Words by Marina Benjamin
Malaysia Kitchen recently invited Norman Musa, executive chef of Ning Restaurant in York to demonstrate the best of his country’s cooking for a gathering of game journalists and food bloggers who were then tasked with cooking a meal themselves. The hands-on approach worked, because unless you grasp that Malaysian cooking is a sophisticated fusion of Malay, Indian and Chinese influences, that builds complexity from an interchangeable mix of base components – ginger, shallots, garlic, lemon grass, curry power, star anise, pandan, tamarind, coconut, chilli pastes, lime – it’s impossible to appreciate the depth of taste sensations that ends up dancing on your tongue.
The first dish we made was Kari Ayam, or chicken curry. In delicate bamboo bowls we mixed together minced onion, garlic and ginger. Then we popped in a star anise, a piece of cinnamon bark and a knotted pandan leaf and tossed the lot into heated oil. Instantly, the aromas transported us to a real Malaysian kitchen. Next, we mixed curry powder (lots of it, to deliver a good kick) with tamarind juice, sugar, salt, and a little water to make a paste, and added that to our cooking pans. Norman was a gentle guide through all this, reminding us to cook the curry powder properly – till the oil separates – since that way you get the kick of heat as an after taste (which is where you want it) rather than as a hot blast on first contact. Once the curry base was ready, you add chicken or vegetables and a cube of shrimp-paste for depth. The dish is then finished off with coconut milk and water, and voila! you have the kind of curry that your guests will never believe came from the kitchen of a novice.
No Malaysian demonstration would be complete without showing off the cuisine-defining Laksa, a spicy noodle soup that has spawned numerous local variants across the country. Norman’s version contained fresh prawns (in their shells, for added savour), crispy tofu, spinach and bamboo shoots. But, as always with Malaysian cooking, the engine-house of the dish lay in the combination of spices and pastes that lay at its base. This time the flavour base was a mixture of minced shallots, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, chilli and shrimp pastes, and an array of dry Indian spices. These are the kind of vibrant ingredients that put a smile on your face, even before they release their spectacular aromas in the pan.
Laksa, it turns out, is a fun dish to make as well as eat, because you get to pour your piping hot spicy sauce over pre-cooked noodles and delicate vegetables, as if bringing dead matter to life with the sheer force of vital liquid and heat. It’s more like chemistry than cooking, and the result is a delicious blend of textures and temperatures, bite and give, all washed down with the soothing warmth of spice-laden coconut milk.
By now, all the rookie cooks were salivating, intoxicated by the inviting smells of frying spice. But before we could eat we made pancakes called Roti Jalas, spiked with coconut and turmeric. These were cooked on flat pans that reminded me of Indian tarvas that are used to make chapatis: the key to using these is to keep the use of oil to a minimum, and the heat fairly high. Norman used a plastic scoop with holes in the bottom, making the pancake batter drizzle out onto to pan in lovely, arcing curves. His pancakes looks liked edible doilies – but they tasted like a little bit of spongy heaven.
All the cooks felt they’d earned their supper by time we finally sat down to eat. And to complete the feast, Norman plated up a zesty beef Rendang stew, spiced with kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and galangal, that had been slow-cooking all afternoon, and several steaming bowls of jasmine rice. The condiments on offer included dried crispy shallots, chilli sauce and sweet soy, or kicap manis, but the food was so stonkingly good in itself that you barely needed them.
To finish, we demolished a serving of seri muka, a double-layered dessert made from coconutty glutinous rice and topped with bright green, pandan-scented custard. To accompany this unusual stripy confection, we drank a frothy tea made with sweetened condensed milk called teh tarik.
If you would like to try Norman's Laksa, below is his tried and tested recipe.
Ingredients (serves 2):
6 deep fried tofu cake cubed
75g bean sprouts
10 king prawns, with shells on
150g vermicelli noodles
100ml coconut milk
Juice of 1 lime
½ tbsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp crushed black peppercorns
1 star anise
1 cinnamon bark
2 green cardamoms
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp shrimp paste
20g chilli paste (optional)
2 lemongrass stalks
(only use bottom halves)
4 garlic cloves
1 inch ginger
1. Soak noodles and beansprouts in boiling water
for 10 minutes and set aside.
2. Blend the wet ingredients until pureed. Using a bowl,
mix the dry and wet ingredients together with 50ml
water, 2 tsp salt and 1 tbsp sugar. Mix well.
3. Heat a wok and add 6 tbsp cooking oil. Fry the
mixture until fragrant. Add 750ml of water and
prawns. Bring to boil and then simmer on a low
heat for 15 minutes. Next add coconut milk and
tofu. Cook for another 5 minutes. Turn off heat.
4. Put noodles and beansprouts in a separate big
bowl and pour over the gravy with prawns and
tofu. Garnish with fried shallots, coriander leaves
and sliced chilies.
With his business partner Andy Spracklen, Norman Musa will be launching a Malaysian supper club in Hackney next month, and he’s even talking about bringing Ning to fans of Malaysian cooking in London. In the meantime, Musa-philes can roadtest some of his favourite recipes at www.Normanmusa.com.