the business of breakfast: Malaysia (recipe included!)

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Miss Fats apologizes for neglecting you all.  It’s been a crazy month back in the U.S. that has mostly consisted of overwhelming work nonsense and persistent cravings for Malaysian cuisine followed by acute stints of post-travel depression.  She is not happy that her life is no longer organized around which dirty alleyway or food cart contains her next meal.  #firstworldproblems

But Miss Fats’ spirits have been successfully raised in the last week.  After the slow accumulation of ingredients, she managed to recreate one of her favorite Malaysian dishes: Nasi Lemak.  This weird little bundle of joy is a very traditional morning meal.  Though it varies across the country, Nasi Lemak is typically coconut rice topped with spicy sambal, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), peanuts, an egg, and chopped cucumber, all wrapped up in a banana leaf or butcher paper for your on-the-go convenience. This breakfast prism can be found at most nasi kandar (Mamak buffet-style) stands, Malaysian food cars/trucks/bikes, or hawker centers.  Miss Fats became obsessed with the spicy sambal “crack sauce” that seeped into that coconut rice, hiding the crunchy bites of peanuts just waiting to be unearthed from beneath the fried fish bites and crispy cucumbers.  She cannot convey just how amazing a perfect bite of nasi lemak can be: you get a little egg, little saucy rice, little fish, and a peanut all in your spoon and you’re in crazy mouth explosion territory.  The best part of this bundle?  Going rate was around 1.50 ringgit (that’s less than 50 cents US). Needless to say, the Malaysians have breakfast figured out.

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Miss Fats has been dying to recreate the experience since returning to the US, and finally, last week, she was able to collect all the necessary ingredients (and substitutions) to make it happen. It wasn’t the same—no banana leaf, no crispy whole mini fish bites—but the flavors of that sauce were close enough to briefly transport her back to the sticky plastic tables of a Malaysian roadside stand.  So in celebration of her relatively successful virtual food-cation, Miss Fats will be running down some of her favorite breakfasts she had abroad, and share her America-friendly recipe with you all.  She hopes by the end you are all converts to the proper way of eating: excessive meat and bread breakfasts for all.

Roti Canai or Pratha

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This might be the breakfast.  Or at least wins Miss Fat and T’s “most consumed” contest.  T was essentially obsessed with this bready breakfast from the first time she laid eyes on it in Singapore.  Walking by the local banana leaf shop, she eyed the crispy naan-looking flat bread on everyone’s plate.  She immediately declared that they would have to stop tomorrow morning to investigate.  The next day, after the usual ordering protocol of pointing and asking for “whatever they are having,” they discovered the simple magic of pratha (or roti canai in Malaysia).  This chewy and crispy flat bread may look similar to naan, but is incredibly different.  After some research, Miss Fats discovered it’s made with standard wheat flour and ghee (no leveners here).

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Unlike naan’s place in a tandoori pot, roti canai is made on a scorching hot flat top where it undergoes a process of stretching and folding, giving its crispy, slightly puffed chewy texture.  She wishes she could count the number of time she just stared at the cooks effortlessly pulling the little balls of dough into paper-think sheets and throwing them down on the stove.  Using two flat spatulas, they’d fold and pull, fold and pull, eventually fluffing the bready pocket, only to beat it down at the last minute, allowing for one last crispy layer to develop on the bottom.  Roti canai are typically served up with two spicy bowls of curry business: one is usually a yellow milder daal, alongside a deep red spicy sauce.  Unlike many other Indian-influenced Malaysian dishes, you actually consume this with a fork and spoon.  Tearing the bread apart, you dunk those bites into both sauces and shovel away into your mouth.  Not to mention you can get these buttery pockets stuffed with a whole range of items, the most common being: egg, onion, butter, sardines, cheese (like American cheese, y’all), and banana.  Miss Fats tended to favor the standard roti canai, served up with a milky teh tarik (pulled tea with sweetened condensed milk), but she was a HUGE fan of the roti kaya variation.  This option featured the roti stuffed with a healthy scoop of kaya (coconut egg jam) and was still served up with the two standard dips.  The sweet coconut jam, bread and spicy curry all melded into the most insane sweet, savory mouth time ever.

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Perhaps the strangest, but most exciting variation was the roti tisu.  This was T’s favorite sweet version of the classic, featuring paper-thin bread, stretched and molded into a towering cone.  The whole thing is then drizzled in honey and you’re left to go at with your fingers, cracking off pieces of flaky, honey-soaked bread.  Unfortunately the tisu doesn’t typically come with those spicy dips, but T was always snagging some of Miss Fats to ensure optimal sweet/spicy/savory flavor action.

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Kaya Toast

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Since Miss Fats has already introduced you to kaya, she thought she should talk a little more about a favorite breakfast that essentially revolves around the magic egg jam.  From the limited research Miss Fats has executed, she believes kaya toast comes from Hong Kong.  However it seems to be a favorite in Malaysia, particularly in areas populated by Chinese immigrants.  This simple breakfast features a thick piece of perfectly toasted egg-y Asian bread (no crusts!) topped with a healthy spread of kaya jam and margarine.  The toast is served up alongside two soft-boiled eggs and spoon full of sugar.  After watching many old men eat this dish, Miss Fats and T discovered that you’re supposed to drizzle a little soy sauce into those eggs and mix them up real good.  Then you dip your toast in sugar and then the eggs, sopping up all that yolky goodness, and again, diving right into the sweet savory breakfast party.

It wasn’t until Miss Fats arrived in Penang that she had the chance to try this dish out, and boy was she pissed that she’d wasted so much time without kaya toast in her life.  Determined to try this dish, she researched the best toast in Georgetown (not an easy task: Google hates Malaysia).  She settled on a little café where an old woman spends four hours slowing cooking the jam and even sells jars of it for all the kaya addicts out there.  Naturally Miss Fats bought a ton and proceeded to carry these strange little jars of coconut jam around with her for the next two weeks, dipping any cracker-like object into the sticky sweet tub permanently sitting on her bedside table.  Why kaya doesn’t exist in the US is beyond Miss Fats; and unfortunately her hoarded supply is dwindling.  She is seriously going to have to work on her egg jam skills, because Miss Fats is fairly certain she will die without it.

Dim Sum

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Alright, this is hardly new.  However Malaysia has a huge Chinese immigrant population, so dim sum breakfast is a standard throughout the country.  Miss Fats and T ‘summed it up a couple of times: indulging in as many pork and leek dumplings, sticky rice and bowls of congee as possible.  She’ll save you the detailed descriptions of each and every little dish, and instead allow the beautiful pictures to do the talking.  Some of Miss Fats’ favorites included the fishcake stuffed Japanese eggplant and peppers, BBQ pork stuffed folded rice sheets, and steamed shrimp dumplings.  Miss Fats and I would load up their table with as many little bowls as possible and pop little dumpling bite after bite.  It’s hard to say how different Malaysian dim sum is from giant restaurants stuffed with people every Sunday in the US: Miss Fats is no dim sum expert.  However she will say that she had some of the best BBQ pork of her life, stuffed in a perfectly steamed hum bow in Penang.  Whatever they’re doing to the pork in that city: keep it up.

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Nasi Kandar

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Nasi kandar has come up a couple of times now, and is hardly specific to breakfast.  In fact, it’s really more of a twenty-four hour buffet of Mamak delights.  However, Miss Fats and T frequently began their day at the kandar (and they were hardly the only ones at it).  The basic premise is a you’re given a heaping plate of rice that you top with as many scoops of Malaysian curry, vegetables or meats as you’d like.

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Now it took a long time for Miss Fats and T to figure this shit out.  And she’s not even entirely sure how it works now.  Typically, you’ve got a wide spread of dishes including various meat curries, stewed vegetables and big trays of crispy friend chicken.  You’re then welcome to scoop (or sometimes there’s someone there to serve them up for you) as many of them as you’d like.  Now it’s the payment part that always confused them.  You are typically charged per scoop, or per hunk of meat; vegetables cost less and the chicken is most expensive.  Now this is a problem if you’re like Miss Fats and T who like to sample absolutely everything.  Coming off their experience at the Indian buffet—where they’d perfected the tiny sample scoop technique to ensure optimal testing—this made for some expensive trips to kandar in the beginning (see above: not how you kandar).  They would often get very confused looks as to why they would waste a scoop on such small portion of curry.

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Kandar is incredibly affordable if you work it like a local, and by the end, Miss Fats getting the hang of things.  Essentially you should pick one meat curry—Miss Fats’ favorite was typically mutton—and go for one big hunk.  With the meat curries you’re allowed additional scoops of all the saucy goodness it’s sitting in, so go ahead and dip back in for some of that meaty curry business.  Then you follow with a good scoop or two of vegetables—typically some sort of cabbage, or if you’re lucky, okra. Then just throw down an egg for good measure. Top that all off with some of the free crushed peanuts and cucumber slices sitting at the end.  Boom: the most hearty meat breakfast of your life.  Good fucking morning.

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Now, what Miss Fats and T could never figure out was the extra sauce scoop action she frequently saw locals indulging in.  Apparently one can ask for just a scoop of a meat sauce to top off their meal mound, but whether there was a charge and how much that would be, is beyond Miss Fats.  She eventually succumbed to just being careful about the number of meat pieces and just paid whatever price she was told at the register.  Who knows: maybe she doesn’t understand kandar at all.  Other than it’s worth any cost because frankly, a good day should begin with a hunk of mutton on bed of fragrant rice. Topped with an egg. Obviously.

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All the rest:

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It’s difficult to say whether some of the dishes they had were standard breakfast fair, however Miss Fats and T found that most cities served up all meals, all day (and all night).  Therefore they were often indulging in giant steaming bowls of noodle-y soup first thing in the morning.  Or consuming piles of “dry” wonton noodles and dumplings with a smattering of duck sauce over top.  They operated under the premise that breakfast was important primer step for their day of eating ahead.  Therefore copious amounts of meats and carbs were meant to both fuel and stretch their bloated bodies and allow for optimal consumption and energy throughout the day.

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So in the spirit of beginning your day with a meaty gut-brick meant to power endless consumption and mindless wandering, Miss Fats would like to share her recipe for nasi lemak with all of you.  The traditional dish has been significantly altered due to missing ingredients stateside (not to mention Miss Fats land-locked geographic location), but she found this recipe to produce satisfying flavors of Malaysia that brought her right back to those banana leaf prism bundles of joy.  She hopes you all will give this a try so you can get a little taste of just how goddamn amazing Malaysian flavors can truly be.  For realz: it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.

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Nasi Lemak
makes 4 servings
adapted from Rasa Malaysia

2 cups basmati rice
1 can coconut milk
good pinch of salt

4 shallots
1 clove garlic
15 dried chili peppers*
1 tsp jeotgal (Korean salted, fermented shrimp) **
1 small can of anchovies in oil
1 half red onion, sliced into thin half rings
1 cup tamarind juice***
1 tbs sugar
salt to taste
water

1 can sardines in water, drained
4 hard boiled or fried eggs
chopped cucumber
crushed, toasted peanuts

*Miss Fats still has no idea what kind of chilies she was supposed to use.  She went with the dried serano peppers that you can find in big bins in the produce section of the grocery store.  Who know if she was right.  She recommends going for whatever is the most red, or the largest if you’re afraid of it being too spicy.

**She substituted the Korean fermented shrimp because there was no damn way she was going to be able to get her hands on Malaysian belacan (traditional salted shrimp paste).  She’s pretty sure you can also use a Chinese version of shrimp paste.  Both should be available in most Asian grocery store and lasts in the fridge for basically forever.

***Supposedly you can soak that boxed tamarind you find in some produce sections and Indian grocery stores.  Miss Fats has no idea how to do this.  She instead dissolved about 1 tsp of tamarind paste in water.  She found the tamarind paste at Whole Foods (vastly overpriced) and eventually was able to pick up some tamarind concentrate at an Indian grocery store.

1. Cook the rice as you typically would, simply substituting the water with coconut milk.

2. In a food processor, combine the shallots, garlic, chilies and shrimp.  Blend until you get a relatively-smooth paste.

3. Heat a saucepan and cook the paste until fragrant.  Stir in the anchovies, red onion, sugar and tamarind juice.  Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until the onion rings become soft and nearly disinegrate into the sauce and you get a thick, dark red gravy.   Salt and sugar to taste.

4. To serve, lay down a bed of rice, top with a healthy scooping of the sauce.  Top with the fish and garnish with a small pile of cucumbers and a sprinkling of peanuts.  Finish it off with the egg.

Miss Fats highly recommends just mixing all that rice and sauce together and then trying to get spoonfulls that perfectly balance the soaked rice with a crispy cucumber and bite of peanut.  She can’t even describe how good that perfect marriage of egg, sauce, peanut, fish can be.  Just eat it now, because there’s no possible way your brain can try to imagine this flavor/texture combination.  It’s something you have to try for yourself and allow your imagination to implode as your entire flavor palate becomes refigured through the flavors of Malaysian cooking.

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Obachan’s Sukiyaki

IMG_0454Now this is a treat, people.  Miss Fats is sharing a serious secret with you today.  She’s going to give you the run down on Obachan’s famous sukiyaki.  This is easily Miss Fats’ most requested meal by her oldest friends who have had the delight of sitting down with Obachan over a steaming, giant pan of her magical sukiyaki.  They’ll testify to the pleasure party of this dining experience.

For those of you who might not be familiar with sukiyaki, it’s a communal pot of goodness featuring an array of ingredients cooked in a salty sweet broth and consumed with japanese sticky rice.  Though the picture above may look like shitty food porn, it’s actually a tasty combination of items from which you can pick and choose (but lets get real: you just grab some of everything).  The communal pot (how Obachan always serves it up), allows people to choose anything from meat to vegis and makes this dish infinitely adaptable to whatever you have on hand.  The key is really the cooking process and the broth itself.  This no fuss family style meal is also perfect for a little dinner party or larger groups of people (permitting you have a big enough pan.  You should see Obachan’s: it’s bigger than her. No seriously.)

IMG_0434Miss Fats will say that this dish requires a bit of hunting for ingredients.  However that’s really only if you want to stick with the recipe exactly.  The sukiyaki meat in particular can prove challenging.  This super thin sliced beef is the perfect tender cut for the quick cooking and communal pot.  She recommends aiming for a cut of beef that resembles  Philly Cheese Steak meat. The other challenge is the shiraki, or japanese yam noodles.  However thanks to the low carb fad, many grocery stores actually carry them in the guise of some bullshit “magic” noodle name.  These can typically be found near the tofu at gourmet grocery stores (they will be vastly marked up, so if you do have an Asian grocery store nearby, Miss Fats recommends heading there first).

IMG_0422The yummy broth base may require some hunting, but once you have them on hand, you can make this dish whenever you want.  The trickiest item would be the mirin, a sweet japanese cooking wine that is key.  Miss Fats has seen this at many grocery stores in the Asian foods aisle, but again, it will be overpriced.  She highly recommends a trip to the Asian Grocery store to pick up the shiraki, meat, mirin, and sake.  Over-buy and hoard.  The meat freezes well.

IMG_0436So Miss Fats is going to give you the run down on this process featuring the standard ingredients to be found in Obachan’s pot.  However she also highly recommends the addition of cabbage, green beans, broccoli and water chestnuts (not all at once unless you have some sort of crazy monster pot).  In order to make this happen you need a pot at least 3-4 inches deep that had a lid and the wider the better.  Miss Fats has never tried this in a stock pot, but she doesn’t see why it wouldn’t work.  Lastly, feel free to alter the amounts of any of these ingredients: if you dig on those noodles, fill half your pan (Miss Fats’ fantasy sukiyaki).  For you meat lovers out there, you can also cook as much meat as you want, and simple reserve the excess in the bowl that you keep off to the side. (Obachan always does this for the boys.)

Obachan’s Sukiyaki:
6-8 servings
serve with white rice

1 1/2 lbs of sukiyaki beef, or thin cut
1 onion, thick sliced
1 8 oz package of shiraki noodles (or yam noodles)
1/2 package of tofu, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 bunch or 5-6 green onions, roughly chopped including most of the green
1 small can of bamboo shoots
4-5 eggs (or however many people you have)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup cooking sake
2-3 tbs mirin (to taste)
3 tbs sugar (to taste)
water
1 tbs or so of oil

IMG_04391. Heat oil in pan over medium high heat.  Add the beef, breaking it up and cooking until just brown (this should only take a couple of minutes.  Reduce the head to medium low, add the soy sauce, sake, sugar and mirin.  Stir and taste the broth.  Add more of any of the ingredients to taste.  You are aiming for a nice balance between sweet and savory.  The broth should be really concentrated at this point: do not worry.  The water added at the end will dilute it.

2. Section off the beat into a pie-piece like mound (see above).  Following this arrangement, add the onions, tofu, shiraki, and bamboo shoots, doing your best to keep them relatively contained to individual sections.  Leave a little space for the green onions (or any other quicker-cooking vegis you want to add).  Pour enough water into the pot so it almost covers all the ingredients.  Cover, turn the heat up to high, and cook for about 8-10 minutes. Keep an eye on it.

3. Once you see the onions start to turn translucent, add the green onions and eggs.  For the eggs, use chopsticks or any cooking utensil, to create little pockets and break them into the space.  Cover and cook until your eggs are to your liking and the onions are soft.

IMG_0449See: not so hard.  To serve this up, Miss Fats recommends just throwing down a hot pad onto the table and plunk this sucker down.  (Obachan’s is so large and heavy, she always requires help with the carry to the table.)  All you need to do is lay down a little white rice and go to town on this thing.  Make sure you’ve got a big ‘ol spoon to scoop up broth too.

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This meal comes with a warning, however.  No matter how hard you try, this dish will never be as good as Obachan’s.  Believe her: Miss Fats has been expertly taught how to execute this dish by the master herself and still cannot manage to create the perfect pot of sukiyaki.  But for those of you who haven’t or never will have the pleasure of dining with the master herself, Miss Fats warns you that this dish will make you pretty popular among your friends.  This messy pot of japanese food love can easily become a staple of friendertaining/ annoying cooking requests.

Miss Fats encourages you all to get out and try to create this delightful dish.  It encourages new flavors and communal eating, which Miss Fats is a huge supporter of.  For years, Miss Fats’ family gathered at Obachan’s every single Wednesday to chow down on sukiyaki good times.  She hopes you will continue this tradition with friends and bring a little Obachan into your eating experiences.

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Korean BBQ Tacos

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Chicago seems to be suggesting we’re headed toward warmer times (although those thunderstorms and annoying snow flurries certainly played games with Miss Fats).  And what that means for Miss Fats’ appetite is nothing but tasty ethnic food cravings.  Come sunshine, she can’t get enough Thai noodles, crunchy Vietnamese spring rolls, or spicy tacos.  Yet one particular flavor has been on Miss Fats’ mind (and taste buds) lately: Korean BBQ.  For some reason, nothing sounds better than that sweet salty sauce and spicy kimchee.

One of Miss Fats’ favorite food discoveries since moving to the Midwest are the Korean Tacos at Del Seoul (this genius trend had not yet reached Seattle. Confusing.)  Unfortunately those crazy delicious shrimp tacos are damn far from Hyde Park, so Miss Fats was determined to recreate some of their goodness at home.  After a bit of research and picking up only one ethnic ingredient (might be two for you!), Miss Fats has created her homage to the Korean taco.

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This meat marinade is so easy and works for any cut of meat that you just want to cook the shit out of.  So far, Miss Fats has tried this with a whole chicken (which she quartered) and a hunk of pork roast.  Both were crazy good.  The BBQ sauce is deadly: you just want to suck it up with a straw.  And you can easily just make the sauce and throw it on any left over meat you might have lying around.

Korean BBQ Tacos and Asian Slaw:
BBQ sauce reproduced from Steamy Kitchen’s Kogi BBQ Sauce

marinade:
meat of choice (1 whole chicken, 3 lbs of pork roast, etc)
3 tbs soy sauce
2 tbs sriracha
2 tbs sake (or you can use any rice wine or increase the rice vinegar to 3 tbs)
1 tbs rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
4 cloves garlic peeled
1 inch ginger, peeled and sliced
water

bbq sauce:
2 tbs Korean fermented hot pepper paste (gochujang) (Miss Fats found this pretty easily at an Asian grocery store in Chinatown)
3 tbs sugar
2 tbs soy sauce
2 tsp rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1/8 tsp msg (totally optional.  Miss Fats has now tried it with or without: both times it was delicious.  The MSG just adds that little extra flavor that makes the sauce as addictive as those cold chow mein noodles sitting in your fridge.)

slaw:
1/2 english cucumber, thinly sliced
4 large radishes, thinly sliced
1 carrot, julienned or shredded
1 cup shredded napa cabbage
1/4 cup sliced green onion
2 tbs rice vinegar
pinch of salt
sesame seeds (optional)

corn tortillas
sriracha (optional)
kimchee (optional)

1. night before: make the marinade.  In your slow cooker base (or another bowl if your cooker doesn’t disassemble), mix all the marinade ingredients together except for the water.  Throw your meat down and pour enough water to cover everything.  Refrigerate over night.

2. morning: cook everything for approximately 8 hours on low (or 4 hours on high) (this will really depend on your meat and how much you’re cooking), until the meat is falling apart.

3. make the slaw (this can easily be done ahead of time): toss all the ingredients into a bowl and mix.  The longer you refrigerate this, the more pickle-like it will become: yum yum.

4. make the sauce.  Mix together all the BBQ sauce ingredients in a bowl big enough to hold all your tasty cooked meat.  Remove your meat from the slow cooker and shred whatever animal you’ve prepared.  Toss in all that salty sweet goodness.

To assemble these guys Miss Fats throws down a steamed corn tortilla (just put ’em in the microwave for 1 minute with a wet paper towel underneath), a healthy portion of shredded meat, and a mound of crunchy slaw.  Then (of course) a drizzle of sriracha is needed with a side of spicy kimchee for “palate cleansing.”

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Miss Fats hopes you enjoy these weird ethnic monster tacos.  Too bad if you think a corn tortilla can’t be a vehicle for salty sweet asian bbq tasty times: you’re wrong.  But seriously: get out there and try these.  Guaranteed addition.