There are two things I absolutely must do whenever I go travelling to a new place. Number one is to take cooking lessons from the locals. All the better if this takes place in gorgeous open-air surroundings by a Vietnamese river amidst gardens of fresh lemongrass and Thai basil and a swimming pool for when the exertion of cooking all gets too much, as I was once lucky enough to experience in Hoi An, but any form of cooking lesson is hugely exciting for me, even if it’s just a street food seller taking the time to demonstrate to me how they make their delicious wares. If they let me eat said wares along the way, even better.
Number two is to visit the markets. I have an obsession with local markets; they’re probably one of my favourite things about travelling. You can keep your art galleries and museums; I think the best way to experience culture, anywhere, is to take an hour to wander around the markets and to watch, taste, touch, smell, listen and talk. And, if you’re anything like me, to come back laden with obscure products bearing strange labels that will end up at the back of your cupboards (candied nutmeg, anyone?)
This is a recipe that relates to both of those activities. This summer I spent a week and a half travelling in Malaysia. Aside from waking to the sound of macaque monkeys splashing around in the swamp metres from my bed in the deep, dark heart of the Borneo jungle, the absolute highlight of my Malaysian experience was Penang. This was in no way a surprise. I’d been told by many people that I would love Penang, undisputedly one of the street food capitals of the world, famous for its hawker centres serving up hot, moreish, ridiculously tasty food for less than you’d pay for a cup of tea back in England.
As part of my stay, I took part in a cooking course that began with a trip to the local market to introduce us to some of the ingredients we’d be using later. Actually, I lie – it didn’t begin with this, it began with one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had in my life, which is roti canai: buttery, flaky Indian-style flatbreads cooked on a hot griddle and stuffed with various fillings. Mine was oozing with egg and onion, and I sat there with a cup of hot tea, tearing off gooey, buttery pieces of this ridiculously moreish creation and dipping them in a bowl of vibrant turmeric-rich dahl. It’s Penang’s answer to a croissant, only perhaps even better.
I learned a lot from my market visit that day. One thing I love about south east Asian markets is there’s always some new weird and wonderful ingredient to discover. Introduced to my culinary repertoire on this occasion were ginger flowers - which look like firm, very pale pink tulips and have a peppery taste - and candle nuts. I’d never heard of candle nuts before, but they’re a common ingredient in Malaysian curry pastes, where they add a delicious nutty richness to the mix along with their their fragrant oils. They look rather like large macadamia nuts, with a similar creamy texture.
Later during my cooking class we learned how to make laksa, which is without a doubt the best noodle soup you will ever eat, but unfortunately takes a small army to prepare (there were about twelve of us on the cooking course, and it required all hands on deck to get it ready for lunch time). The resulting sweet-sour-spicy broth, rich in fish and tamarind and herbs, bathing a nest of slippery noodles, is worth it a hundred times over, though. We didn’t use the candle nuts, but I bought a small bag to bring home and experiment with.
This chicken curry recipe is from the lovely Nazlina, who ran our cooking course in Penang. The first time I made it back home, I had a bit of a eureka moment when I licked the spoon to check the seasoning. It was spot on, exactly everything that I want a south east Asian curry to be: rich and creamy with brown sugar and coconut, mouth-tinglingly spicy from fiery chillies, deeply zesty from lemongrass and lime leaves. I’ve made a lot of such Asian curries in the past, but this was by far the best. I think the secret is to marinate the chicken in turmeric and shrimp paste before cooking – it lends an incredible addictive salty/savoury flavour to the finished curry. Combine this with fresh, zesty galangal, ginger, lime leaves, creamy coconut and candle nuts, and you have everything that is wonderful about Malaysian food.
I’ve tweaked it a little from the original recipe: I use chicken thighs (with the bone in – much more flavour and more tender meat that way) rather than a whole jointed chicken, as it’s much easier to eat with fewer fiddly bones to crunch on by accident. I use macadamia nuts now that my candle nut stash has run out (although if anyone knows where I can get them in the UK, get in touch). I also add chopped pineapple to the curry at the last minute. This is definitely unconventional, but I think it really takes the dish to another level. It’s so rich, with the dark chicken meat and the heady combination of spices and aromatics, that you really need something fresh and zingy to brighten everything up. Pineapple is just perfect, softening and soaking up that delicious sauce, adding zingy little bursts of fruitiness that partner perfectly with the tender meat and vibrant sauce.
Serve with lots of fresh lime to squeeze over, chopped coriander, and mountains of steamed rice to soak up the fabulous sauce. This is a very easy dish to prepare, once you get your hands on the ingredients (try an Asian grocer or supermarket, or even a large branch of Morrisons, who do excellent Asian produce), but it’s incredibly rewarding, a real riot of wonderful addictive flavours that blend beautifully. If you’ve never tried Malaysian food before, this is a wonderful introduction.
Malaysian-style chicken curry with pineapple (serves 4):
- 8 skinless chicken thighs, bone in
- 2 heaped tsp shrimp paste
- 2 inches fresh turmeric, peeled, or 2 tsp powdered turmeric
- 2 hot red chillies
- 1 inch piece fresh galangal, peeled
- 3 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 6 macadamia nuts
- 3 tbsp rapeseed or groundnut oil
- 2 lemongrass stalks
- 2 tbsp tamarind puree
- 200ml coconut milk
- 100ml water
- 6 fresh/frozen kaffir lime leaves
- 4 shallots, finely sliced
- 2 tsp light muscovado sugar
- Half a large pineapple, finely diced
- Juice of 1 lime
- Finely chopped coriander, to serve
In a mini chopper or blender, blitz together the shrimp paste and fresh turmeric (if using powdered turmeric just mix the two together in a small bowl). Put the chicken in a large dish and add the shrimp paste and turmeric. Mix together well with your hands then leave to marinate for an hour or so in the fridge.
Meanwhile, make the curry paste. In a mini chopper, blitz together the chillies, galangal, ginger, garlic and nuts until finely chopped. Bruise the lemongrass stalks by bashing them with a rolling pin or squashing with the flat of a knife. In a large lidded pan, heat the oil and sauté the curry paste and lemongrass stalks over a medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the tamarind, coconut milk and water and bring to the boil. Add the chicken, cover with a lid and cook for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
When the chicken is cooked, finely shred the lime leaves and add to the pan with the sugar and shallots. Remove the lid and simmer for around 15 minutes to thicken the sauce. Taste and check the seasoning – it will probably be salty enough from the shrimp paste. Add the lime juice and pineapple and cook for another couple of minutes, then serve with steamed or sticky rice and fresh coriander.