achar, sambal ikin bilis, coconut, pandan

I’m off alcohol. It’s the latest thing I’ve decided is giving me my godawful paunchy stomach. Empty calories, apparently. Being off alcohol means lots of spice, heat and heady, sensuous eating. I look to southeast Asia. Cheese, lovely tomatoes, light little leafy salads, omelettes are out. None of it’s the same without a flinty glass of Muscadet. No more steaks because I’m not drinking claret or old Rhone. No more olives with an arctic glass of gin martini. I need to stop: to stop drinking; to stop writing about drinking or I WILL get out my cocktail shaker.

In are chilies: dry ones, little and fiery, large and wrinkly, dark and chocolatey; long, fresh red and green ones, shining and waxy; tiny birds eyes, devillish flecks. I’ve been out and stocked up on a litre of Squid Brand, packs of dried shrimp and anchovies, a foul murky block of shrimp paste. I’ve got soy, light and dark, and kecap manis. I’ve got kaffir lime, ginger, galangal, garlic, a great bunch lemongrass and a little pot of coriander I’m tending to on my gyp-room windowsill.

Today, I made achar, a piccalilli-like pickle flavoured with ginger and dyed with turmeric. I had it with coconut rice, some poached chicken, a few salad leaves and a brilliant Malaysian sambal made with shallots, chilies, tamarind, peanuts, and dried anchovies, fried until golden. Not for the squeamish, this one. There are quite discernible silver faces in your sambal. Nonetheless, it’s satisfyingly sweet, sour and hot, with a deeply salt, deeply marine crunch. I owe these two recipes (the achar and sambal) to Rick Stein’s really excellent last book Far Eastern Odyssey.

Yesterday I had chicken rice, for which there are so many recipes you can never hope to find the one. When I ask, the lady in the Chinese/Malaysian supermarket near the railway bridge on Mill Road insists that you fry ginger in oil – just oil – add the rice, coat in the oil, and then add the stock from cooking the chicken. Her way, she says, is the original way to make chicken rice. Other additions “ruin” it. Other recipes (Rick Stein again) suggest toasting the rice in rendered chicken fat and then simmering with stock and a knotted pandan leaf. I opt to simply poach my chicken (a couple of thighs as it’s just for me) and ladle off as much stock as I need onto basmati, being sure to take plenty of the schmulzy slick at the top of the pan as I do so. I add a bit of salt, a slice of ginger and a lime leaf and that’s it. I simmer it for ten minutes and leave it covered off the heat for another ten. For me this is the perfect rice for chicken rice, still light, but slightly greasy with chicken fat. All the rice and the chicken need, everyone agrees, is a pokey dipping sauce and some sliced cucumber. That’s chicken rice as we have it at home, anyway.

But I read in Rick Stein about pandan leaf being traditional, and not only in chicken rice but in the best-known national dishes of Malaysia and Indonesia, Sri Lanka too. It’s a flavour I’m new to, or think I am. I find pandan leaves quite easily in Mill Rd, though they’re pretty pricey. Pandan leaf extract is, I read, very good; certainly it would be for me as I don’t have a freezer and getting through bunches of fresh pandan leaves would be tricky before they all withered. So having rifled through the bewildering shelves for a while in the Chinese/Malaysian supermarket I find a little bottle, alongside vanilla and almond extract, labelled “AROMA PASTA PANDAN KOEPOE-KOEPOE”. I decide this must be it. The chicken rice lady, shaking the bottle at me at the checkout, demands of me my reason for wanting it. I say it’s to scent rice. “It turns it green.” “Green?” I assume she means it’s a paste made of the leaves that will add a few ferny flecks, or pond-like hue to my rice. I say, “Well, I’ll try it anyway.” She lifts the palms of her hands to me and says “OK,” in that way which means, “If you think you know better…”

When I get it back, I open the bottle and, indeed, it is food-colouring scented with pandan. I put it in the cupboard, abandon plans of pandan-chicken rice and shrug off a wasted £2. Though I do recognise the scent. It’s that slightly nutty, pine-like scent you know you know from rice, but hadn’t separated from the natural scent of jasmine or good basmati.

Today, I had some leftover coconut rice, which for a makeshift pudding I loosened with milk, sweetened with a lump of palm sugar and, in a flash of inspiration, scented (and dramatically coloured) with a couple of drops of my aroma pasta pandan koepoe-koepoe. Spread out on a white plate, I topped the rice with a fan of sliced mango. The fluorescent emerald rice and golden fruit strikes a note somewhere between cringe and kitsch that appeals to me greatly.

This simple pudding is all about the oozey swathe of rich rice, the tang and tarty perfume of mango.

Recipes to follow…

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