Fried chicken, stewed green beans, and rice could have just as easily been a typical Sunday dinner menu from the American south. Instead, those were the first three dishes I tried from the book Cradle of Flavor, by James Oseland, which explores the cuisine of the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. This chicken was marinated in coconut milk with lots of spices and shallots before being fried. The green beans were long beans that I had received from our CSA, and they were stewed in coconut milk with red chiles, tomatoes, garlic, and shallots, and the rice was turmeric-seasoned jasmine rice steamed with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. I had just finished reading this book which is a great source of information on the variety of spices and vegetables, the cooking styles, and the way of life of the islands mentioned, and I couldn’t wait to get cooking.
It will be an ongoing challenge to locate some of the ingredients as I cook dishes from this book, but it will be worth it to learn about this cuisine and experience at least most of the intended flavors. One challenge that I had right away was finding kaffir lime leaves. A few years ago, I could never find them, then they suddenly appeared with the packaged fresh herbs at Central Market, but last week they were gone. I asked if they would be back soon and learned that due to a pest problem on the trees in California, they’re not able to ship the leaves out of state right now. Maybe we’ll eventually get some again, or maybe I’ll have to grow my own kaffir lime tree. As for daun pandan leaves, which I learned impart a vanilla-like flavor, and daun salam leaves that have a subtle spicy woodsy flavor, I haven’t seen them yet, but I might get lucky and find them in a freezer case one of these days. Both of those are always listed as optional in the recipes in this book, and most of the other ingredients are findable in well-stocked grocery stores or Asian markets. I should point out that throughout the recipes, there are menu suggestions for what to pair with what and how to build a meal. There are also photos of some of the spices, herbs, and vegetables, and a few of the finished dishes.
So, I had those fresh, local, long beans, and decided to cut them into short lengths to use them in the green beans with coconut milk recipe. Shallots, garlic, and chiles were cooked in oil in a medium saucepan, and if I had found daun salam leaves, they would have been added. The cut beans along with tomato wedges were added and cooked briefly before coconut milk and water were poured over the vegetables. This was left to simmer for about 20 minutes until the beans were thoroughly cooked but not mushy. In the menu suggestions for this recipe, celebration rice is mentioned, so that’s where I turned next. Turmeric was stirred into a mixture of coconut milk and water, and that was poured over rinsed and drained rice. Lemongrass, salt, and kaffir lime leaves, of sorts, were added. Daun pandan and daun salam leaves would have been added if I had them. Regarding the kaffir lime leaves, since I had no chance of finding fresh ones, I resorted to the pre-chopped, jarred variety. The flavor was ok, but I hope we get the fresh leaves here again soon. The rice was cooked and then left to steam off the heat for a bit.
Then came the fried chicken, and who can resist fried chicken of any kind? In this case, the first step was making a spice blend from cinnamon sticks, dried red chiles, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, ground turmeric, sugar, and salt. One option is to use a mortar and pestle, and another is to use a food processor. Even if I owned a mortar and pestle, that would not have been my choice, and happily Oseland agrees and suggests a food processor for efficiency’s sake. My little mini prep didn’t seem to enjoy the seeds and cinnamon sticks, and I ended up transferring the spices to my coffee grinder that I use just for spices. It took a lot of shaking and rearranging of the seeds and sticks, but it was eventually ground into a paste. Then, chopped shallots were added. That mixture was stirred into coconut milk in a wide bowl, and the chicken pieces were placed in it to marinate for several hours. Just before frying, the chicken was patted dry with paper towels so that it didn’t sputter in the oil. It was served with a dipping sauce made with Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, soy sauce, sugar, and sliced red chiles.
The beans in coconut milk is a straightforward dish, but the mix of garlic, shallots, and chiles added great flavor. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed leftover green beans as much as I did these. And, the rice was no simplistic starch on the side. Of course, I’m wondering what I’m missing by not having located all of the ingredients, but with the ones I was able to include, the rice was fragrant and lovely. I would tell you all about the layers of flavor and how the marinade left the chicken tender and the frying crisped it well, but I think I devoured it too quickly to give it much thought. I haven’t decided what I’ll cook from the book next, but it might be a satay, a fish curry, or maybe a potato rendang unless I jump to the sweets chapter for the Indonesian spice cake.