Monday, March 28, 2011

Malaysia - Bak Kut Teh

Modern Malaysia is a fairly new country, having come into its modern form with the creation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, joining with the territorries of Sabah, Sarawak, and the city of Singapore. Singapore left the federation in 1965, so we will get back to them in the future. Malaysia occupies the lower bulge of the Malay peninsula and the northern coast of the island of Borneo. As a result of this distance the two parts of the countries have very distinct histories and culture.
The peninsular part of the country has a long standing history as a trade center. Buminputra is the catch all term for Muslims on the peninsula. The non-Muslim groups are the Chinese, Indian, Portuguese and the indigenous Orang Asli. Islam's influence was brought to the island via Indian traders. Indian communities did not establish large communities until the mid 19th century during British rule. Chinese set up long term trading out posts and began intermarrying in the 15th century. Portuguese settlements were established in the 16th century with rapid intermarriage as well.
The Borneo have a wide diversity of indigenous tribes. The coastal tribes have diets consisting of fish and while the hill tribes tend to subsist on roots and game.
The Lonely Planet Food Guide to Malaysia and Singapore is a concise and excellent resource. Finding information on on breakfast was pretty easy for Malaysia. Nasi lemak consists of steamed rice with coconut mist eaten with anchovies, peanuts, cucumbers, and chili sauce. Idli are black lentil and rice patties. Roti bread served with various topping are also common breakfast dishes. Bak kut teh is a broth made with chopped pork ribs and spices and served with rice. The name translates as pork rib tea and this name along with my general love of pork ribs made me choose this one. A chicken version called chik kuh teh is eaten by the Muslim population.
The tea has many novel spices and roots used in its preparation. White pepper is the exact same seed as black pepper except the pepper fruit's skin is removed before before the drying process. Star anise is the seed of an evergreen tree found in the southwest of China. It gets its name from its close taste to regular anise but the actual plants are very different. Several components of the dish are meant for taste and medicine. Dang Gui (angelica root) is considered the female ginseng and is in the same family as coriander and celery. Yok Chok (Solomon's seal rhizome) is a starchy root. Kei Chee (boxthorne berry) are members of the new world nightshade family. I was only able to locate the Yok Chok in a 2 pound bag so I decided to omit the medicinal herbs from the recipe we made. I include the proportion below if you are able to find and use them.
The chopped pork ribs can be purchased at a Chinese market ready to use. If buying whole ribs make sure you are fully awake before going to work with your cleaver, or chop them up the night before.

Bak Kut Teh
  • 1 lb chopped pork ribs, 1 ½ inches in length
  • 2 heads of garlic, separated, with the skins intact
  • 2 red chillies
  • Dark soy sauce
  • Salt
  • Spice pouch
    • 2 cinnamon sticks
    • 6 cloves
    • 1 tsp black peppercorns
    • 1 tsp white peppercorns
    • ½ tsp coriander seeds
    • ½ tsp fennel seeds
  • Herb mixture (optional)
    • 5 slices dang gui (angelica root)
    • 5 slice yok chok (Solomon's seal rhizome)
    • 1 tbsp kei chee (boxthorn berries)
  1. Put spices and herbs into a muslin pouch or into cheese cloth.
  2. Place ribs and unpeeled garlic at the bottom of a sauce pan.
  3. Nest the muslin pouch in the middle of the ribs.
  4. Add 5 cups of water.
  5. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat.
  6. Simmer until the meat is tender. (Our meat took about 45 minutes to be done.)
  7. Add soy sauce and salt to taste.
  8. Remove the spice pouch and serve in large bowls with short grain rice on the sides.
  9. Thinly slice the chilies and place them in a shallow dish. Cover them with a shallow layer of soy sauce and use this for dipping the ribs.
Results and Discussion
This breakfast was not nearly as complicated as it might appear. Once the ingredients are together you can just let it simmer while you take care of other things.
The broth was very surprising. The first surprise was that it was not completely over powered by garlic. I think keeping the garlic unpeeled kept the flavor from overwhelming the broth. The pepper seeds and spices blend into a nice background. The star anise has a nice licorice flavor that hovers over the rest of the flavors. The pork ribs provide the broth with a rich texture, but it is not too heavy.
The chili soy sauce gave the ribs some heat and a nice flavor, but eating them with chopsticks is a bit of a challenge!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Venezuela - Arepas de Queso

Like most South American countries, Venezuelan cuisine is a blend of Native and European cuisines. The predominant European influences are Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian.
We had several options for breakfast. Mandoca are doughnuts made from cornmeal, eaten with butter and cheese. Caraotas is a spicy black bean dish. Perico is a scrambled egg dish with vegetables. Arepas are cornmeal pancakes which go back to pre-Colombian times. We decided to make the arepas as they were easiest to find a recipe for, plus we could compare to the Columbian arepas we made before.
We found our recipe in The South American Table, but when we got the book from the library we found the pages on arepas missing! Fortunately this section was available via Google books and contains lots of information comparing Colombian and Venezuelan arepas. The major contrast between the two is that the Venezuelan version has a softer center and is sometimes used to wrap around fillings. The recipes offered by the book were one with cheese and the other with a pork and beef filling. We chose the arepas de queso as we were making several for guests and it would be easier than stuffing the dough.
A point of interest brought up by the book was the different cornmeals used for making arepas. The book specifically mentions that one should use masarepa (another type of cornflour) instead of the masa harina we used for Colombia. A discussion of the differences in uses and preparations can be found here. Masarepa can be purchased at stores selling Goya products.

Basic Arepa Dough
  • 1 cup masarepa
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1½ cups hot water
  1. Combine flour and salt in a bowl
  2. Add water and mix until you have a soft dough
  3. Cover and let it stand for 5 minutes.
  4. Knead for an additional 3 minutes until it is smooth.
  5. Add and little more water and continue kneading if the dough is too dry.

Arepas de Queso
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 oz chihuahua or mozzarella cheese, shredded
  1. Knead the dough with the egg yolk, butter, and cheese.
  2. Shape into disks 4 inches in diameter and ¼ inch thick.
  3. Grease a skillet or pan with oil and bring to a medium heat.
  4. Slowly cook on both sides until a crust forms flipping them several times.
  5. Transfer the arepas to an ungreased baking sheet and bake for at 350 for 15 minutes.
  6. A hollow sound when tapped means they are done. Serve with butter, cream cheese, or goat cheese.

Results and Discussion
These arepas are quite good. The outside is crispy and the inside is similar to grits. The cheese and butter keep the inside moist while giving a good color on the outside. The slightly sour taste of the goat cheese goes very nicely and provides a contrast of texture.
The major difference between Venezuela and Colombia was amount of moisture in the finished arepas. The Colombian version was a bit drier on the inside and not quite a creamy.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Uzbekistan - Shirkovok

Uzbekistan is located in central Asia and has been a territorial football for several thousand years. Its ethnic diversity and location has naturally given it a wide diversity of cuisine. China greatly influenced its cooking, while India was more influential in terms of cooking utensils. I did not expect to find Korean influence, because the countries are over 3,000 miles apart, but a large Korean population was relocated there by Stalin in 1938.
Research for this meal turned out to be easier than I expected. I found a blog dedicated to Uzbek cuisine that listed several breakfast options.
Gu'shtli quymoq is an omelette containing meat, vegetables, and coriander. Tuhum dolma is a hard boiled egg served with cheese and cream cheese. Sutil ugra is a noodle dish with browned onions and milk. Shirguruch is a cream of rice dish. Shirkovok is a pumpkin soup with rice and butter. We were able to find a recipe for Shirkovok in The Art of Uzbek Cooking. We substituted butternut squash for the pumpkins since they are hard to find this time of year.

Pumpkin and Rice Milk Soup (Shirkovok)
  • 4 cups water
  • 2/3 cup long grain rice
  • 1 ½ cups diced pumpkin or butternut squash
  • 4 cups milk (NOT skim milk)
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • Salt
  1. Bring the salted water to a boil.
  2. Add the rice and pumpkin.
  3. Simmer on low heat for 20 minutes.
  4. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid and drain the rest.
  5. Add back the reserved cooking liquid and the milk.
  6. Slowly warm over medium heat, taking care to avoid boiling.
  7. Salt to taste and add 1 tbsp of butter.
  8. Serve with sour cream.
Results and Discussion
This breakfast was a nice and simple. Most of the time is spent cooking the rice which can be done largely unattended. The taste was not anything spectacular but it was wonderful piece of comfort food for a winter morning. The squash gives some substance to what would otherwise be a pretty mushy meal. The milk base and the sour cream gives you lots of richness. The dish is also very white with white garnish—the small flecks of orange are the only real color in the dish.