This post has been sitting in my drafts for months. This was actually a meal I cooked back in January. I don’t know why I kept procrastinating finishing this post, because this was such a good meal. At first I lost the will to write it, and then I kept having other posts write. I figured it was about time I finally finish this post now that I have some free time.
I’ll try and take myself back to this cold day in January when I made my second “Global Eats” meal comprised of dishes from three Southeast Asian-Pacific countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. This second installment of my project has probably been my biggest challenge thus far. Asian cuisine is something that is far outside my comfort zone as a chef. I enjoy eating a variety of different Asian foods, but I have very little experience cooking them. So before I began, I wanted to get to know more about these countries and their cuisines.
Indonesia is considered the world’s largest island country. It’s actually an archipelago made up of over 17,000 islands (of which 6,000 are populated)! I have a hard time wrapping my head around all these islands and how they would have communicated with each other prior to modern technology, especially with the various ethnic groups and languages. Indonesia’s population of 261 million consists of over 300 ethnic groups that speak over 700 languages. This gives Indonesia an incredibly rich cultural heritage that undoubtedly has had an influence on the wide array of culinary traditions present in this country.
Indonesia’s cuisine is largely based in their indigenous culture, but it also draws influences from nearby places like Middle Eastern countries and China. Indonesia is known for rich flavors in their dishes, often seeing rice and noodle dishes present. Satay and beef rendang are two popular meat dishes in Indonesia, though tofu and tempeh dishes are also rather popular.
Malaysia, on the other hand, is a country split into two land masses separated by the South China Sea. The first land area (known as Peninsular Malaysia) is attached to the southernmost part of Thailand, while the other (known as East Malaysia) is part of one of the larger islands of Indonesia (which also contains the country of Brunei). Malaysia has a population of 32 million, and it somewhat less densely populated than Indonesia.
The multi-ethnic nature of Malaysia is represented in its food. In addition to the tradition Malay food, the country’s cuisine has heavy influences from Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian cuisines. Common ingredients in Malaysian food are chili peppers, coconut (including coconut milk), lemongrass, and ginger. Rice and poultry dishes are very popular in Malaysia.
Finally, Brunei is a small country split into two nearby masses on the island of Borneo (which is comprised of Brunei, East Malaysia, and part of Indonesia). The population sits at just 400,000, and 2/3 of those people belong to the Malay ethnic group. Given that information, it is unsurprising that their cuisine has many similarities to Malaysian cuisine.
These three countries’ cuisines do have so many similarities given their geographical location and cultural history. What I found is that they share many dishes, but each nation has their own variation of the dishes. So, I decided to construct a full meal by taking a dish from each of these countries. I chose beef rendang from Indonesia, chicken satay from Malaysia, and nasi biryani (celebration rice) from Brunei. While these dishes may not solely belong to these countries, I tried my best to find a cooking preparation that is authentic to each country.
Through making this meal, I got to see the variances in each country’s cuisine and cooking styles, but I also noted many similarities. Each of these recipes had a strong presence of turmeric, shallots, and ginger (all ingredients I have used plenty of times). Turmeric is a beautiful and flavorful ingredient. It gives food such a gorgeous color. I have a fair amount of experience cooking with turmeric, because I often use it to mimic the color of saffron in paella when I don’t want to spend a fortune on that ingredient.
These recipes also use some well-known ingredients that I haven’t ever cooked with before, including lemongrass and lime leaves. Then, there were even ingredients I had never heard of before, such as galangal. A member of the ginger family, galangal is a root that is stronger and more astringent than ginger and is common is Asian cooking. I found it to be slightly tougher to peel and cut than ginger, but it was very similar.
Given that many ingredients in these dishes are not the most common in a standard supermarket, I decided to go to an Asian market to source my ingredients. I happened to be canvassing in Annandale, VA over the weekend, right where H-Mart sits. This was my first time at H-Mart.
H Mart was an overwhelming experience for me on a first try, and it wasn’t just because most of the labels weren’t in English. I always get a bit lost when I go to a new grocery store for the first time. I don’t automatically know where to find things, and I like to grocery shop like it’s an Olympic sport. (Yes, I get some odd looks from other customers as I race down the aisles). However, I found H-Mart to extra confusing because of the language barriers and because the aisles were so small. Especially because I was trying to figure things out, I desperately wanted to not be in people’s way. I found that hard to do when the aisles were so narrow, and I had no idea where to find anything.
The experience reminded me a bit of grocery shopping in stores in South America, but at least I understood the language of the signs and labels since I speak Spanish. As much as being in H-Mart felt “foreign” to me, I could see this as being a “familiar” for Asian immigrants living in the U.S. Fairfax County, VA has a very number of Asian immigrants living there. I can imagine that having that place of familiarity would provide a sense of safety and comfort to immigrants, and I am all for that.
One major take away of my experience in H-Mart is that they have an amazing produce section. I picked up some additional fruits and vegetables for the week. I couldn’t believe the quality of what I found. I got some Mandarin oranges that were unbelievably juicy and sweet. I have never gotten produce this good at my standard supermarket.
Even though it has been over half a year, I can still remember just about everything about making this meal. We were sent home from work early due to a snow storm, which was good, because I had underestimated how long it would take to cook this meal. While I cooked, I watched Fox’s RENT Live special that I recorded a couple days before. Even with getting out of work early, it still took forever for me to have a final meal. I finally sat down to eat at about 10:00-10:30 pm, at which point I was famished.
Since the beef rendang had such a long cook time, I started by getting that spice paste ready in the blender and getting the meat on the stove. The meat had a four and half hour cook time, so that was part of the reason I ate so late. I don’t think I thoroughly read the recipe beforehand. I didn’t expect it to take so long, though I do understand the benefits of a slow cook.
After the beef was prepped and cooking, I made the marinade for the chicken satay. While the chicken was marinating, I made the peanut sauce. I had never made a peanut sauce before, but something told me that I wasn’t doing it right. I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to turn out too well.
At this point, the beef was coming along well. I tried to assess when would be a good time to start the other dishes. I didn’t want them to been done too early and be cold once it was time to eat. So, I waited for awhile to let the beef slow cook. I watched some more TV and danced around my living room to pass the time.
Once I thought the beef was about an hour out, I started on the rice. After the rice was in the pot, it would need some time to cook. That is when I pulled out the chicken skewers and started to cook them on my grill pan. I do like my grill pan, though it can seem nearly impossible to clean after using it to cook meat with any sort of marinade.
After hours of working in the kitchen, I had a beautiful meal, and I was more than ready to eat. I have not eaten dinner this late since I studied abroad in Argentina, where 10:30 pm was the average dinner time. That was a rough adjustment for me.
This meal was absolutely delicious, and I don’t think it was just because I was so hungry. The beef rendang was so tender and full of flavor. I definitely was getting all these different essences from the ginger, galangal, turmeric, shallots, lemongrass, etc. With the meat cooking for so long, I thought it was be rough and hard to chew, but it was so tender. So cooking the beef in coconut milk was a game changer for me. I normally don’t like beef very much, but this preparation made me change my mind. Since that time, beef has not made a more frequent presence in my cooking, but now I know a great way to cook beef that I would actually enjoy. This was my favorite dish from the meal.
The chicken satay was also on point. The chicken was tender and juicy and flavorful. It had a lovely color from the turmeric. This recipe used only chicken thighs, so you get the fattier, juicier part of the bird. The flavors of the turmeric and lemongrass were very present.
I was not very fond of the peanut sauce. I have never been a huge fan of peanut sauce in the past, but this one was just not good at all. I don’t blame the recipe author though. I am still not sure what I did wrong, but I know I messed up majorly with the execution of this sauce. It had a horrendous texture. I may have had one or two bites of the sauce, but I basically pitched the whole thing. I felt bad doing so, but the sauce was just that bad. I felt the chicken stood up on its own, so I didn’t mind not having a sauce. Next time I try making a satay, I will try to not ruin the sauce.
As for the rice, this was one of the best rice dishes I have ever had. The prominent spice of this dish was turmeric, making this rice bright and flavorful. I loved the crispy shallots on top. The rice absolutely completed this dish. If I cooked more often in this type of cuisine, I would make this rice all the time.
I would like to keep making dishes like these to practice my skills in other areas. After making this meal, I have so much more appreciation for Asian cooks. I already knew that this was a challenging area of the culinary world. Cooking these recipes, however, gave me some insight as to how much time and care goes into cooking these dishes. I have nothing but the utmost respect to people who make these dishes on a regular basis. This was one of my goals of this project. I wanted to learn about unfamiliar cuisines to hopefully gain a new appreciation for them.