The melting pot of Asia

by Sam Bilton on October 12, 2012 5 comments

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.

Grilled satay skewers at Malaysia Night

Grilled satay skewers at Malaysia Night in Trafalgar Square on 5 October 2012

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.

Far Eastern Cookery by Madhur Jaffrey

My well thumbed copy of Far Eastern Cookery by Madhur Jaffrey

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.

So why not round National Curry Week off with a slightly different cultural experience and try a taste of Malaysia? For more information on Malaysian cuisine visit the Malaysia Kitchen website.

Madhur Jaffrey has recently released Curry Nation which explores Britain’s 100 favourite curries and accompanies a new TV cookery programme on the Good Food Channel.

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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


Sam BiltonThe melting pot of Asia

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  • Franklin Espinal - April 11, 2013 reply

    Different countries have their own specialties in foods. Guess a spot where you can have all these tastes under one roof without roaming the whole world and that too at the same time. Yes, you are right! It’s a restaurant. Here we will discuss about the Asian cuisines and restaurants. Asians are specially known for their versatility in food and food culture. Each part of the continent is full of different kinds of appetizers to satisfy the hunger and urge of each of the food loving person. But it’s wrong on my part if I only discuss about the Asian continent because even in the outer part also Asian food is in great demands and thus attracting foodies towards themselves irrespective of the geographic barrier or taste variations or rather price distinctions. Asian food restaurants are thus turning out day by day to be the best choice of the food loving crowd of world. Either international tastes or hardcore in house tastes, these restaurants are charged with best of the world class chefs who not only are enough competent to smile at you with satisfaction regarding the food but also proliferates their duty to much wider areas of the restaurants like that of the customer service fragments, clearance of food related issues etc.^

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  • Elodie - October 14, 2012 reply

    A very interesting post here Sam. Being now based in Singapore, I see exactly what you mean when you talk about Malaysian food. Singapore itself is a real cultural and culinary melting pot with flavours from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China and Europe. But this recipe makes me actually feel like cooking some indian food myself. Thanks

  • Mona H. - October 12, 2012 reply


    This looks incredibly easy, and it inspired me enough to get me out of the house, to the store and cooking it tonight!

  • Anne Maxfield - October 12, 2012 reply

    Sounds delicious! Definitely going to give this a try.
    A long time ago in a curry house in Hong Kong we had a black curry with lamb and I’ve been looking for a recipe for it ever since. We jokingly called it lamb in crude oil, because that’s exactly what it looked like! Any ideas?

    admin - October 12, 2012 reply

    I’m afraid not but it sounds intriguing. You could try e-mailing Madhur Jaffrey (! Let me know if you find the recipe!

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