Of Whims, fancies and hunger
Fresh from an exhausting week, leading up to a moderately successful exhibition of photography, I am engulfed with a craving for the Far East. Perhaps it has something to do with my itch to scratch off the cabin fever that winter has gifted us with. It has been a long, harsh winter and it’s been below freezing since October of last year. But the groundhogs have promised us an early spring and it does seem just suitably far away. For now the windows outside are still frosted up, snow on the ground and my stomach would like nothing better than a spicy far eastern hug. From satisfying chilli fish to beef rendang, my mind in conjecture with my stomach, which so whole heartedly seems to be taking over every thought right now, is conjuring up steaming bowls of Malaysian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and ,absurdly tangential enough, Korean food. It is such a yearning that I had to run out in 4 layers of clothes to get a bottle of gochuchung, a good half a foot of galangal and a bunch of lemon grass. I blame multiple viewings of Kimchi Chronicles and Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey, because it would be sacrilege to just blame hunger for such monstrous hankerings? Let me for one moment wander away from this and plug Rick Stein’s programs – he is a seafood crazy chef from Padstow, England and has these shows on BBC UK, you can watch his programs on youtube though. If you are a foodie or a food writer of any caliber, watch his stuff, I don’t think anyone quite describes or articulates about food quite as well as he does, in this modern era of texting. He has a sort of transcendent way of making travel and food synonymous with the exploration of new cultures.
I digress, as I walk the aisles of a local H-Mart, the only recurring thought is a Beef Rendang lunch, made from scratch. So here I go this morning, toasting coconut or rather making kerisik and grinding together shallots, chillies, galangal, lemongrass, ginger and garlic to concoct this spicy and fragrant paste that the beef will slow cook in, along with a can of coconut milk, until the beef has drunk in every last drop of the heavenly gravy and is fork tender. I wish photographs had a way of conveying smells, it’s a sensory explosion that has gratification etched into it. There are certain smells in cooking that are deeply arousing and I don’t mean that in a sexual connotation. If you are like me an overwhelming joy can envelope you, at the smell of garlic and onions hitting hot olive oil or the smell of a slow cooked rendang, wafting slowly through the air in a gentle dance of seduction. There is a reason why warm, freshly baked cookies are made by realtors when they want to sell a house, the sense of smell is exceedingly powerful in eliciting an emotional response to things we see and hear.
For those curious souls who want to replicate this, there is a caveat – unless you like the strong taste of toasted coconuts this is not a dish you must attempt. I come from a country and region, where it is consumed atleast once a day, so its a taste that is reminiscent of my childhood. Also this is my interpretation of something that sorely lacks one of its key ingredients – Kaffir Lime leaves….I couldn’t find these at the asian stores close by and I didn’t want to risk the chance of frost bite just for a few leaves! Besides I had lemongrass and galangal – two things that are supremely versatile, exceedingly effluvious and generously divine. These two, have an irrevocable place in the spice cabinets of South east asians everywhere.
Without much more ado, read, look, weep and enjoy! Today’s whims, fancies and hunger have all been pleasingly allayed!
500 gms beef chuck or cuts used for stews
3 black cardamoms
2 star anise
2 inch stick cinnamon
3/4 cup toasted coconut (or kirisik is toasted to golden brown)
1 cup water
1 can coconut milk
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste
4 large shallots
12 dried red chillies soaked in water
4 cloves garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
1 inch piece of galangal
3 stalks of lemongrass, white part only
Grind all the ingredients for the spice paste in a blender until its fine, use some of the water the chillies are soaked in, if necessary.
Heat oil in a dutch oven, add the cinnamon, cloves, star anise and cardamom. Add the spice paste and fry until the raw smell of onions dissipates.
Add the turmeric and coriander powders and sautee for another 2 mins. Add the beef, the coconut milk, water and sugar. Cook for about 30-40 mins until the beef is half to 3/4 way done. Add salt to taste, cover the pot and allow to simmer on medium heat for about an hour to hour and a half, until the gravy has dwindled down to less than half. Check for seasonings and serve hot with rice.
On a side note, I wish I could change my camera with immediate effect and get some new lenses to replace the broken ones….feel like I am missing a couple of limbs with a broken camera and lenses. Please do not reproduce or reprint these pictures or writing in any form without the author’s permission.