Thursday, October 18, 2012

Recipes from Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Oh, I just love reading the histories of some of these places. This one is almost as good as the last one.

This week we're on another atoll (two of them, actually), but the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are more populated than Clipperton Island. Only slightly, though.

Clipperton Island has a current population of zero, while this week's stop is home to just over 600 people. How about that? There are only half as many people living on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands than there are in Rough and Ready, CA.

Cocos (Keeling) is located in the Indian Ocean, midway between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Unsurprisingly, Cocos (Keeling) is not a sovereign nation--it's a territory of Australia. But it's on my list, so I'm doing it. That's OK with me though, because for such a small place it actually has a pretty interesting history. Sadly, I don't have the space to give you the whole rundown, but here are the best bits:

In 1814 a merchant seaman named John Clunies-Ross left a Union Jack on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, claiming them for Britain and declaring that he would one day return to live there with his family. At some point he must have told his brother about his plans, because said brother then went to work for a wealthy Englishman named Alexander Hare, who also decided he wanted to live on the islands. Hare's plans, though, were far grander than Clunies-Ross' modest dreams of moving there with his wife and children. Hare also wanted to bring a wife … and 39 other wives, too. That's right, by the time Clunies-Ross arrived in 1827 with a handful of sailors, one wife, his kids and his mother-in-law, Hare was already living there with his own private Harem of 40 Malay women.

As you can imagine, the two men started feuding almost immediately, with Clunies-Ross all but declaring war on Hare, who didn't turn out to be a very good sultan, or whatever it is you call a guy who has his own harem. Hare's 40 Malay women pretty quickly got bored of him and started hooking up with Clunies-Ross' sailors. Poor Hare, disillusioned and probably a little emasculated, left the island in 1831.

Cocos (Keeling)'s interesting history doesn't end with Hare vs. Clunies-Ross—it played an important role in both world wars, for example—but I have to stop there because this blog is actually about food.

So you would think that a place as small as the Cocos (Keeling) Islands would be a challenge from a research standpoint. And it was, but I know some tricks. Using Google translate I found the Malaysian word for "recipe" (Malay is the more prominent language used on the islands) and then combined that with "Cocos." That search led me to a Malay language blog called Aime's Little Kitchen, authored by Aime Salami Simon, and featuring (yay!) Cocos Malay cuisine.

Lots of the recipes at Aime's Little Kitchen were actually seafood recipes, which is not surprising considering that the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are, you know, islands. But my poor husband is profoundly sick of seafood, so I went for this recipe instead:

Ayam Begana (Chicken Begana)

  • 1 lb chicken, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, grated
  • 2 cups flaked coconut
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or ground
  • 5 shallots, minced or ground
  • 1 large onion, minced or ground
  • 1/2 cup curry powder
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 cup Sambal (Malaysian Chili Paste)
  • 1 cup water
  • Juice of one lime
  • salt to taste
Google Translate provided its usual handful of humorous gaffs, by directing me to "follow the love" when cutting up the chicken, and "punch" the lemongrass and coconut "into rustle." So l was a little vague on the details, but I think I ended up with a pretty good approximation of the original.

On the side, I chose this recipe:

Nasi Goreng Berkat (Fried Rice)

  • 3 cups cooked white rice
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 4 shallots, mashed
  • 1 tsp Sambal (Malaysian Chili Paste)
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp Maggie chicken granules
  • 2 red chilies, sliced
  • 1/2 cup coconut flakes
  • 1 cup mustard greens, chopped
  • sesame oil
  • 1 piece of skinless chicken, shredded*
* Ingredient note: I cooked an extra chicken breast (all the way through of course) when I made the begana, and then set it aside to use in this recipe.

Now the only two problems with this dish: One, I'm pretty sure this type of rice is generally eaten for breakfast, based on the very vague translations I was able to find. Two, I'm not totally sure this is a Cocos (Keeling) recipe—it may just be Malaysian or a creation of the blog's author. But I would be surprised if something like this wasn't cooked on Cocos (Keeling), and it's not like I really had alternate websites I could use. This was literally the only resource I could find for this kind of cuisine.

So let's start with the chicken begana.

First mix the chicken with the salt and turmeric. Put it in the fridge for 30 minutes or so, then cook it over medium heat until it's almost done.

Now put the coconut flakes and the lemongrass in a food processor and puree, adding a little bit of water as needed, until you get a nice paste. (Hint: if you can only find sweetened coconut flakes, just put them in a fine mesh strainer and run some water over them until it runs clear. This should flush away most of the sugar.)

In a large pot, heat the oil and cook the garlic, shallots and onions with the chili paste, coriander and curry powder. Stir until fragrant, then add the chicken.

Add the water about a tablespoon at a time (you may not need the whole cup) until the ingredients start to just become saucy and the chicken cooks all the way through.

Now add the lime juice and the coconut/lemongrass paste.

Let simmer for five or 10 minutes, until the sauce dries out (this should be a pretty dry curry). Add salt to taste and serve.

Now on to the rice:

Heat the oil and saute the garlic with the onion and Sambal. When fragrant, add the rice and mix well.

Now add the soy sauce and Maggie powder. Stir until well incorporated, then add the mustard greens, coconut flakes and chili slices.

Drizzle a little bit of sesame oil over the rice and serve topped with the shredded chicken. (You can also garnish with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, which I did not do because those weren't listed with the rest of the ingredients. So I didn't buy them.).

Now, this was a very spicy meal. I was actually surprised by how spicy it was (I guess I underestimated the power of the Sambal). I did figure that it would at least be a little spicy, though, so I set aside some plain salt/turmeric chicken for my kids to eat instead of the curry. Even so, the rice alone was still spicy enough to put fires in their mouths (which is not usually something I subject them to). I did make a version without the chili slices, but even in small quantities the Sambal still made it hard to eat, at least by kid standards. Martin and I loved both dishes, because as far as we're concerned there's almost no such thing as too spicy, unless you count Bolivian Fritanga.

It was a unique curry, not quite like anything I've ever had. The coconut flakes gave it a very different texture and a flavor that was reminiscent of some Thai food I've eaten, though the character was more Indian. Of course I haven't eaten much Malaysian food so I can't say how the Cocos-Malay version differs from what you can get in Malaysia. And it will be a while before I find out, because Malaysia is way down there in the M's. If this is a taste, though, I think I'm a fan.

Next week: Colombia

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. These recipes are right up my alley! I don't know if I'll make them all in one meal, but I love all those spices. The chicken sounds amazing. And I love learning about places I knew nothing about.

  2. Thanks for commenting! If you do make either of these recipes, I'd love to hear what you think. :-)


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