Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Eating and food were important agendas all along in my life, not mere methods of fueling the body. Growing up, my parents dictated what went into the mouths of their children. There was no chance of turning my nose up against anything that came out of their kitchen, running around with store bought chicken nuggets, having an opinion about certain vegetables or calling a bowl of chips dinner. Despite this, our table was always laid with good, home cooked, nutritious food. While I didn't necessarily agree with my late father's insane affection for all sorts fried fish - without any gravy, just seasoned and sizzled in peanut oil till the skin is crispy golden brown and the insides still tenderly juicy - which he would contently enjoy with a bowl of plain rice and perhaps a plate of stir fried long beans, those fish were the best he could score from the mongers during those ungodly hours only restaurant chefs would be caught hanging out at the wet market (read 4-5 AM). No trashy junk food was allowed in the house, only good chocolate, occasionally. Mother baked ferociously to provide the sweet treats and there was always fresh fruit after dinner, whether or not I liked those sour Sunkist oranges.
With the tight regime at home, for some balance I was allowed to eat freely at school. However, being trained with top notch cooking from home, my palate turned picky and even at school I generally avoided fries and hamburgers. With RM20 of pocket money every week, half the time during recess I would be downing triangle packets of 50 cents nasi lemak and plates of seafood fried rice, mee goreng mamak or roti canai with dhal and sambal; besides my undying loyalty to the auntie selling authentic fish ball noodles swimming in ladles of full flavored broth simmered from fried anchovies. By the time I went to university, Malay and Indian food were playing equal roles as Chinese in my diet, and I had no problem eating from our dorm's dining hall. On the first day I checked in, I ate briskly with my hands, not knowing that cutlery would not be provided alongside the metal trays, plastic glasses and tea cups for our daily three meals.
Being cash strapped university students, my dorm mates and I look would forward to every meal with a spirit quite similar to little kids at a birthday party in McDonalds (sundae cone bar fitted, scary clown optional). Luckily for us, the small army of Malay women who formed our dining hall's team of cooks were very much competent with what they had. The daily menu of the week was pretty much fixed, some days more interesting than others but always with at least two proteins, two vegetables, rice and fresh fruit. We would eat at the dining hall most of the time, getting our room/floor mates to pack our meals if we couldn't make it back to the dorm during meal hours. Skipping meals would only cause us to regret it later, those would be the moments when my equally gourmet roommate and I would break out our (illegal) hot plate and cook up bowls of tom yam instant noodles, complete with soft-centered eggs and spiked with fresh birds eye chilies stolen from the shrubs behind our dining hall kitchen. Other times we would make chili tuna or onion sardine sandwiches with the panini press she hid in her closet under a pile of clothes. While we secretly made a lot of supper/midnight meals in our rooms and constantly went out on our motorbikes for mamak stall sessions (University of Malaya, being a city campus, is parked right smack in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, where good, student-budget-friendly food is not difficult to find), dining hall meals were enjoyed quite seriously over endless student gossips around big communal tables of eight to ten.
It was during these four years in college that I ate a lot of ayam masak merah, served with pickled acar and fragrant fried rice. This menu was the general favorite at all of UM's dorms, with the fried chicken and nasi minyak days coming up a close second. Even students who normally skipped dining hall food would quietly produce themselves in the collection queue, trying to blend in with their slotted Tupperware, asking for extra rice and preferred chicken parts. On the days of ayam masak merah, one had to be on time and be downstairs as soon as meal hour started. About 45 minutes into it, only the masak merah gravy would be left with no more ayam and the makciks (Malay for middle-aged ladies) behind the steaming hot pass would move on to distribute the less enticing, though quite worthy ayam masak kicap. On the days of ayam masak merah, we would plan our presence in the dining hall with military precision. If we would be away at class, foot soldiers will be enlisted to fill our Tiffin carriers and Lock & Locks of various sizes. If it was raining the morning of an ayam masak merah day and we slept at 3 AM the night before after an instant noodle cookout, another set of foot soldiers at the Computer Science Faculty would be marking our attendances for the day's lectures while we groggily go downstairs for some masak merah love.
You see, the deal with ayam masak merah is simple, straight and forward. It is the best way to cook chicken in a spicy, thick gravy, period. It's the chicken dish found at any respectable Malay wedding, feasts cooked up to toast various joyous occasions, the month long celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr, and from time to time, normal daily meals in a typical Malay household. Being not elaborate (less work than a rendang) yet unassumingly addictive, this is so cherished in Malaysia, most Chinese, Nyonya and Indian mothers would know how to make it, albeit some with their own adaptations. In the case of my mother-in-law, this is one of her famous Diwali feast item. Together with her mutton peratal and meat dalca, no one would be able to leave her house wanting more, despite already being stuffed silly with her heady briyani and crispy dosa. This version moves quite away from the Malay by not being at all sweet and using fresh yogurt in addition to coconut milk. After three years of cooking it with her on the night before Diwali, I found last year's effort the best and decided to give it a go. My only advice when you make this - cook a huge pot of rice and don't invite too many people over.
Ayam Masak Merah (Spicy Red Chicken) [Printer Friendly Version]
Recipe from Mageswary, my mother-in-law.
Serves 8 to 10.
Prep time 20 minutes, cook time approximately 20 minutes.
Note: You can also make this with just a mixture of chicken legs, thighs and wings instead of a whole cut up chicken.
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
- salt and pepper to taste
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 whole chicken (about 1.2kg), cut into 10-12 pieces
- 3 inches ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 large bulb garlic, peeled
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 star anise
- 2 large onions, sliced thinly
- 2 stalks lemongrass, crushed
- 2 large tomatoes, cubed
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 3 tablespoons chili sauce
- 1 cup fresh coconut milk, thin press
- 3 tablespoons plain yogurt
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1 stalk coriander leaves, roughly chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
- enough oil for deep frying chicken
Clean and drain chicken pieces well. Mix together with all the marinate ingredients and let stand for at least 1 hour. Meanwhile, blend the ginger and garlic into a paste and prep the other ingredients.
In a large pot or wok, heat up oil well and deep fry marinated chicken till just golden brown. Remove oil from wok, safe about 2-3 tablespoons and return wok to medium high heat. Add in cinnamon stick and star anise, fry till fragrant. Add in onions, fry till softened and slightly browned. Add the blended ginger and garlic paste and the lemongrass. Fry for about 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes and cook until soft. Add the chili powder and chili sauce. Stir for about 5 minutes, and then add in coconut milk. Cook till mixture come to a boil, then add salt and pepper to taste.
Reduce heat to medium low then add in yogurt and stir well. Add in the chicken and stir thoroughly to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, till chicken is done and gravy reduced, about 6-8 minutes. Add lemon juice, lemon zest and coriander leaves. Mix well, check seasoning and garnish with more coriander leaves before serving.
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