steps and then I came across another where the rice was steamed first before the santan (coconut milk) was added. Of course, the less-complex latter sounded a lot more attractive to me since it would be a lot simpler so I thought I could give it a try.

I had some santan (coconut milk) left in the fridge left over from when I cooked the Sarawak laksa a while ago. It said on the pack that it should not be kept in the freezer and could be stored in the fridge but one would have to use whatever was left within three days. Gosh!!! That was almost two weeks ago but since it seemed all right still, I decided that I would just go ahead and use it and be done with it. Waste not, want not!

I got the ingredients ready – a few thin slices of ginger, one shallot, peeled and sliced, two stalks of serai (lemon grass), bruised…and a pandan (screw pine) leaf cut into short 2 or 3-inch lengths…

Ingredients

…and a bit of salt and mixed them with some leftover rice that I had in the fridge that morning…

Mix with rice

Then, I poured in the santan but ooooopsss!!!! There was too much of it for that little bit of rice…

Santan added

…but what the heck!!! I decided to just go ahead with it and steamed it for some half an hour or so.

I also had two half-eaten tubs of sambal ikan bilis in the fridge from God-knows-when. We can buy that here, very nice ones, in those little plastic tubs that they use for homemade kaya (coconut jam), for only RM5.00 each. I remember I bought two as I thought my girl would want to take one back to her school to eat with rice or whatever sometimes but somehow or other, she never did. I did eat half of what was in one tub and I had no idea who had a bit of what was in the other one. Well, they probably were shoved into some obscure corner in the fridge and were conveniently forgotten until that day, when I decided to do a little bit of cleaning and found them. It seemed all right still so I heated all of it and served it with the nasi lemak kukus

STP's nasi lemak kukus 1

I also cooked one egg, hard-boiled for the purpose and since there was no cucumber in the house, tomatoes would just have to do…

STP's nasi lemak kukus 2

Hey!!! It sure didn’t taste too bad, really! Hmmm…since that was the case, I probably would want to try cooking this again – starting from scratch this time and with all fresh ingredients, no more leftovers.

Hidden away…

Sigh!!! How many of you would agree that women are very good at hiding things? Wait a minute! Let me correct myself. They’re good at putting away things but they do it so very well. More often than not, they would be so well-hidden away that they themselves cannot find them and would have to turn the whole house upside down to find them. What do the rest of you think about this? Hehehehehe!!!!

Well, that always seems to be the case with the things in our fridge. Very often, I would discover things that I can hardly remember when we had them or where they came from and some would have grown moldy already but moldy or not, I would just throw them all away. Well, that day, there were already two tubs of leftover rice in the fridge and yes, this is going to be another fried rice post again. While looking through the fridge in search of something that I could fry it with, I found another tub, “hidden” in the compartment where we would usually keep out chocolates and stuff. That being much older than the other two tubs, I decided to fry it first and save the most recent one for another day.

That morning, I decided to use the fermented/salted dabai that I had kept in a bottle in the fridge. I have blogged about that here but this time around, I decided that I would remove the skin so the end product would not have that unpleasant-looking bits of black and besides, if the skin is thick, it does not taste very nice – siap-siap, they say in Hokkien, whatever that is in English. Other than that, I thought I would use the air budu I got from my friends from Trengganu and also some leftover calamansi lime juice plus sugar and chili dip that I had made the day before for my fried fish balls…

Ingredients

…and of course, I had my usual sliced shallots and garlic and I also got some of the skinny stalks of serai (lemon grass) from my garden.

After frying the shallots and garlic in a bit of oil till brown, I added the dabai

Steps 1 & 2

…followed by the rice and after mixing everything together well, I fried that for a while before adding the air budu and the lime/sugar/chili dip…and half an ikan bilis (anchovies) stock cube…

Step 3

…and finally, I added some eggs…

Step 4

…and once I felt everything had been sufficiently fried, I dished it all out…

Dabai fried rice 1

Yes, it was very nice with the flavours of all the ingredients used and it sure looked much better than I last time I cooked this, without the bits of dabai skin…

Dabai fried rice 2

…all over but I would prefer it if I had added a handful of ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and maybe some thinly-sliced long beans or french beans to give more bite to it and perhaps, our own local stronger-smelling/more fragrant air budu aur would bring the taste to a whole new level. I think I will try that next time…

The old ways…

Life certainly is a lot easier these days with all kinds of appliances and gadgets that one can use but of course, easier does not necessarily mean better. Many will attest to the fact that more often than not, things are much better if done the old-fashioned way but unfortunately, not many are willing to go through the chore and would rather take the easy way out and settle for less.

In the case of cooking, for instance, everyone will admit that it is so much easier and faster just to use a blender compared to pounding everything half dead using a lesung batu (mortar and pestle) even though they know that it will not taste as great. I guess I am old and I am old-fashioned so I would go pounding everything manually as and when the need arises.

The other day, my missus came home with some tapioca (casava) leaves…

Daun Bandong

…that she had plucked in some piece of vacant land behind her mother’s house. These are very easy to grow – sometimes, people, after harvesting the tubers, will just throw the rest of the plants somewhere and lo and behold! After some time, you will see them growing all by themselves like nobody’s business. Yes, these leaves are edible but they must not be eaten raw owing to the cyanide content. This is stated very clearly in this website but they also say that you may derive a number of health benefits from eating the leaves.

We call them daun bandong here and that is probably in the local Malay dialect or in Melanau for the Ibans would call them differently. The latter refer to them as daun jabang but those around Kanowit call them daun empasa but they’re all the one and the same thing. You can buy these leaves very easily at the jungle produce section of the Sibu Central Market at only RM1.00 for one big bundle. I do wish they would sell them in smaller bundles, maybe half that much at 50 sen each for usually, I would not cook all of it and would just throw the rest away. The ladies selling these leaves would sometimes pound them for you – they would do that while sitting there, waiting for someone to buy their stuff. Then, they would display what they have pounded in plates for sale. My missus would never buy those as she insists they’re not very clean – I would not think that is a problem as we could take it home and soak in water and rinse thoroughly before cooking but I have never bought the pounded leaves from them as there did not seem to be a lot in one plate and I would need to buy at least two or three and that might cost quite a bit.

My missus would use a blender but it would be a bit too fine and would not be as nice. I, on the other hand, would pound them, paying extra attention to this part of the leaves…

Pounding daun bandong 1

- the “veins” joining the leaves to the stalks. These are rather hard and would be difficult to chew and that would spoil your eating pleasure. That is why there are places where they cook this and sell but they do not pound (nor blend) the leaves and instead, they would just rub them (like how one would scrub one’s laundry, they say) and I do not really like eating them that way.

You will have to pound the leaves till they are quite crushed…

Pounding daun bandong 2

…but there is no need to do it as fine as when using a blender and that would ensure that you will have something to chew when eating them.

Once the leaves were done that day…

Pounding daun bandong 3

…I pounded the ginger (one whole chunk of it – if you want it to have a stronger ginger taste, then you can pound more) and I also got ready the other ingredients needed – a handful of ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and some chilies, sliced…

Ingredients

…plus one-third of an ikan bilis stock cube.

First, I fried the ikan bilis till golden brown and then pushed them aside to fry the pounded ginger…

Ikan bilis & ginger

…till brown as well. As you can see, I used quite a lot of oil – that would be necessary as the ginger and the leaves would absorb the oil but still, I would not use too much and would rather resort to using water instead. More about this later.

Oops!!! I had forgotten all about the serai (lemon grass)! Actually, I grow my own in my garden but it completely slipped my mind. When I shared the photograph of this dish on Facebook, somebody also suggested adding bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) petals. Of course, adding these, the fragrance would help enhance the taste and you can also add baby corn or sweet potatoes or pumpkin to it as well. There are people who would cook it with pork skin or kasam babi hutan (preserved wild boar) even and the soupy versions of the leaves are very nice too like what I did here. In fact, if you cook it with chicken and a lot of ginger, it would come across a bit like kacang ma, minus the wine.

Anyway, to get back to my cooking that day,  in went the chilies…

Chilies

…and the pounded leaves next…

Pounded leaves

…and after mixing everything together thoroughly…

Almost done

…I added water, a little at a time, just enough to let it sizzle once in contact the hot wok, and kept repeating that till the leaves were sufficiently cooked. In the absence of a lot of oil, stir-frying it till cooked may be a bit difficult but too much water would make it soggy and it would not be very nice – neither here not there, not a soup and not fried dry either…so do remember to go slow with the water and use it sparingly. You can add salt and msg at this point but I think there was enough salt already in the ikan bilis so I just added a bit of the ikan bilis stock cube instead…and once it was done, I dished it out and served…

Fried daun bandung with ginger, ikan bilis & chilies 1

Needless to say, it was very nice…even without the serai. This website says that the leaves are bitter…but no, you will not feel it at all eating it cooked this way with the fragrance of the ginger and the saltiness and taste of the ikan bilis. Somebody asked me if it was like cangkuk manis/mani cai – well, the answer is no. The taste and texture are different, it does not have the sweetness…but it is nice in its own right. Comparing the two would be something like comparing say, kangkong and sweet potato leaves…or paku and midin. They are just…not the same, end of story.

This is the simplest version of the dish, cooked with minimal ingredients and except for the pounding part, it is very easy to come out with your own plus other than the fact that it tastes great,  it is VERY cheap too…

Fried daun bandong with ginger, ikan bilis & chilies 2

One thing’s for sure, you will not be able to find it at a lot of eating places, even here in Sarawak, except perhaps at the ethnic stalls like the ones here or here…or those special restaurants here or here.

Our very own…

Bak kut teh literally means “meat bone tea” but I would think a more accurate name for it would be meat or pork bone herbal soup. You will not find this in China as it is a Malaysian dish, claimed to have originated in (Port) Klang and believed to have been consumed by the coolies or labourers at the port to boost their strength and health.

I have cooked this many times before using those packets of spices and herbs from the peninsula but the other day, I decided to use this…

Sarawak white pepper root bkt 1

My missus must have bought it sometime ago and I had seen it lying around in the house for a while now so I thought I might as well give it a try.

This is packed in Kuching…

Sarawak white pepper root bkt 2

 …and clear instructions as to how to cook the dish are given at the back…

Instructions

Add 3 litres of water, it said but I thought that would be a little bit too much for the two of us in the house – my missus and I, so I reduced that to 2 litres. I reckoned that at worst, it would be stronger in its herbal taste and we wouldn’t mind that very much actually. I could not understand what “4 bits of garlic bulbs” meant…and since I had reduced the water, I just threw two bulbs in. Not one to follow recipes/instructions to the letter, I also put in a handful of goji or wolf berries and a few dried Shitake mushrooms together with the two pouches that came in that one packet…

Step 1

…and brought that to boil.

Nope, I did not let it boil for 30 minutes – after around 15 minutes, I decided it was time to put in the meat and I brought it back to boil once again and when the meat was cooked…

Step 2

…I lowered the heat and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

The instructions said, “…add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, dark soya sauce and oyster sauce…” and I could not, for the dear life of me, figure out the difference between soy sauce and dark soya sauce…so I just added two tablespoons of the mushroom soy that we always use in the house plus another two tablespoons of oyster sauce…

Step 3

Finally, add salt and monosodium glutamate powder to taste,” it said. What? More msg??? No, thank you. In my opinion, there would be enough msg already in the oyster sauce and I would not want any more salt either – the soy sauce would be salty enough.

I let it simmer for a long time, 30 minutes, at least and then it was ready to be served…

Bak kut teh 1

…with a sprinkling of chopped daun sup (Chinese celery) on top.

Yes, it was just right – the meat was nice and tender…

Bak kut teh 2

…and it was not too strong in its herbal taste, not too salty and no overload of msg.

However, the next time I use this particular brand of spices and herbs, I would go ahead and add 4 bulbs of garlic instead of just 2 as I would prefer the garlicky fragrance to be a little stronger…

Bak kut teh 3

…but on the whole, it was good enough. Perhaps a dash or two or more of pepper would be nice as well seeing that, despite the name – “Sarawak wild pepper root”, it was not peppery at all, not even the slightest hint of it and I would have liked a bit of that.

We had it with rice, of course, and for our vegetable dish, I fried some Chinese cabbage with young baby corn…

Vegetable dish

…together with some sotong (squid) and sliced fish cake. I’m afraid there wasn’t much colour in it and I did not bother with the presentation since it was just for the two of us at home to eat and enjoy.

Well, the weekend’s here! Anybody thinking of cooking some bak kut teh? Perhaps you can give this brand a try. It’s available at most, if not all, of the supermarkets in town and many of the grocery stores as well.

Lost and found…

We were schoolmates, 1970 to 1971, and we were even in a play together…

All the world's a stage

…for the 3rd Division Drama Festival for Schools. Here in Sarawak, we have divisions that are made up of several districts – there were only five then and they all went by numbers. Sibu was in the 3rd and today, it has been divided into the Sibu, Sarikei, Kapit and Mukah Divisions. Anyway, back to my long-lost friend, we managed to get in touch with each other after all these years via Facebook. Isn’t that nice? Something like that show on TV at one time, Jejak Kasih. LOL!!!

I found out that her hubby was in the Sarawak laksa paste business and she even offered to send me a packet to try. However, I told her that there wasn’t any need for her to go through all that trouble as I had seen it at a supermarket here and I could just go and grab a pack (RM10.90) myself…

MUSC Raja Laut Sarawak laksa paste

…and that was exactly what I did last Friday so I could cook for my girl who would be coming home that very afternoon.

Needless to say, it was a whole lot of work preparing everything…

Sarawak laksa ingredients

I had blogged about it here but anyway, to go through all that again, in case anyone would like to cook his or her own, first, I peeled and deveined the prawns (1 kg) and boiled them in 1 litre of water, keeping the stock and putting the crustaceans aside to be served with the laksa later…

STP's Sarawak laksa 1

When I went to the market that morning, I saw someone I knew filleting fish, the mother of one of ex-students – bay kar/ikan tenggiri (mackerel) no less and selling at only RM20 for one big bag of it. I grabbed one and my missus used it to make fish balls…

STP's Sarawak laksa 2

- and fish cakes, a whole lot of them. I added the water that she used to boil them to the aforementioned prawn stock as well.

I also boiled the heads and shell of the prawns in the stock for 10-15 minutes and then removed them. After that, I added another 2 litres of water to the stock and emptied the contents of the packet of laksa paste into it and brought it back to boil, leaving it to simmer for 30 minutes. In the meantime, my missus and I could cut the tofu pok (fried bean curd puffs) into thin strips – I bought RM1 of those and got 7 of them, chop the daun sup (Chinese celery), soak the bihun (rice vermicelli) to soften and blanch the taugeh (bean sprouts), RM2 of the ones sold with the tails removed. I am always too lazy to do that myself.

When the gravy was ready, I sieved it to remove the residue and added santan (coconut milk) to it, plus two cubes of ikan bilis (dried anchovies) stock, turning off the fire once I had brought it back to boil. Then, I fried some omelette and sliced it very very thinly and I also pounded some sambal belacan (dried prawn paste dip) to go with the laksa

STP's Sarawak laksa

It was very very nice and we certainly had a feast of our very own local Sarawak delight that day.

For one thing, one could cook so much using one packet of the paste – too much for a family of three but I gave some to my in-laws to enjoy as well. I wish they would make it available in smaller packs, half the size perhaps. My missus said that it was kind of different from the usual Sarawak laksa taste that we are more accustomed to…and I would agree. This is more like what one would get, eating Sarawak laksa at the Malay stalls, which is great too (if you go to the right stalls/shops). Originally, Sarawak laksa is quintessentially a local Chinese culinary specialty and it impressed Anthony Bourdain so much that it was given special mention in his book

Anthony Bourdain's book
*Archive photo*

…and it would be featured in the menu at his own street-food market in New York, no…not Penang asam laksa…nor the nyonya curry laksa, but our very own good ol’ Sarawak or Kuching laksa! If you have not heard or read about that, don’t just take my word for it – click the link and read all about it! Hehehehehehe!!!!

Going back to the laksa paste, these days, we have some certified halal ones like this one that I used and like the regular ones, there may be good ones and those that are not as great, which is the case with everything else including what you can get when you eat out at the stalls or shops outside, so one would need to know which brand(s) to buy and I would say this one is pretty good. Yes, I can say, with no reservations whatsoever, that I wouldn’t mind using it…if and when I would be in the mood to go through the whole process all over again.

Things go wrong…

There have been times when I tried cooking something and the end result did not turn out right. Yes, sometimes, things did go wrong and what I dished out was not all that great or not quite I had expected or would want it to be…like when I tried my hand at cooking my own baked cheese rice the other day.

I wanted to use butter but there wasn’t any in the fridge nor in the house. We only had a tub of olive oil margarine and I’ve read all those stuff about not using olive oil to cook at high heat as it would cause it to turn toxic and I was afraid the same would apply too if I used the margarine. There was a bottle of grapeseed oil lying around so I used that instead along with these other ingredients…

Ingredients

- some chopped garlic, one of the sausages that I bought the other day and some chopped spring onions.

I grilled the sausage till nice and brown before adding the garlic…

Frying the sausage & garlic

…and after having fried it well, I put in the rice.

I had a bottle of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce in the fridge but it was nowhere to be found. Probably it had been around too long and my missus saw it fit to throw it away…or maybe she used all of it for something that she cooked, I wouldn’t know. In the end, I added some smoked honey & mustard barbecue sauce and an egg plus a sprinkling of salt and pepper before I threw in the chopped spring onions…

All in...

Then, I put the rice in a foil baking container…

Rice in...

…and topped it with cheese…

Cheese in...

…and finally, I put it in the oven to bake till the cheese had melted.

So what exactly was wrong with it? The rice…

One serving...

…was very nice though I thought it would be nicer if I had used garlic butter instead of the grapeseed oil. That, however, wasn’t really a big deal – it was the cheese! I only had smoked cheddar slices in the fridge and I just used that. It melted all right but when cooled, it became hard again like in its original state. My girl said that I should not have used that…and it would not turn out in such a manner if I had used mozzarella.

Ah well, you win some, you lose some…and one thing’s for sure – should I try to cook something like this again, I would definitely not make that same mistake again. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Hehehehehehe!!!!