Monday, February 27, 2012

AMK's first cooking class at Skillshare & a recipe for Lepat Pisang

lepat pisang, steamed banana parcels, Malaysian dessert
I'm so excited - I taught my first cooking class at Skillshare HQ in Soho yesterday.  It was actually my second class with the Skillshare team,  but my first at their gorgeous, spacious headquarters on Broome Street in Soho.
I arrived there at 1pm yesterday and met my lovely and talented assistant Angie as I stepped out of the elevator and she came bounding up the stairs.  No wonder she's so fit - you know when you read those articles about how to squeeze exercise into your daily routine and one of the tips is to take the stairs instead of using the elevator?  Seriously now - how many of us have actually done that?  Not me.  Ever.  And it shows.  But there was Angie,  Ms High Energy herself singing "hi!" as she literally came running up the stairs to the 5th floor!  Maybe I'll do that someday.  Maybe.  Okay - probably never. 
We set up all the ingredients I had brought and moved things around in Skillshare's kitchen to suit our needs.  At minutes to two,  two lovely ladies showed up - our first students.  Pretty soon,  every one else had arrived and we began.
We started out making the mixture for the Lepat Pisang.  What is lepat pisang?  It's the gorgeously silky,  indescribably delicious Malaysian lovechild of banana bread and pudding, as described by Joshua M. Bernstein in his blog post about my cooking.  Wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for 30 minutes, the result is what you see in the picture above.  The Malay words "lepat pisang" translate to "wrapped bananas" - perfectly simple and so on point. We mixed up a batch (which took all of ten minutes),  covered the bowl and popped it in the refrigerator to let the flavors mingle and get to know each other.
Then we moved on to my mum's famous spiced ghee rice.  The smell of the the spices and ghee sautéeing in the pan had everyone ooh-ing and aah-ing.  Everyone took turns at the stove - stirring the ingredients in the pan.  Someone volunteered to wash the rice.  He did an amazing job!  We put everything in Skillshare's rice cooker and turned our attention to the centerpiece of our class - a Singhalese-style chicken curry.  I know,  I know - I need to post that recipe ASAP.  It goes so well with the roti jala recipe here.
Next,  I shared a super easy recipe for greens - we used mini (not baby!  there is a difference) bok choy.  The greens are blanched,  then a simple sauce of oil, garlic and Vietnamese seasoning sauce is poured over them.  So easy,  so tasty and so versatile - you can substitute any tender greens with this method.
The most fun part of the class was wrapping the lepat pisang mixture in the banana leaves.  I showed them how to prepare the banana leaves - then each person was set up with a banana leaf,  a piece of pandan leaf and a heaping tablespoonful of the mixture.  I did one quick demonstration of the folding technique and they each wrapped the most perfect little parcels ever.  Such a bunch of pros!  Everyone got one more turn at wrapping a parcel and the pretty little envelopes were placed in the steamer.
skillshare cooking class in progressWhile waiting for the lepat pisang to cook,  we sat down to a delicious lunch.  I was so happy with this class - a great bunch of adventurous souls,  eager to experience something new and such a lovely, diverse group of people.  I enjoyed getting to know a little bit about each one of them - their backgrounds,  how they learned to cook and what brought them to NYC.  Now I'm seriously looking forward to teaching my next class - would anyone like to suggest a menu?
Here's my recipe for lepat pisang.  You can Google it and find lots of different recipes for it. Some recipes call for cornstarch.  Others only use all-purpose flour.  Some omit the shredded coconut and substitute water for the coconut milk.  This is my recipe for lepat pisang - the result of various trials with some of the substitutions mentioned above.  I find this to be the absolute best combination of ingredients for a silky smooth,  melt-in-your-mouth,  bursting-with-flavor lepat pisang.

Lepat Pisang (serves 6 - 8)
3 cups mashed overripe bananas *
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rice flour
4 tablespoons palm sugar (jaggery)
1/2 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons shredded coconut
A pinch of salt
18 pieces of banana leaves,  about 8" x 8" (run each piece under a hot tap,  to soften) **
2 pandan leaves,  cut into 1" pieces **

Combine the mashed bananas,  flours and sugar.  Add the coconut milk bit by bit,  to moisten the mixture enough to achieve the consistency of runny oatmeal.  Add the shredded coconut and salt,  and mix well to combine.   Don't worry if the mixture seems lumpy - this adds wonderful texture to the finished product.
Bring a large pot of water to boil for steaming.
 Lay a piece of banana leaf down on your counter and put a piece of pandan leaf in the middle.  Spoon a heaping tablespoon of the mixture right on top of the pandan leaf.  Fold the top and bottom closed,  being careful to keep the mixture in the middle of the leaf - then fold the left and right sides down to create a little envelope of the mixture.  Repeat with the rest of the mixture.  You should end up with about 14 - 18 packets,  depending on how generous you were with the mixture in each leaf. 
skillshare studentsArrange the envelopes in a steamer,  making sure not to crowd them.  It's ok to have them on top of each other,  just remember to leave space in between them so the steam has room to move.
Steam for 30 minutes.  Serve warm.

* I like to use the mini bananas (aka finger bananas or bananitos is Hispanic markets),  which can be found at most Asian produce markets.  In some Caribbean neighborhoods,  you can find these at bodegas as well.  Remember to buy them ahead of time and use them when very, very, very ripe.  Yes,  that's three "verys"! If you use regular bananas,  again, just make sure they are overripe. 

** Here in NY,  frozen banana leaves and pandan leaves can be bought at Bangkok Center Grocery,  104 Mosco Street in Chinatown or online here.  To prepare the banana leaves for wrapping,  first cut the hard middle spine of the leaf off.  Cut into the appropriate size.  Then wash each piece really well under hot running water - the hot water softens the leaf so it is easy to fold.  If you omit this step,  you'll find the leaves crack as you try to fold them up.

lepat pisang, Malaysian dessert, steamed banana parcels
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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Coconut Chronicles

I've been in the US for twenty years now, and all this time I've cooked exclusively with canned coconut milk.  It has its pros and cons - its a super convenient way to get that beautiful coconut-ty creaminess into dishes,  without all the hassle and mess of scraping fresh coconuts and extracting the milk yourself.  Unfortunately,  freshness is exactly what you lose in using the canned stuff and what you gain are preservatives and things like BPAs.  Yuck!  So,  here's my family's journey back to the hassle and mess - and back to gorgeous, tasty, fresh coconut milk.
The story begins with my husband lodging a complaint with the kitchen (me!) regarding the use of canned coconut milk.  He claims that while able to scarf down all manner of curried goodness back home in Malaysia without problems,  here in Brooklyn my curries with canned coconut milk made him....uhm, less than happy.  You figure out what that means.   Because of these issues,  I've cut way back on cooking with coconut milk and have been humoring him with Caribbean-style curries,  which do not use coconut milk.  On the rare occasion that I did cook with coconut milk,  it was usually because we had guests and he would refrain from indulging in the delicious curries.  The poor thing.  Over time,  a conversation began about figuring out a way to get fresh-squeezed coconut milk here in Brooklyn.  I've been very resistant to the idea because I know just how difficult and time-consuming it can be to scrape or shred a coconut so that the milk can be extracted from it.  Back home in Malaysia,  you can get freshly scraped coconut at any market and even at local neighborhood grocery stores,  then take it home and squeeze it for fresh milk.  How civilized!  When I was a child,  we had three coconut trees in our backyard and occasionally when my Mum forgot to get scraped coconut from the market,  we would get one off the tree.  I was inevitably given the tedious job of scraping the coconut - which meant pulling out a little apparatus that looked like a low-to-the-ground bench with a jagged metal blade that was used to shred the coconut into a little bowl that was placed on the floor. Highly undignified and it took forever.  Remembering all this made me very unhappy at the thought of scraping coconuts in my kitchen here in Brooklyn.  Anyway,  while we were home in Malaysia,  we tried to find a solution to the coconut scraping problem - the husband talked about it at every family dinner and with all my parents' friends.  I sullenly proclaimed that I would NOT be scraping any coconut in my kitchen in Brooklyn unless we had some sort of machine to do it.  The husband countered my brattiness with "I'll do it,  I'll do it - it'll be worth it to have fresh coconut milk." The whole community jumped into action to help us figure out a way to get fresh coconut milk - folks were suggesting places to go to find mechanical scrapers,  electric scrapers,  manual rotary scrapers. Phone calls were being made.  Heated discussions were had about what would be our best bet.  Someone suggested using a blender and was quickly shot down with a chorus of "Noooooooo,  it's too difficult to get the flesh off the shell". All the aunties were animated - Aunty Khim, Aunty May, Aunty Irene and my good friend Francisca.  Someone suggested a store on Singapore Street in Seremban and we went there with a quickness to find our elusive scraper.  We decided that the husband should wait in the car,  so we wouldn't be given the "white boy price" (yes,  that DOES happen!)  Mum went deep into the back of the shop and asked for a manual or mechanical or electric coconut scraper, while I milled about nonchalantly perusing the various woks and ladles.  She emerged with a beautiful rectangular box - my heart leapt,  I thought we had found something.   She then opened up the two sides of the box,  and out of the middle of it a very familiar looking jagged metal blade folded out - ugh,  it was a modern-day version of the coconut-scraping bench I used to use when I was a kid, only this was a "designer" one where the blade could be folded neatly into the body of the bench so it looked like a pretty little box when not in use. 
coconut scraper, hand-heldMum was trying to convince me to get it, but my childhood coconut-scraping memories had me running out of there so fast I almost drove off without her. On our last day in Malaysia,  Aunty Irene showed up at our house with these hand-held scrapers.  Thank you Aunty Irene!
They're basically a hand-held version of the little bench scraper,  so at least you're not sitting on the ground.  It wasn't the electric or manual rotary one we had in mind, and it would still be a lot of work,  but at least you would maintain your dignity.  Or so I thought. 
coconut,coconuts,husked,matureBack in Brooklyn,  our journey continued with a trip to Chinatown in Manhattan,  where I picked up these beautiful babies.  In selecting coconuts for milk,  look for a deep, brown color,  a good heft and a nice sloshing sound when you shake it vigorously.  These are signs of a mature coconut.  Young coconuts are lighter in color,  and don't slosh as loudly - maybe because the flesh inside is still soft and are not good for milk.  No slosh,  no good.  Inspect the coconuts carefully for fine cracks as that will be an indication that the coconut has probably gone bad and will only bring you heartache when you get it home and pop it open to find a pinkish flesh inside instead of pure white and a disgusting, rancid smell.
open coconut, coconut flesh, fresh coconut
The next step was to crack one of them open.  I've seen this done a million times - in Malaysia,  when you go to a neighborhood grocery store for shredded coconut,  they crack one open right there in front of you.  I tried doing this with a cleaver - it's much harder than it looks.  You need a really strong left hand to hold that coconut steady while you smack it hard with the dull side of the cleaver.  I tried this a couple of times and quickly got the sense that it wasn't going to work.  Plan B - I got a couple of empty plastic shopping bags,  an empty cup (to collect the delicious coconut water), a kitchen towel and got down on the floor.  The coconut was placed on the kitchen towel and inside the plastic bag (as I didn't want coconut water all over my kitchen floor.)  A couple of good thwacks with the cleaver and it was open.  Success.  See all that beautiful white, creamy coconut flesh?  Now for the hard part!
Since the husband had boastfully proclaimed that he would gladly scrape coconuts for fresh milk,  I set him up with a bowl,  a scraper and the open coconut.  I made myself busy with "kitchen clean up" and sat back to watch what I knew was going to happen.
coconut, scraping, shredding
Two minutes into the operation - "Wow,  this is hard."  Five minutes into the operation - "Is this thing working? Is this how it's supposed to go?"  Clean-up done,  I moved into the livingroom to play with the preschooler.  Ten minutes into the operation - "Hey!  I didn't sign up for this!!"  I walked into the kitchen to find a man stripped of his prior coconut bravado.  The coconut had won this round.  So much for maintaining our dignity.  I didn't say "I told you so", but I just typed it here in this blog post,  didn't I?  I picked up a second coconut scraper and jumped into the trenches with him.  Perhaps with a little teamwork,  we could get it done.  Twenty minutes of hard work later,  and with our forearms on fire, we had a good amount of scraped coconut but there was still white flesh in the shell - I remembered that back home when I used the bench scraper,  Mum would never let me get away with leaving all that coconut in the shell.  You scraped until you hit the brown of the shell,  or else! Mum wasn't here with us,  so we wrapped up the operation,  patted each other on the back for a job almost well done and called it a day.
I knew then and there that that would be the last time the husband would ever pick up one of those scraper thingies.  Two days later he sent me a link to a newspaper article "Man kills relative with coconut scraper."  A fate worse than swimming with the fishes.  Srsly!
I managed to get two cups of thick, creamy, FRESH coconut milk from what we had and cooked a beautiful chicken curry and some roti jala with it.  At the end of the day,  I have to admit - the husband was right.  There really is a huge difference and it definitely is worth the trouble.  Out of convenience and neccesity,  I had grown accustomed to using canned coconut milk,  but that day as I cooked with our hard-earned fresh coconut milk,  my kitchen was filled with a heavenly aroma never before smelled in our 107-year old house.  Zero preservatives,  zero toxins - 100% natural, yummy goodness.
In two days,  I'm going to be cooking a big meal that requires coconut milk for a special group of people - there are two beautiful coconuts waiting in my kitchen.  I've been looking up other ways of processing coconuts for milk and have found a few other ways of doing it on this blog.  The writer shares her way of doing it,  but if you also read the comments,  her readers share their ideas as well.  I may try prying the flesh out of the shell and using my juicer - I wonder how that will work.  Have any of you got your own coconut milk stories to share?  The coconut saga continues...
manual coconut scraper, scrape coconut Update (March 19,2012) - My husband gifted me with this beautiful contraption. It scrapes the meat out of fresh coconuts for squeezing.  It's still a lot of work for a spoiled tropical babe who is accustomed to snapping her fingers (well, not really, but you get the idea) for the freshest coconut milk and having it brought to her on a golden platter by four young, loin-clothed men..... Auria! snap out of it. And there you have it, a glimpse of what goes on inside the mind of someone who still misses the convenience of going down to the neighborhood corner store or the wet market for beautiful fresh coconut milk. This actually does the job very nicely so when fresh coconut milk must be had, it's right here at my fingertips. 
Update (January 12, 2013) - Here's an article in the NY Times about how anyone can make fresh coconut milk at home.
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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Roti Jala

roti jala,chicken curry, Malaysian, bread
My dear husband experienced roti jala for the first time in Malaysia at the home of a longtime friend in January of 2010.  He's been singing the praises of roti jala since then and they've been falling on deaf ears here. When we were there this past December,  he once again came upon the elusive roti jala at a hotel breakfast buffet in Penang where he also got to see how it is made - with something called a roti jala funnel.  He instantly recognized it as something that we have in our kitchen - "Wait... don't we have one of those at home?"  Uh-oh - nowhere to run,  nowhere to hide! The matter was settled as amicably as possible, with me trying to distract him with the buffet's magnificent display of dragon fruit and promising to provide roti jala on a regular basis once we got back to Brooklyn. So,  two nights ago,  we had our first roti jala adventure - made with freshly-squeezed coconut milk,  which is a whole other blog post. Let me just tell you that while it is normal to use only fresh coconut milk back home in Malaysia,  here in Brooklyn it's completely unheard of and we went to great lengths to make some. 
Roti jala is a quintessentially Malaysian dish - a combination of Malay and Indian influences,  it is a wonderful example of the fusion of cultures that is uniquely Malaysian. The batter is poured into a hot pan with the aforementioned funnel, resulting in a lacy,  crepe-like, melt-in-your-mouth bread that is prefect for soaking up a spicy curry gravy. As I write this,  I'm wishing we had leftovers. Perhaps we'll have to make it again this weekend?

Roti Jala (serves 5)
3 cups all-purpose flour  - sifted
3 eggs
3 cups coconut milk
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
Coconut oil - to grease the pan
In a large bowl, beat the 3 eggs.   Add the coconut milk,  water, salt and turmeric powder and whisk well. Slowly add the flour and stir to incorporate the wet and dry ingredients, until the batter comes to a smooth consistency. Strain the batter through a fine sieve to remove any lumps - this step ensures that the batter will pass through the funnel's multiple tiny outlets instead of clogging them up.
Heat up a flat griddle pan or large nonstick frying pan and then turn the heat to medium. Grease the pan lightly - I use coconut oil whenever possible,  but your choice of vegetable oil will do just as well.
roti jala,mould,batter,panFill the roti jala funnel about halfway and let the batter drip onto the heated pan.  Beginning on the outer edge of the pan,  move the funnel in circles to create a lacy circular pattern.  My first couple of attempts at this were kinda miserable - the strands were thick and did not resemble the delicate roti jala we enjoyed back home.  It's all in the technique - with a little bit of practice, I managed to re-create these to perfection.  The trick is to keep that funnel moving quick - the slower you move,  the thicker the strands are.  Here's a video from that breakfast buffet in Penang to show you how it's done:
roti jala,funnel,mould,Malaysian foodHere's a picture of the funnel - see the five pointy things on the bottom?  If you can't get your hands on one,  but are determined to try this recipe,  have someone who is handy with a hammer and a nail punch 5 small holes in the bottom of an empty can.  Make sure to hammer down any sharp edges and be careful.  If you absolutely MUST have one of these funnel thingies,  email me at and we'll try and get one to you.
And finally,  here's a pic of the roti jala served with my mum's incredible chicken curry - recipe to follow shortly.  I hope you'll make this and share it with your friends and family - it's really super easy and you'll look like a genius in the kitchen. 
roti jala,chicken curry,Malaysian food, bread,crepe,Indian,Malay
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