Thursday, June 7, 2012

Recipes from Brunei

Like most people, there are some things I just won't eat. Bugs and entrails are at the top of my list, but that's really only because in my country people don't tend to eat bugs and entrails. In other cultures, dairy products are considered gross in the same way as we tend to think of guts as being gross, and there's actually a certain amount of logic to that. Cheese, for example, is really just the moldy excretions of a cow. When you stop to think about it, that's pretty disgusting. No wonder some cultures don't understand our love of cheese.

So when I use the words "gross," "scary," "yuck" or any such similar words, I don't mean it as a criticism of a culture's cuisine, but merely as an expression of my personal tastes. Because I am really just one person compared to several million people who don't agree with me. This is also why I will never give a recipe a poor review on or Because 1) it's mean and 2) if I don't like a recipe it's not necessarily because there's something wrong with that recipe; it's probably got more to do with the fact that I just don't like the recipe.

So with that in mind, let me just say one more thing on the subject:

Shrimp paste. Ew.

This week we're in Brunei, a southeast Asian country on the island of Borneo, which is also home to  Malaysia and Indonesia. Brunei I mainly know because of its reputation as a wealthy nation. Depending on which measurement you use, Brunei is actually just a little bit wealthier than the US, ranking fifth on the list of countries by gross domestic product at purchasing power parity per capita (the US ranks sixth).

Most of Brunei's wealth comes from its rich oil reserves, and its citizens enjoy some perks that we don't get here in the US, including free education and health care and no personal income taxes. All of this has led some (probably jealous) critics to refer to Brunei as the "Shellfare State" (ala Shell Oil Company).

Richest of all is Brunei's leader, His Majesty Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien. Yes, that's right. The poor man has like a million different names and/or titles. That fun fact, however, is the only "poor" thing about the Sultan—his net worth of about $20 billion means he is richer than Mark Zuckerberg, and only a little less rich than Michael Bloomberg. Oh, and he lives in a modest home of 2,152,782 square feet with 1,888 rooms and 290 bathrooms.

So you would think that with its tradition of luxury, Brunei's food would also be luxurious. And to be fair, a lot of it probably is. However, none of those luxurious recipes actually made it into the cookbook I was using.

Yes that's right, this week I followed my husband's advice and I chose recipes from an actual cookbook (this one: Southeast Asian Cooking by Barbara Hansen). Both of the recipes that came from this book sounded tasty, and here they are:

Ikan Sambal (Fish with Spicy Tamarind Sauce)

For the fish:

  • 1 lb lean white fish
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 1 thin slice of onion, separated into rings
For the sauce:

  • 8 shallots
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • 1 small fresh red chile
  • 1/2 tsp shrimp paste (Don't use this. Seriously.)
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 2 tbsp tamarind paste
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt 
Nasi Biryani (Celebration Rice)

  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 3 tbsp thinly sliced shallots
  • 1/4 cup minced shallots
  • 1 tsp minced gingerroot
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 1/4 cup water
  • 1 1/4 cup long grain rice
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 small tomato, sliced
  • 1 tbsp cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tbsp almonds, chopped
  • 1 tbsp cashews, chopped
  • 1/2 small fresh red chile
For dessert I chose a recipe from the ubiquitous

Mangoes with Khao Man (Sticky Coconut Rice)

  • 2/3 cup rice (sushi rice would work best)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut cream, divided
  • 1 cup coconut cream
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 ripe mangoes 
Ingredient note: coconut cream isn't the same thing as coconut milk. Make sure you buy the right stuff.

You should make the celebration rice first, because it takes about 15 minutes to prep and 40 or so minutes to cook. But that's not where I'm going to start this entry because I was way too traumatized by the fish and I really need to talk about it.

So a couple of weeks ago I ordered a certain condiment from a certain online retailer, and then decided I would never buy anything from them again because the stuff they sent me had clearly gone off. Now it appears that decision was a little hasty, because evidently that's what shrimp paste is supposed to smell like. I bought some from another retailer not long afterwards and it was just as putrid and disgusting as the stuff I got from the first store.

Shrimp paste is scary. Like a hide in a closet, biting your nails kind of scary. It smells like fish that's been dead for a long time, and has also had something noxious poured over it, like maybe essence of diaper pail. Sorry, I know those words don't belong in a food blog, but honesty is important isn't it?

But I used it anyway, because shrimp paste is actually a very common ingredient in southeast Asian cuisine, and I figured it was maybe like red palm oil: smells bad, tastes good. Oh how wrong I was.

Here's how to make the fish (if you're brave):

First rub the fish fillets with salt and turmeric, then cut them into pieces (for large fillets you would want about four pieces each; just two for smaller fillets). Cover and refrigerate.

Now place the shallots, garlic, chile and shrimp paste in a food processor and pulse until you get a thick paste.

That disgusting looking brown crusty lump is the shrimp paste.

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a small saucepan. Add the shallot mixture and sauté for about three minutes.

In a small bowl, mix the tamarind paste with the warm water and add to the shallots with the sugar and salt. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes or until the sauce is pretty thick.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tbsp oil in a large frying pan and fry the fish on both sides, working in batches if you need to, until it flakes easily with a fork. Transfer the fish to a warm platter and spoon the sauce over. Garnish with the onion rings.

Sounds pretty tasty doesn't it? The amount of shrimp paste in the recipe was actually pretty small, which is one of the reasons why I figured it wouldn't hurt to use it. I was starting to worry a little, though, as the sauce was cooking and my entire kitchen filled with the aroma of three months old dead fish and essence of diaper pail. And it tasted about like that, too. But anyway, on to the rice.

This is actually a pretty simple biryani not too unlike some of the Indian rice dishes I've made. To begin, heat 3 tbsp oil in a large pot and fry the sliced shallots until golden, then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels, leaving the oil in the pot.

Now add the minced shallots, ginger and garlic. Saute for two minutes or until fragrant.

Add the water and bring to a boil, then add the rice and yogurt. Stir until well blended.

Now add the tomato, cilantro, nuts and chile. Return to a boil, then cover and simmer over a very low flame for 40 minutes or until all the water is absorbed and the rice is tender. Garnish with the fried shallots.

Finally, the dessert:

Rinse the rice and drain. Put in a saucepan with the water, salt and 1/2 cup of coconut cream. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed.

Now mix the rest of the coconut cream with the sugar and a dash of salt. Bring just to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for two or three minutes, stirring occasionally.

Peel and slice the mangoes and cover with the rice. Spoon the sauce over and serve.

So as you probably already gleaned from everything I've been complaining about, we did not like the fish. That tiny 1/2 tsp of shrimp paste made the entire dish taste so rank that neither of us could finish it. In fact, Martin couldn't even give an opinion of the rice until after he'd washed the fish down the garbage disposal, because until then he said he was just using it as a way to block out the taste of the fish.

Unfortunately for the dessert, I don't think I would have really enjoyed anything after that meal. And in addition being overwhelmed by the awfulness of the fish, the dessert was also hurt by the fact that the recipe was unclear about what kind of rice to use (I used a long-grain rice when I probably should have used sushi rice). It tasted OK with the mangoes, but I don't think I really enjoyed it as much as I would have under different circumstances.

The celebration rice was definitely the high point of the meal (I especially liked the crispy shallots). We had to go back for seconds not just because it was good, but also so we could  1) fill the void left by the fish that got dumped down the garbage disposal and 2) blot out the memory of the fish that got dumped down the garbage disposal.

In fairness, the fish probably would have been fine without the shrimp paste, which I'm sure it goes without saying I will never use again. But in the meantime I guess I have to add Brunei to my growing list of do-overs. I'm sure there's something on the Sultan's menu I'd like. Forget cookbooks; maybe I can track down his personal chef somewhere on the Internet.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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