Saturdays were a day of culinary anticipation in our house. My mother would be holed up in the kitchen for hours surrounded by curious spices and herbs. Through out the day you could periodically hear the guttural whirr of the coffee grinder processing spices and the near constant sizzling of onions, garlic and ginger, the aroma tantalizing our stomachs. Eventually, an array of colourful curries or other Asian dishes would be served and my mother would finally sit down, often exhausted from her efforts.
All of these dishes were delicious but among our favourites were those from Malaysia. My parents had spent several years stationed in Singapore prior to my birth courtesy of the Royal Navy. As a result my mother was exposed to the unique Malaysian cuisine as well as foreign vegetables and fruits, such as the durian (“tastes like heaven, smells like hell”) and picked up tips from her amah, Ing, on how to cook Malaysian food. Back home in 1970s England, ingredients such as tamarind and lemongrass were not easy to come by so it would be some years before she could truly share the delights of this cuisine with her offspring.
As Asian ingredients became more readily available (if you knew where to shop) my mother was free to experiment. One of her most treasured books on Asian cookery is Far Eastern Cookery by Madhur Jaffrey (I believe this is out of print now but if you ever come across a second hand copy I urge you to buy it). It contains an abundance of mouthwatering recipes, one of which I am sharing with you today. She is an eloquent writer and the book includes some delightful anecdotes on the origins of each dish or how she first came to try it. Jaffrey describes Malaysia as “one of the world’s few true melting pots” combining the flavours of Malaysia, China and India. It’s a diverse cuisine that can take you from mellow, savoury dishes reminiscent of Imperial China through to those with a fiery kick originating from the depths of India.
The reason I like this particular curry is because it combines flavours from each of the cultures in the melting pot – lemongrass from Malaysia, black bean sauce from China and and tamarind from India. It also shows how relatively few ingredients can be used to good effect to make a delicious curry. The result is hot, sweet and slightly sour. I’m not sure how accurate Jaffrey’s account of where the dish got it’s name from is but I like it so I’ve included that too.
Madhur Jaffrey’s Daging Nasi Kandar
(Beef Curry with a Thick Onion Sauce)
Serves 4 – 6
Daging is beef, nasi is rice and as far a kandar is concerned – well, herein lies a tale. Early Indian settlers, as many others before them, often turned to hawking as a means of livelihood. The Indians suspended two baskets at each end of a pole and balanced this pole on their shoulders or kandar. Among the most popular items sold from these baskets was a particular combination of dishes, a whole meal in fact, that took on the name nasi kandar, or ‘rice meal on a shoulder’. There was rice, of course, and a fish curry; hard boiled eggs, and this beef curry whose thick sauce could also be ladled over the eggs.
- 10 dried hot red chillies (use 6 for a mild dish or up to 16 for a hotter dish) – I used birds eye chillies.
- 150ml vegetable oil
- 750g onions, peeled and sliced
- 1kg stewing beef, cubed
- 5 tbsp black bean sauce
- 2 sticks fresh lemongrass, bulbous ends lightly crushed
- 5cm cinnamon stick
- 20 curry leaves (optional)
- 3 tbsp tamarind paste
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 900ml hot water
- 1 tsp salt
- Place the chillies in a bowl then add 4 tbsp hot water and set aside for 30 minutes or until the chillies soften. Put the chillies and the liquid in an electric coffee grinder and blend until smooth.
- Put the oil in a large wide pan over a medium-high heat. When it is hot, put in half the sliced onions. Fry until the onions are reddish brown and crisp stirring frequently to ensure they don’t burn. After 5 minutes or so you will need to turn the heat down to a medium heat. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and spread them out on a plate lined with kitchen paper.
- Put the chilli paste into the pan and fry for 30 seconds stirring constantly. Then add the remaining uncooked onions. Fry until they are soft stirring regularly.
- Add the meat, black bean sauce, lemongrass, cinnamon, curry leaves (if using), tamarind paste, sugar and hot water. Stir and bring to the boil. Cover, lower the heat and gently simmer for 75 minutes.
- Remove the lid and turn the heat to high so that the sauce begins boiling rapidly. Boil until the sauce has significantly reduced – you are looking for a fairly thick consistency.
- Once the sauce has sufficiently reduced, taste and add as much of the salt as you think it needs. Add the browned onions and cook over a medium heat for a couple of minutes until thoroughly heated through. Remove the lemongrass and cinnamon before serving.
This dish can be made in ahead of time and reheated.