Sunday, December 26, 2010


I love spicy hot foods! Hence my attraction to foods such as kim chi, curries and the like. This, however, may seem strange. While I love heat in my food, I really do not like hot sauce! Sure, when I make buffalo wings (I'll post my recipe) I have to use hot sauce. But apart from that, you'll never, ever see me use hot sauce on my food.

So what do I do? I use sambals and hot pepper-based concoctions. You see, I like texture! Hot sauce is just a liquid. I want crunch and bite! That's why I love hot sauces that are thick and flavorful -- made of pieces of onions or shallots, various kinds of hot peppers and sometimes fruit! They're so much more interesting and flavorful to me than boring hot sauces.

I was in Tanzania in November. I was absolutely thrilled that the restaurant featured Indian hot mango pickle! It was made of unripe mangoes, vinegar, garlic and hot peppers. I single-handedly (I think, anyway) ate most of it. I put it on my stews, on the veggies, on rice -- on everything! It woke the food up, deepened (but didn't mask) the flavors and added a nice layer of texture.

I have been to Malaysia a few times and love the food. The sambals, which are chilli-based sauces, are wonderful! I bought a cookbook of Malaysian sambals, dips and sauces and made one.

I warn you now -- I found the process to be long, arduous, time-consuming and literally exhausting. But my, oh my -- the finished product was delightful. It was a delightful combination of dried prawns, fresh and dried chillies and lemongrass. The resulting sambal was highly aromatic and I warn you -- very, very hot!!!! But it perked up food and make the eating experience a worthwhile challenge.

Some of the ingredients, such as tamarind pulp, galangal and belachan, may be unfamiliar to many Western cooks. But I've been able to find them in Super 88 and other Asian supermarkets in my neighborhood.


Special Kampung Prawn Sambal

1/2 cup dried prawns, rinsed and soaked for 15 minutes
4 tablespoons oil
2 medium ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, diced
1 1/2 tablespoons tamarind pulp mashed with 1 cup water, strained to obtain juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt

Spice Paste
2 stalks lemongrass, thick bottom part only, outer layers removed, inner part sliced
1 inch fresh galangal root, sliced
1 1/2 inch fresh tumeric root, sliced or 1 tsp ground tumeric
20 dried chillies, soaked in water to soften, then deseeded and cut into lengths
8 fresh red chillies, deseeded and sliced
15 shallots, peeled
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon belachan (dried shrimp paste)
1/2 cup water

1. To make the Spice Paste, grind all the ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth, adding a little oil if necessary to keep the blades turning.

2. Drain the dried prawns and grind them coarsely in a mortar or blender.

3. Heat the oil in a wok and stir-fry the dried prawns over medium heat for 3 minutes until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and onion, and stir-fry for another 3 minutes until the mixture softens.

4. Add the Spice Paste, reduce the heat to low and stir-fry for 8 - 10 minutes until the oil separates from the mixture. Add the tamarind juice, sugar and salt. Increase the heat to medium and stiry-fry for 5 minutes until the sambal thickens and the oil separates from it.

This sambal keeps in the refrigerator for 3 months.

Yields 2 1/2 cups

Gingerbread for the holiday season

I was talking to my sister the other day about the Christmas season. Sherri reminded me of one of her favorite memories: the scent of sweet, fragrant gingerbread baking the oven. Mommy always made gingerbread this time of year. I had actually forgotten that -- at least consciously. Over the past few weeks, I have found myself in the kitchen, opening molasses and measuring out heaps of ginger to make gingerbread. I guess some memories become so internalized that they become part of you.

The holiday season is a very busy time, too. There are parties, out-of-school children to attend to, cards to write, and friends and family to visit. So, while we all love a homemade treat at this time of year, we generally want to enjoy it with minimal effort.

I have tried my share of gingerbread recipes, and have managed to find a one-bowl version that I like that is super easy and fast. It's moist, sweet and full of gingery flavor. Enjoy!



* 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
* 1/3 cup granulated sugar
* 1 cup molasses
* 3/4 cup hot water
* 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
* 1 large egg
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
* 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Grease and flour a 9-inch square baking pan or spray with a baking spray with flour. Heat oven to 325°.

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl; beat on low speed of electric mixer until ingredients are combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl and increase mixer speed to medium; beat for about 3 minutes longer. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan.

Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cut into squares and serve with freshly whipped cream. To serve leftover gingerbread, warm slightly in the microwave for about 15 to 20 seconds.

This gingerbread freezes well: cut into squares and wrap individually. Thaw and warm in the microwave just before serving.