Bubur Pulot Hitam, Sticky Black Rice Pudding

September 8, 2009
Sticky Black Rice Pudding is a Vegan, Whole Grain Dessert

Sticky Black Rice Pudding is a Vegan, Whole Grain Dessert

For dessert at our final dinner in Malaysia, we were served a warm rice pudding, accompanied by sliced papaya. It was the perfect ending to three weeks of lip smacking.

Although the main ingredient, black glutinous rice, may be hard to find, the dessert is very simple to prepare. And you can’t beat it for unusual appeal–how often do you eat something so dark purple, it’s black?

A Vegan, Whole-Grain Dessert

If that isn’t reason enough to try it, assuage your guilt by knowing it is actually a whole grain, full of fiber and vitamins from the bran and germ, which are left on. While not as tacky as white glutinous or sticky rice, the grains have a chewy, nutty flavor that is perfectly offset by the accompanying salted coconut milk.

Look for black glutinous rice in Asian markets. I was ecstatic to find it in Chinatown, Honolulu, and I jumped right in, testing and concocting, to develop this recipe.

In Malaysia, a pandan leaf is often added to enhance the aroma, and palm sugar or a combination of palm and white sugar are used. To my non-Malaysian palate, omitting the pandan leaf and substituting brown sugar were not offensive. On the contrary; this is going to become one of my favorite desserts.

Alina’s Bubur Pulot Hitam,
Sticky Black Rice Pudding

1 can coconut milk
1/4 tsp salt

1 c glutinous black rice
2-1/4 cups water

6 TBS brown sugar

Combine coconut milk and salt. Stir to dissolve salt. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Combine rice and water in a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and cook on medium-high for about 30 minutes, until water is absorbed and grains are tender.

Check near the end of the cooking time to be sure it doesn’t burn, and add a small amount of water if necessary. Older rice needs longer cooking time and will absorb more water.

Remove from heat. Leave covered and let sit 10 minutes.

Add brown sugar; mix well. Set aside to let cool.

To serve, put warm (not hot) rice into a bowl. Spoon salted coconut milk over it. Serve with sliced fruits, such as papaya, mango, peaches, etc., if desired.

Fermented Flatbread, Indian Dosa

August 9, 2009
Hard at work in my secret laboratory!

Hard at work in my secret laboratory!

I’ve just begun my latest mad science experiment. I’ve been making fermented dough–batter, actually–for dosa and uttapam, which are flatbreads typically eaten in South India for breakfast.

Although the process takes time, it isn’t complicated. Rice and urad dahl are soaked in water for several hours, then drained and blended with water to create a slurry.

The mixture is left to ferment overnight, but even here in Honolulu in summer, it took two days in my kitchen. You end up with a bubbling, stinky mixture that makes me feel like a crazy scientist in a hidden laboratory. Mwah ha ha ha!

The batter is cooked like pancakes in a skillet or on a griddle. It can also be spread paper-thin so they cook into crisp rounds.

I’ve tried them with and without fenugreek seeds, which add a fragrance akin to maple syrup, and I’m going to try them again with chana dahl (garbanzo beans) once I go buy some. Salt is added after the ferment so that it doesn’t slow the fermentation process down.

I have fallen in love with the tangy flavor, reminiscent of a good sourdough bread. While I have yet to get the techniques for cooking down, the result is nevertheless delicious and well worth the advance planning.

Uttapam and Coconut Chutney

Uttapam and Coconut Chutney

Next I need to get good variations on the accompanying dishes they are usually served with. One is coconut sambar or chutney, another is tomato chutney, and a third is sambar, a watery dahl and vegetable curry just perfect for dipping into.

There is a recipe and video here.

Carrot Cake (Not What You Think)

July 14, 2009
Me Against the Spitting Oil

Me Against the Spitting Oil

I spent several hours yesterday and today attempting to make Malaysian carrot cake. It’s not the carrot-and-spice-studded sweet treat that automatically comes to mind for many of us. I’m talking about a steamed cake made of rice flour and daikon, the strong-flavored turnip or radish of Asian cultures.

Grated daikon and rice flour are mixed together and steamed until solid, then left overnight to firm up. The next day (today), they are sliced and fried in a generous amount of oil in a pan in order to get a crispy outside, in perfect contrast to the chewy, pillowy inside.

Unfortunately, thanks to the moisture in the steamed cakes, the frying part was a dangerous mess. Oil spit and jumped all over the place, creating an oil slick on my kitchen floor. A piece of renegade carrot cake even landed on my lower eyelid. Yow! I have multiple freckle-sized burns covering my arms, and a few on my legs and feet, too.

When the ordeal was over, I ended up with three mounds of mushy, tasty goodness that isn’t exactly what I ate in Malaysia. Mine were a lot blacker on the outside–next time I will not attempt to hang my laundry and cook at the same time.

However, with the addition of a soy-hoisin-chile sauce, I could taste the potential. I just have a couple kinks to work out…

Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

June 3, 2009
Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

We often ate this salad in Malaysia, an innocent-enough combination of raw carrot, onion, chile, and cucumber. The surprising addition of pineapple helped to create a light, oil-free dressing with a touch of sweetness and just enough tropical flair to win a spot at the top of the favorites list for many in our tour group.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you into thinking this is worth passing over. Sometimes simple is best.

Vegan Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

1 can (20 oz/567g) pineapple chunks in juice
2 carrots, thinly sliced
2 cucumbers, thinly sliced or julienned
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno, chopped (remove the seeds from half or all if you want a milder salad)
2 tsp lemon juice
2 TBS sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 TBS reserved pineapple juice

Drain pineapple, reserving 2 TBS juice.
Mix all ingredients together.
Let stand for at least one hour, for flavors to develop.

Roti Can’t-I

May 20, 2009
Flour + Water = Flop

Flour + Water = Flop

I wish I had paid more attention. Not that it would be helping me now. But I didn’t fully appreciate roti canai while I was in Malaysia, eating it every third day or so.

Roti canai (pronounced chahn-eye) is a flatbread with a crispy outside and flaky, soft layers inside. It is a Malaysian variation of Indian parathas, another flatbread. Most of the time there was one Indian man at the bread table, making these to order.

Sometimes we had it plain, for dipping in curries. Sometimes it had onions inside, cooked til crisp-tender and sweet. A dessert version contained bananas, palm sugar, and butter or margarine. I’m drooling just thinking about them.

Of course I want to be able to make some at home. Internet searching produced several different recipes and a number of videos showing the shaping of the bread.

The dough gets flung in circular motions, somewhat like the skirt of a flamenco dancer, until it is thin enough to see through, and large as a pizza. It is folded over onto itself like an envelope, which traps bubbles of air and fat, giving it flaky layers.

My first attempt wasn’t too bad, but the dough never got really thin, and there were no flaky layers. I decided to try a different dough recipe.

Last night the dough balls soaked in a bowl of oil. Today I attempted to shape them into thin rounds, and while the dough looked more like how it does in the videos, and I could get it much thinner, it was still not working.

I used whole wheat flour, which may have been part of the problem, since the bran and germ seemed to contribute to all the holes I was getting. I’ll have to try again using unbleached flour. My technique isn’t too bad, considering I’ve only done this twice. It almost looks like the people in the videos, except that my dough doesn’t land in a graceful circle on the counter. It sort of crashes, the way some ducks and other birds land on water, stopping forcefully and suddenly, jerking forward and smashing their faces.

Here is what roti canai is supposed to look like:

Roti Canai

Roti Canai

Here is what mine looked like:



I may have to go back to Malaysia to eat more!

And the Winners Are…The Best and Worst of Malaysian Food

May 18, 2009

Looking back on three weeks of exotic and interesting vegetarian and vegan Malaysian food and drink, it is difficult to choose the best and worst of what I sampled. Overall, everything was delicious and complex. The curries were rich, flavorful and varied. The drinks were refreshing after tromping through hot cities and humid jungles.

Here are my picks for the best and worst.

Strangest Drink I Liked:
Tie: Corn Juice and Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie

Corn Juice
Sold, as many drinks are, in large, clear aquarium-like boxes, scooped with a ladle, I thought this yellow liquid was lemonade, pineapple, or mango juice. When they told me it was corn, I had to try it. It tasted like sweet corn, ice cold, almost like the milk leftover at the bottom of the corn puffs cereal bowl when I was a kid. A nice surprise.

Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie
This was in a brand new macrobiotic, organic restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Apple-peach jam was blended with beet sugar and umeboshi vinegar to create a thick, sweet-sour smoothie that had me longing for more.

Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie

Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie

Strangest Food I Liked:

Vegetarian Mock Fish
Chinese have a long history of creating mock animal dishes using vegetable and grain products, especially soy and wheat. At several places, we ate mock fish, which used a piece of nori, laver seaweed, as a skin substitute. Just that small amount of seaweed was enough to impart a fishy-ness to the dish and a realistically stretchy texture of fish skin. One was served mounded into the shape of a whole fish, and inside we found a sugar cane stalk pretending to be the backbone.

Vegetarian Mock Fish

Vegetarian Mock Fish

Strangest Vegetable I Liked:

Petai, Stinky Beans

Stinky Bean Pods

Stinky Bean Pods

These looked like jumbo green edamame, with a similar taste and texture to match. We had them cooked in a spicy chile dish, which I dubbed “Malaysian Chili Non Carne.” Later we pulled over at a roadside stand during one of our long bus rides to purchase and eat some raw.

Stinky Bean

Stinky Bean

Some of the other people in our group found them disgusting and bitter. They were okay but had a green taste that I would never crave again. They get their name, “stinky beans,” from the tendency, like asparagus, to make your urine smell like them.

Favorite Vegetarian Mock Meat:

Vegetarian Char Siu
As a child, my mother and grandmother put slices of Chinese sweet roast pork, or char siu, into bowls of saimin, Japanese noodle soup, along with fried egg, fish cake, and green onion. It is also part of the filling for a Hawaiian snack food from the Chinese culture, char siu bao, or manapua in Hawaiian.

Vegetarian Char Siu

Vegetarian Char Siu

I tried to ignore the fact that the red coloration was probably produced with some red food coloring with carcinogenic properties, and instead tried to appreciate the fact that because we ate it so often, odds were good that I could successfully figure out how to make it once I got home. Every version we tried at the many different restaurants had a chewy texture and sweet-salty taste with hints of Chinese five spices. I wish I had some now…

Favorite Malaysian Vegetarian Dish:

Rendang is the national dish of Malaysia. Meats include everything from beef to mutton to chicken. Vegetarian versions mimic the meats, or use firm vegetables like nangka, jackfruit. The curry is a dry one, meaning the sauce is cooked until there is almost no liquid left.

Vegetarian Beef Rendang

Vegetarian Beef Rendang

We sampled one particularly delectable version of beef rendang at a Nonya (Malaysian and Chinese fusion) restaurant in Padang, where the “meat” had a stringy texture. It was served with equally bizarre bread that was pillowy soft, sweet, and made up of column-like strands compacted together.

Note the column-like structure of this rendang-accompanying bread.

Note the column-like structure of this rendang-accompanying bread.

Worst Thing I Ate:

This notorious “King of Fruits,” named after the hard, sharp spines covering it, is so pungent that it is illegal in many places in Asia to take into elevators, buses, and other public places. The smell reminds me of rotten onions, and unfortunately, the taste was pretty much exactly like it smelled, only sweeter and creamy, with a lingering foul aftertaste. Ugh. But at least I got to try it!

Spiny durian cut into wedges, exposing edible chunks of creamy fruit.

Spiny durian cut into wedges, exposing edible chunks of creamy fruit.

Durian lovers can indulge in candy, filled chocolates, ice cream, and cake, if the fruit isn’t enough.

Strangest Ingredient I Liked:

Bunga Kantan, Torch Ginger Flowers
We have a climate similar enough to Malaysia that we are able to grow torch ginger here, but I had never eaten it until I went to Malaysia. It was used in herbal rice and other curries, where it imparted a peppery, pungent, succulent texture and taste just like the flower smells.

Torch Ginger,  mature flower

Torch Ginger, mature flower

Strangest Condiment I Hated:

South Indian Chiles
These chile peppers are soaked in yogurt, then dried in the sun, resulting in a burnt, bitter, spicy hot taste that I tried once and never again after that. Our tour leader, however, was crazy about them, so he collected the unwanted ones from the rest of us to devour happily with his Indian food.

Most Addictive Food:

Vegetarian Krupuk
We ate a shrimp-flavored snack like this as kids, called shrimp chips, in Hawaii. The chips on this trip were plain or onion versions, made from tapioca or rice flour, and deep fried. The result is Asian potato-chip-like junk food.

“Very more-ish,” as the Brits on our tour would say. (“More-ish” is their term for “addictive”…because you eat it and keep wanting more.)

Malaysian cuisine is clearly one of the least known and under-appreciated of all the cuisines in the world. Combining thousands of years of culture from its three main ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese, and Indians, the results of this culinary fusion are indescribably complex and delicious. I will be craving Malaysian food from now on.

Let the Testing Begin!

May 16, 2009


After three weeks of spicy Malaysian curries, chewy roti and refreshing drinks, I am back in the real world. Nobody is cooking for me. I cannot sit at a table and have more fake mutton rendang. My fridge is empty (although there is now a new stash of dark chocolate from Malaysia and Japan) and I have 55 pages of journal scribblings and recipe notes to wade through. I want to re-create many of the scrumptious dishes I had in Malaysia.

So let the testing begin!

I was working on my first dish tonight, and it wasn’t as simple as you’d think. Salad from a few ingredients needs something extra to make it taste like more than just those few ingredients. And without the original dish in front of me, I have only my memory and palate to guide me. I think I came close, but I’m not sure.

Back to the cutting board…