Sometimes, you read a menu description that sends you into paroxysms of longing and desire, and has you practically gaping at the waitress as you urge her, wide-eyed, to come over and take your order instantly so that the kitchen can quicken the transition of your food from plate to mouth. These moments should be cherished, as they help to prevent that cursed state, the bane of many a food-lover’s life: menu indecision. It’s rare that I hand my menu over to the waitress feeling wholly confident that I’ve made the right choice; anything that can facilitate this state of total wellbeing is truly a blessing.
One of my favourite restaurants in York, a Malaysian restaurant called Quinii’s, offers a vegetarian dish on its menu that reads thus: ‘Classic Malay pineapple and aubergine with palm sugar curry’. The description elaborates that it is a ‘sweet coconut milk thick curry’. The rest of the menu is suddenly irrelevant.
I love aubergine in curries, where it collapses into smoky, almost caramel-scented tenderness. I also love the beautiful butterscotch sweetness of pineapple, simmered until juicy in a spicy sauce. Bathe both in a thick mixture of coconut and palm sugar, and I am yours forever. I can’t get enough of this combination; it’s one of the reasons I keep going back to south east Asia, and turn to Thai curries, Malaysian laksa or Indonesian gado gado whenever I want a meal that will truly satisfy and comfort.
I’ve eaten most of the menu at Quinii’s by now, but it’s the pajeri, the aubergine and pineapple curry, that I’ve ordered most. It beats any of the slow-cooked beef or chicken dishes by far, and that’s quite hard for a vegan option to do. It’s all about the sauce, which is delectably creamy and sweet, dark with palm sugar and peppered with enough spice to prevent it from cloying. The aubergine is lusciously silky and the pineapple gorgeously sweet, and I always soak up every last drop with a bowl of fluffy steamed rice.
Keen to indulge my cravings on a more regular basis, I decided to try making this at home. I cobbled together a few different internet recipes for pajeri, then made my own alterations, tasting as I went along. I love kaffir lime leaves strewn through a coconut milk sauce, where they sharpen everything with their unmistakable zippy citrus tang, so I added those. I like a little tamarind paste to balance out all that palm sugar, so that went in too, as did some green beans for extra crunch (and another of the old five a day). The paste is a simple blend of onion, garlic, ginger, chillies and dried shrimp, given depth and complexity with dry spices tempered in coconut oil: cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and star anise. Curry powder gives it that classic Malaysian flavour, a relic of the country’s culinary links with India, and everything simmers and blends in coconut milk, thickened and enriched with ground toasted coconut.
This is wonderful. It’s as good as the restaurant version, with the same lusciously sweet sauce, heady with coconut and spices. You could just eat this on its own, but it’s gorgeous soaked up by the tender aubergine and tangy pineapple. It’s also a lovely alternative to a meat-heavy curry and an unusual vegetarian option (I use dried shrimp in the paste, but vegetarians can omit these altogether or substitute with miso, dried mushrooms, or fermented bean paste). I find making a curry entirely with fruit and vegetables allows the complexity of the sauce and its intricate flavours to shine, without all that meat screaming out for attention. If you love a thick, sweet, spicy south east Asian curry as much as I do, you need to make this.
Malaysian pineapple, aubergine and coconut curry (serves 2):
For the spice paste:
- 2 shallots or half an onion
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 inch piece fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp dried shrimp, soaked in water for 1 hour (reserve the water)
- 1-2 red chillies, depending on how hot you like it
For the curry:
- 3 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 5 cloves
- 5 cardamom pods, bruised
- 2 star anise
- 2 tsp medium curry powder
- 1 tsp salt
- Half a pineapple, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 aubergine, cut into 1 inch dice
- 80g green beans, cut into 1 inch lengths
- 400ml coconut milk (normal or light)
- 2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
- 3 tbsp desiccated coconut, toasted
- 1-2 tsp tamarind paste
- 2-3 tsp palm or brown sugar
- Chopped coriander or Thai basil, to garnish
First, make the spice paste by blitzing everything together in a mini chopper or food processor. Add a little of the shrimp soaking water to help everything blend evenly. Set aside.
Heat the coconut oil over a medium-high heat in a large frying pan or wok. Fry the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and star anise for a minute until fragrant, then add the spice paste, curry powder and salt and cook for another few minutes until fragrant and starting to dry out. Add the pineapple and aubergine and cook for a few minutes until starting to soften, stirring well to coat in the spices.
Pour in the coconut milk and add the lime leaves. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the green beans and simmer for another 5 minutes, until the sauce has reduced and thickened (add a little water if it looks too thick). Grind the coconut in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder then add to the curry. Simmer for another minute or so. Add the tamarind and sugar to taste – it should be tangy and hot but quite sweet. Simmer for a final minute, then serve with lime wedges and steamed jasmine rice, garnished with chopped coriander or Thai basil leaves.