Wild asparagus was one of the first wild foods I learned to pick as a kid, and it is probably the one I hold dearest to my heart. I’m so smitten with the wild variety that I refuse to eat store-bought asparagus, with rare exceptions like an elderly aunt’s Thanksgiving table.
I’m convinced that there is nothing finer than the wild asparagus I pick with my own hands each year as spring arrives. I hold this belief because of my family history with it, because it is a seasonal celebration and because I genuinely think it is one of the most scrumptious foods on earth.
When I teach people to identify asparagus in the wild, I remind them that it is the very same species of asparagus, Asparagus officinalis, sold in stores (in the U.S.). Thus, wild asparagus looks remarkably similar to the spears sold in grocery markets and is readily recognized once one knows what to look for. It may vary in diameter, from very thin as a whip to thicker than my thumb. Sometimes wild asparagus twists and curls as it reaches for the light, and it occasionally looks wild and raggedy. But more often than not, it looks quite similar to asparagus found in the store, and it always tastes good.
Grilled asparagus. Credit: Wendy Petty
It occurred to me this year that I should run a taste test between wild and store-bought asparagus, given that they are essentially the same thing. I used the participants in one of my wild foods cooking classes as the test subjects. I presented two batches of identically cooked asparagus (steamed and dressed in olive oil and salt). I informed them that one was wild and one was purchased from a supermarket, and in a blind test, asked them which they preferred.
The results shocked me. I had thought that there was no way wild asparagus could lose. However, the tasters preferred the store-bought asparagus by a 3 to 1 margin. Even the tasters were surprised by the results, many swearing they thought for certain they had correctly chosen the wild asparagus.
I have some theories as to why the commercial asparagus won. Most of the tasters agreed wild asparagus tasted sweeter. Perhaps they had pre-formed notions that wild asparagus might taste slightly more bitter. I think my biggest mistake was in informing my tasters that they would be choosing between wild and store-bought asparagus. I simply should have asked them which they preferred without informing them why I wanted to know.
Will the results of my informal poll alter my preference for wild asparagus? Not a chance. For me, wild asparagus is as much about ritual and celebration as it is about flavor. I will continue to boycott the asparagus that comes from the store, and look forward to next spring’s crop of wild asparagus.
Simple Grilled Asparagus
1 pound thick asparagus
1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon wild onion compound butter
1. Prepare the asparagus by using a vegetable peeler to peel the lower third of each stalk, and snapping off any ends that seem too woody.
2. Place the asparagus pieces on a sheet pan, drizzle them with the olive oil. Toss them around lightly until each spear is evenly coated with the oil. Next, season the asparagus with salt.
3. Grill the asparagus over moderately high heat, turning once, just until they start to blister and are tender when pierced with a knife. Do not overcook the asparagus, or it will become soggy and develop a bad flavor.
4. Once the asparagus is off the grill, finish it by letting the compound butter melt over the hot spears, then sprinkle them with the lemon zest.
The transformation of Mexico City’s historic center from abandoned and tawdry into an exciting nighttime glamor spot is astounding. New bars clubs and restaurant have opened right and left, beckoning upscale revelers who until now have seen this, the oldest part of the city, as dangerous and unattractive.
Limosneros, a new restaurant, is emblematic of the change. It’s located in a colonial building near the site of the original Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán.
One of a new breed of Mexican restaurants that stick to traditional cooking, simply tweaking it and bringing it up to date, it’s a smashing success. The menu, designed by gastronomic scholar José Luís Curiel and chef Lula Martín del Campo updates classics in a hip, modern but unpretentious way. This food aims to please without ostentation or dubious reinvention. Recipes generally stick to the contents of grandma’s larder or gently introduce a new but familiar element — always straight from the market, not from the lab. For example, costillas en salsa de morita y mezcal recall those crowd-pleasing red ribs that old-style Chinese restaurants used to offer. But a more complex smoky aroma from the mezcal marinade reminds you that this is Mexico, not Chinatown. Or, crisp handmade corn tostadas topped with shredded duck and a quince/chile salsa — marketplace comfort food with a sophisticated twist.
The creative force behind the place is handsome Juan Pablo Ballesteros, great-grandson of the founders of Café Tacuba, a venerable 100-year-old institution just around the corner.
Limosneros restaurant in Mexico City’s historic center. Credit: Peter Norman
Proudly knowledgeable about every aspect of Mexican food and drink, Ballesteros is enthusiastic and ready to expound. His bar is his pride and joy, and in keeping with current trends serves only Mexican products.
Ballesteros insists that wine pairs well with Mexican, a cuisine famous for being spicy. He elaborates: “You have to separate the idea of spicy from picante or hot. Yes, a lot of our dishes are made with complex spice mixtures, but few are truly hot. We leave that to the salsas, which are served on the side. So robust or fruity wines go with these dishes.”
While Mexican wines are little known outside national borders, fine vintages are being produced in Baja California and Querétaro. “We’re correcting the mistakes we used to make with wine,” Ballesteros explains. “If you look at the history, wine came with the Spaniards. In fact, Cortés ordered a quota of vines to be planted and the first vineyard, Casa Madero, was set up in 1579. But later, Spain forbade the production of wine for all but religious purposes so it wasn’t until the 20th century that vineyards started to reappear. Ten years ago there were only a few and most were producing low quality wine. Now there are over 60. People here are beginning to appreciate wine and to buy national wines — they’re supporting our own products.”
Limosneros’ artisanal beers and duck tostadas. Credits: Peter Norman
Famous Mexican beer ‘mediocre’
While Mexican beer is known around the world, little, according to Ballesteros, is any good.
“They make a mediocre product,” he laments. ”They add starches from things like beans and rice to give it body. It’s nice to drink, goes down easy, like water. But not well-made like European beer. For example, it has to be very cold to taste good. So I found a craft beer maker here, met with him. Together we developed new products that’re not generic. You can add flavorings to beers, but it’s a sin to have a good beer then just pour some mango on it — it has to be done during the process. So we base our beers on European models and add flavorings that make them special, local.”
Mezcal, not tequila, is the ticket
And, finally, there’s the libation most associated with Mexico: tequila. But at Limosneros, tequila is eschewed in favor of mezcal.
Mezcal, a favorite of Juan Pablo Ballesteros. Credit: Peter Norman
Ballesteros explains that tequila is actually a kind of mezcal. While there are 55 types of agave — the cactus mezcal is brewed from — tequila only uses one, agave azul. The first tequila producer in the 19th century was José Cuervo. Their plant was called Fábrica de Mezcal Tequila, then it was shortened to just tequila. They sold it all around the country and it became popular, emblematic of Mexico — good marketing.
Until recently mezcal was thought of as a rotgut tourist souvenir, a bottle with a worm in it.
Ballesteros insists that most mezcal drunk in small towns has always been a superior product. “Normal mezcal is refined, it’s great! Mezcal has existed for a long time, since colonial times. Today, many mezcals are produced by small distilleries, often in the hands of families. These guys learned from their fathers and grandfathers. They’re incredible artisans. You should see them at work! They’re like old-fashioned wine or cheesemakers in Europe.”
There’s a boom going on now in Mexico: local corn, national drinks, pulque, mezcal are celebrated. Ballesteros is part of the new generation that no longer carries a chip on their shoulders about being Mexican. “We have a word here, malinchista,” he says. “It means someone who thinks non-Mexican things are inherently better. But new generations are finally letting go of that. In a culinary sense, the Slow Food movement has made us realize it’s good to be local. So we’re taking back our country.”
Top photo composite:
Juan Pablo Ballesteros, next to Conchas from Limosneros restaurant in Mexico City. Credits: Peter Norman
Marshmallows were a staple in our house when I was growing up. Not a staple like potatoes and carrots, which showed up in one form or another on the table for most dinners, but marshmallows were always in the cupboard, waiting to float in hot chocolate or be skewered and toasted over a campfire. Other times, they got all gooey, sandwiched with chocolate between graham crackers; was there ever a better name for a treat than s’mores?
We even made our own marshmallows, from my grandmother’s recipe. Sometimes we left them as marshmallows, cubes rolled in confectioner’s sugar, while other times we added a short crust and a dusting of sweet coconut and transformed them into marshmallow squares (still one of my favorite cookies).
We had marshmallow love, just like people have had for centuries.
Marshmallows have a surprisingly long history, dating to ancient times. They were first made from the pulp of the marsh mallow plant root, which was boiled with sugar or another sweetener like honey, then strained and cooled. The ancient Egyptians used to make this candy for their pharaohs and gods.
Mere and poor mortals in ancient Greece and Rome ate the marsh mallow plant because it was abundant and fed their hunger. Lucian, a satirist of the day, thought it should be eaten like lettuce.
Marsh mallow was also used medicinally. It helped to treat wounds, and when mixed with wine, it calmed coughs. Marsh mallow water treated catarrhs (inflammations of mucus membranes), among other things.
Marshmallows similar to what we know today were first made in France around 1850 in small sweet shops. Candy makers extracted the sap from the plant’s root, whipped and sweetened it. Although very popular, the resulting marshmallows took a lot of time and effort to make.
In the late 19th century, French manufacturers incorporated egg whites or gelatin and corn starch into their marshmallows (also known as pâte de guimauve). This eliminated the sap but required new ways to combine the gelatin and corn starch.
By the turn of the last century, marshmallows were sold alongside licorice whips and peppermint drops, but they became even more popular when some smart marketers suggested that marshmallows went well with other popular items such as Jell-O. Jellied salads with fruit and miniature marshmallows are still a staple at family celebrations, especially in summer.
In the 1950s, the United States had more than 30 marshmallow manufacturers. Around this time, Alex Doumak patented the extrusion process which allowed marshmallows to be cheaply and quickly produced. This process forced the marshmallow mixture through a tube; it was then cut into pieces and rolled in cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar.
Marshmallow Fluff and creme
Where would a banana split be without a scoop of Marshmallow Fluff or marshmallow creme to go along with the chocolate or strawberry sauce?
The earliest mention of marshmallow creme in an American cookbook is in Fannie Farmer’s “Boston School Cook Book” from 1896. She advises the home baker to, “Put Marshmallow Cream between the layers and on the top” of a cake for a splendid result.
The first marshmallow creme manufactured and marketed in America was Marshmallow Fluff. Although Fluff and creme are similar, Fluff is made using a more expensive batch-whipping process, while creme is made with a continuous mixing process.
Marshmallow Fluff was first made in 1917 by Archibald Query in Somerville, Mass. He turned out batches of the stuff in his kitchen and sold it door to door to housewives, but food shortages during the war caused him to stop production. When the war was over, he was no longer interested in Marshmallow Fluff, so he sold the recipe to H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower for $500.
These World War I veterans continued to sell their product door to door, and soon it became so popular it was stocked on grocers’ shelves. As their business grew more successful, Durkee and Mower advertised in Boston newspapers and on radio. In 1930, they began sponsoring a weekly radio show called “Flufferettes.” It aired Sunday evenings before Jack Benny, and with its live music and comedy skits, the “Flufferettes” remained popular throughout the 1940s.
Today, sophisticated marshmallow flavors such as chai, champagne and dark chocolate are popular and delicious, but when I want a comforting and easy-to-make treat, I make my grandmother’s marshmallows.
They were sure sellers at her Anglican Church Women’s teas and bake sales. When she made Marshmallow Squares for these socials, her Kenmore mixer practically vibrated as it whipped gelatin, water and vanilla into bowl after bowl of fluffy delight. I sneaked spoon after spoon of the pale pink or yellow-colored marshmallow and later, she would let me roll the top and sides of the marshmallows in coconut. She saved the edges, sliced away first so it was easier to remove the squares from the pan, and set them aside. Later, when the plates of squares were wrapped, waiting to go to the church hall, she and I sat in the mud room and ate what she’d saved for us, marshmallow first and then the crust. That’s still how I eat them.
Marshmallow love truly is forever.
Mom Skanes’ Marshmallow Squares
Makes 16 to 20, depending upon size.
For the marshmallow:
2 packages of gelatin
½ cup cold water
2 cups white sugar
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A few drops of red food coloring (optional)
Sifted confectioner’s sugar for rolling
For the crust:
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup packed brown sugar
1½ cups white flour
For the crust:
1. Preheat oven to 300 F.
2. Cream butter and sugar together.
3. Mix in flour (only until combined).
4. Turn mixture into a 9-by-9-inch pan and press into a uniform thickness of crust.
5. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes.
Note: The crust should still be a little warm when you add the marshmallow mixture.
For the marshmallow:
1. Soften the gelatin in the cold water for 5 minutes.
2. Place the softened gelatin, sugar, boiling water and vanilla extract in the bowl of a mixer.
3. Start on low speed, gradually moving to high speed, beating the ingredients until you have a thick marshmallow (about 10 minutes).
4. Pour the marshmallow onto the still-warm crust.
5. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set (about three hours).
6. Remove the pan from the refrigerator and let stand for 10 minutes. (This will make the crust easier to cut.)
7. Cut into squares.
8. Roll the marshmallow (top and sides) in sweet coconut.
Top photo: Marshmallow squares. Credit: Sharon Hunt
Fava beans are a spring vegetable with a short season. The good news is these versatile little wonders are about to be plentiful. You can find them at farmers markets, where they will be at their least expensive toward the end of June when they’re abundant.
The first thing I love about fava beans is that they’re easy to shuck. The beans pop out of their pods almost like you’ve unzipped them.
Next, experts debate whether you should remove the beans’ skin or leave them. I’ve always believed that depends on what you plan to do with them. To make the fava bean purée, the skin must come off. That’s easily done by plunging the beans in boiling water for about five minutes so the skins are loosened. Each bean will have a little black seam, which is where you pinch to remove the skin.
I often end up making this fava bean purée because everyone likes it and it’s a great starter dish to feast on while you await grilled food. I have a good number of ways of cooking fava and I have many favorites, including linguine and fava, grilled scallops and fava, purée fava and chicory soup. But this simple purée is such a winner I thought I’d encourage you to try.
Fava Bean Purée
This is a great antipasto or party dip. My original recipe calls for 10 pounds of fava beans, which takes me about 45 minutes to pod and peel. This is a scaled-down version, and you could cut it in half again should you want something even more manageable.
5 pounds fava bean pods
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or more as needed
2 large garlic cloves, pounded until mushy in a mortar with ½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
1. To remove the beans from their pods, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the beans for 10 minutes. Drain. Once they are cool enough the handle, pinch the peel and pop the beans out. You will have about 4 cups of peeled beans.
2. Place the beans in a food processor, in 2 batches if necessary, with the garlic and salt, and run continuously as you slowly pour the olive oil in as if you were making mayonnaise. Stir in the cinnamon and white pepper, taste and correct the seasoning.
3. Store in the refrigerator, but serve at room temperature with grissini sticks or flatbread broken into wedges and fried in olive oil.
Top photo: Fava bean purée. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
These app reviews will teach you to become a vegan in 21 days or to mix perfect cocktails from sight alone. There’s also a complete guide to garden herbs (perfect for a farmers market) and finally, a tool to identify the hottest peppers. Enjoy!
Clinq takes a strikingly different approach to the cocktail recipe. Instead of listing shot measures, Clinq shows you the ratio of ingredients, each represented by a different color. The idea being, whether you’re making one drink or 20, you’ll get the measures right without counting shots. The stunning yet simple visuals add to the app’s appeal. The home page gives you a choice of five different spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, bourbon and rum) spelled out in stylish black typeface on a white background. Once you touch the screen to make your choice the screen slides to the left, revealing the outlines of four different glass shapes (highball, martini, hurricane and lowball). Choose your glass and you are given a choice of cocktails — there are over 140 listed. Once the color-coded ratio is shown, you can press the screen for a few seconds and the ingredient names are revealed, then hold it again for a few more and the cocktail making procedure is shown. It may take a few times to get used to the controls, but this has to be one the more creative apps around. Happy mixing!
99 cents on iTunes
Help for the Virgin Vegan
Just how does one become a vegan? The first step is probably the most difficult, but if you want to take it, 21-Day Vegan Kickstartmight just be the app you need. Designed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the app provides you with daily food lists and recipes to help you along your vegan route. You are able to see what ingredients you’ll need a week in advance, then each day you are given a plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a snack (one I imagine you will look forward to each day). Click on the meal and the page flips, providing you with the recipe and nutritional information. All in all, a very resourceful app that is simple to use and follow. It might just change the way you eat, forever …
Free on on iTunes
How hot is that pepper?
Say you’re cooking up a vindaloo curry or making a salsa, and you want to calibrate the heat that you’ll be bringing. When you’re talking peppers, you need to know one word: Scoville. That’s the name of the scale that measures a pepper’s spiciness. Every pepper has a Scoville rating, from the slightly sweet bell (0 units) to the burn-your-head-off habanero (100,000 to 350,000 units). The scale was invented by Wilbur Scoville a century ago — and no, he didn’t assign the heat levels by chomping his way through the world’s chilis. He got other people to do it for him. Scoville the app lists pretty much every pepper in existence, its Scoville rating, and tasting notes or other background information. The “Jamaican hot,” for example, has flavors of apples, apricots and citrus (under a furnace-like heat on your palate, one presumes) and is mainly used for hot sauces in the Caribbean. In fact, after a quick browse, it seems that everything higher on the scale than the habanero has some sort of health warning and can only be eaten in the tiniest of quantities, with a pint of milk at the ready. One of the hottest peppers, the terrifyingly named Naga Viper, has a Scoville rating of up to 1,382,118 units. It is usually dabbed on food with a toothpick, so as to only use a tiny drop – that is hot to the point of pain!
$1.99 on iTunes
Apps field guide to kitchen herbs
Most of us can tell the difference between rosemary and basil … but to the untrained eye (especially my own), telling lavender from sage can sometimes prove difficult. That’s where Herbs+fragrantly wafts in. This app would be particularly good for finding fresh herbs in the wild. The entry for each herb offers gardening tips, culinary ideas, medicinal uses and an image to help you identify the herb.
There’s also a handy link to Wikipedia, which you can access without leaving the app. In the “Herb Garden,” you’ll find basic guidelines for how to launch your garden successfully as well as sections on harvesting, preserving, propagating and winterizing your herbs. There are also useful tips — did you know dill doesn’t grow well if planted near fennel? No, neither did I. All in all, a very good app to spice up your phone and quite possibly your next dinner too!
$2.99 on iTunes
Top image, clockwise from top left: logos for Clinq, Scoville, Herbs+ and 21-Day Vegan Kickstart.
Can chefs change the way we eat? The Chefs Collaborative is taking a stab at promoting sustainability with a new cookbook of recipes gathered from America’s most notable chef-activists.
Celebrity chefs have a long tradition as tastemakers. It began with Julia Child, the French Chef who influenced Americans’ purchasing decisions about everything from pots and pans to whole chickens. More than 30 years ago another Californian, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, introduced us to mesclun. This baby lettuce mix is now available in every supermarket and served in restaurants across the nation. In today’s television food culture, celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang tempt us with their daring and globetrotting to try foods that are ever more exotic. Meanwhile, another group of chefs in America is influencing another, less flashy but significant trend: responsible eating.
These chefs are members of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit devoted to creating a more sustainable food supply. Working in restaurants across the country, they lead by example: celebrating seasonal, locally produced foods on their menus and advocating for farming and fishing communities. For its 20th anniversary, the organization released its first cookbook, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook: Local, Sustainable, Delicious Recipes from America’s Great Chefs.” Few of the 115 chef contributors are celebrities of TV fame. Instead, they are community leaders who are drawing attention to critical food issues by what they choose to put on the plate.
‘Think like a chef’ with Chefs Collaborative Cookbook
The recipes in this seductively photographed cookbook are grouped in four categories — vegetable and fruits, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, and dairy and eggs. While I expected the recipes to be organized seasonally, this approach made page-turning like armchair-traveling through the seasons. Reading through each recipe inspired me to “think like a chef,” considering how each contributor selected ingredients and flavors together with attention to seasonality, yes, but deliciousness, too.
Another novelty is that this chef-driven book is not cheffy at all. Certainly the glossy pages include luxury ingredients and multiple steps, but this collection is not intended to dazzle or bewilder with culinary alchemy or sleight of hand. Not one to languor on the coffee table, this chef book is enticing, instructive and very approachable.
Take the recipe for turnip soup from Dan Barber. The chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber is the role model of the sustainable chef. Dining at his Upstate New York destination restaurant-farm-education center was dubbed “a life-changing experience” by Food and Wine.
Turnip soup: There may be no flash to this pea-green fall soup recipe, but there is more than meets the eye. For one, the ingredient list is a carefully selected assemblage of leeks, parsnips, purple-topped turnips plus uncommon parsley root (for which Barber offers a substitution). There is also attentive cooking technique: “Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables” and a teaching note about how parsnips and turnips will be sweeter if harvested after the first frost. Though summer had not yet arrived, I yearned for fall immediately.
Helpful color-coded sections
While the recipes keep the teaching light and informal, other sections of this book offer more hard-hitting resources for study. Interspersed throughout the book, robin’s-egg blue pages called “Breaking It Down” deliver encyclopedic listings demystifying the myriad labels for beef, poultry, seafood, eggs and more, delivering essential understanding for making purchasing decisions today. Other goldenrod-colored pages offer nuts-and-bolts information on topics ranging from using every part of the vegetable to understanding grain varieties to exploring various fish-catching methods. It raises serious issues without being overbearing.
The strength of this book is the variety, including all the highly regarded chefs it introduced me to who work and cook beyond my region. In a series of moss-colored pages titled “Straight Talk,” I read many of them muse about their essential pantry items, their favorite bean varieties, and how they decide between local or organic, among other topics. These read like conversations with the chefs themselves, and I would have welcomed more of them.
As a whole, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” offers insights into the complex web of decisions involved in cooking responsibly and eating mindfully. Without great fanfare, these tastemakers — the contributors and chefs in the Chefs Collaborative — are notable for leading the way to a more sustainable and exemplary way of eating.
Serves 4 to 6
If you make this soup with turnips and parsnips harvested after the first freeze, it will be noticeably sweeter. When exposed to cold weather, root vegetables convert their starches to sugars to prevent the water in their cell structure from freezing. Their survival tactic is our reward.
Parsley root, also known as Hamburg parsley, is a pungent cross between celery and parsley. If you have trouble finding it, substitute 1 cup of peeled, thinly sliced celery root and an additional 2 tablespoons of parsley leaves.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, cut into ¼-inch dice (about ½ cup)
1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped
2 medium purple-top turnips (about ¾ pound), peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and thinly sliced
1 parsley root, peeled and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups vegetable stock (homemade or store-bought)
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup picked fresh chervil leaves
¼ cup picked pale yellow celery leaves (from the core)
1. Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and leeks, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly without browning, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the turnips, parsnips, and parsley root and season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine well with the leeks and onions, cover, and continue to cook slowly for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables become very soft. Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables.
3. Add the stock, bring the mixture to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches, adding some of the parsley, chervil and celery leaves each time. Make sure each batch is very smooth, then combine and strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve. Chill in an ice bath to preserve the soup’s bright color and fresh flavor. Reheat to serve, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.
Top photo composite: “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” and Dan Barber’s turnip soup. Credits: Courtesy of The Taunton Press
Rice is a staple of the Malaysian diet. You can choose to have rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sadly, this habit has contributed to rising obesity cases in the country, according to the Malaysian Ministry of Health. But we Malaysians do love our rice.
One quintessential rice dish considered our darling, pride and joy is the humble nasi lemak.
“Nasi” (pronounced nah-see) in Malay means rice, and “lemak” (pronounced luh-mahk) is translated in the cooking context to mean enriched. In this case, it is enriched with coconut milk. In any other sense, “lemak” means fat. But to directly translate nasi lemak as “fat rice” would be linguistically wrong, gastronomically speaking.
Even expats living in Malaysia, in the west peninsular particularly, are more or less familiar with this rich, decadent dish, which is a staple in most local restaurants. It is hard not to love a nice, warm plate of nasi lemak. It would be like being in Italy and not having pizza or pasta.
Two important elements make up this dish: the rice, which is cooked in coconut milk with little shreds of ginger and lemongrass as well as screwpine (pandan in Malay) leaf thrown in for added fragrance, and the spicy sambal, a chili-based sauce that has either fried anchovies (ikan bilis in Malay) or prawns in it. As many would say, it’s all in the sauce, and this one packs a punch. The other essential condiments usually found in nasi lemak are sliced cucumbers, half a hard-boiled egg and roasted ground nuts. Nowadays, many variations of accompaniments are served with the dish, such as chicken, beef or prawn curry and even fried chicken.
The traditional way of packing nasi lemak is to wrap it in a banana tree leaf, as the leaf gives added fragrance. It is still sold as such throughout Peninsular Malaysia, but restaurants serve up a “modernized” version on a plate with all the trimmings.
One Australian expat I interviewed last year, Hugh Ujhazy, had this to say: “People think it’s a dollar’s worth of rice in a brown paper packet. For me, the rice and sambal has to be just right. I love it with coarse-cut onions, chili, ginger and garlic. The side of fried anchovies is also essential. I have yet to find the perfect nasi lemak,” he enthused.
Origins of nasi lemak remain unknown
Be it that we Malaysians have long claimed nasi lemak to be ours, the truth is no one really knows where it originates from because the practice of using coconut milk in rice is also common in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and India. While driving to work one day, I was lucky to catch an interview with a Malaysian heritage historian — a man named Najib Ariffin — on one of our radio channels, who happened to talk about the origins of the famous nasi lemak.
Ariffin studies ethnic origins and relationships between cultures, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. He said he has yet to come across any conclusive evidence on the origin of this dish. There is even a folklore story set in the historic state of Malacca (a couple of hours south of Kuala Lumpur) about a young village girl who, while helping her mother cook, accidentally spilled a cup of coconut milk in a pot of rice, much to the chagrin of her mother, who ended up actually liking the taste, hence the birth of nasi lemak.
The fact that Malaysia is a melting pot of different races — including Malays, Chinese and Indians — translates into our cuisine as well. “Malacca has its own Chinese version of nasi lemak which is judged on how they cook the sambal. Some like it a tad sweeter and some don’t,” he explains.
Some clues show nasi lemak, which is often consumed as a big breakfast meal, originated in the west coast of Malaysia, he said. The east coast, which is the most culturally conservative part of the country, has its own signature traditional rice dishes with prominent, distinct fish flavors. “The nasi lemak has not changed their fondness for their local dishes. It just adds on to the variety of rice dishes available there,” Ariffin added.
He goes on to say that back in the day, in an agrarian society, his grandparents would consume a healthy serving of nasi lemak for breakfast before heading out to the fields. “They really worked up a sweat as farmers so they needed a hearty meal in the morning. Eating nasi lemak kept them full because you have all the food groups covered — carbohydrates from the rice, oils from the sambal and protein from the anchovies.”
It is a pity nothing was recorded on paper back then. “I scoured old books, articles, libraries and even talked to some friends of my grandparents to find out about stories they heard. Let’s just say all the anecdotes died with them,” he concluded.
I love indulging in a hot packet of nasi lemak, but the best is always cooked by my own mother. She has graciously shared her recipe.
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker or stock pot. Make sure you simmer the rice on medium to low heat until cooked. You can cook the dish in your own kitchen, but you may need to substitute some ingredients if you can’t locate them in your area. Some Asian grocery stores might have them in stock.
2 cups white rice, rinsed and drained
2 ½ to 3 cups coconut milk, depending on your desired thickness
2 tablespoons cooking oil (to prevent rice from sticking)
One screwpine (pandan) leaf, or substitute with three bay leaves
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
Pinch of salt to taste
2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, julienned
1. Wash the rice in a colander or pasta strainer until the water runs clear. Set aside.
2. In a rice cooker or pot, heat the oil on slow fire and add the coconut milk, lemongrass, leaves and salt. Add the rice.
3. When the rice is half cooked, add the ginger and close the lid until it is fully cooked.
This recipe calls for dried anchovies, which can be found in most Asian stores. If unavailable, medium-sized fresh prawns can be used.
2 cups dried chilies, seeded and soaked in water, boiled and blended (If unavailable, these can be replaced with 3 tablespoons of sweet paprika or cayenne pepper)
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
4 tablespoon cooking oil
1 cup of shallots, ginger and garlic, puréed
2 tablespoons tamarind juice, plus enough water to make ½ cup (This can be substituted with 2 tablespoons of lime juice.)
3 cups of dried anchovies, washed, drained, dried and fried (If you are using fresh prawns, use the same measurement and wash and peel off the veins.)
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
1. In a stock pot, heat oil over medium heat and add the lemongrass for two minutes.
2. Add the chili mix and stir until fragrant, followed by the shallots, ginger and garlic mix. Sweat it for about three minutes.
3. Mix in the tamarind or lime juice and simmer until everything is fragrant.
4. Toss in the anchovies or prawns and simmer until they are well coated or until the prawns are cooked, about 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Add the salt and sugar according to your preference.
Upon receiving an e-mail out of the blue last week from a filmmaker asking me whether I’d like to screen his latest production, I half wondered whether he’d meant to send it to my significant other, who just so happens to be the artistic director of a film festival here in Denver. Yes, “Trubadeaux: A Restaurant Movie” is about the hospitality industry, and yes, I’ve written an article or two about food on the silver screen. As a grad student in English many years ago, I even taught a couple of classes on the relationship between film and literature. But none of that makes me a professional reviewer.
Still, living with a programmer does mean I wind up watching dozens upon dozens of movies by unknown hopefuls every year — enough to get a sense of what’s worth my time and what isn’t in all of 15 minutes. So despite a bit of skepticism, I figured I had no more than a quarter-hour to lose.
Long story short: I not only watched and enjoyed the whole thing — as you can do on the filmmakers’ website for $5 — but even laughed out loud now and then. As it turns out, this slightly blue, slightly black shoestring comedy about a few days in the lives of a fictional Chicago eatery’s staff of misfits was written, directed, produced and performed by a team with both improv and service backgrounds. And it shows in every last silly, sad-sack detail — from the deadpan exchanges with snobby customers who insist that, say, Sicily isn’t in Italy to the screaming matches in pre-service meetings to the awkward kiss-and-tells of fellow employees. (Shooting took place on location at Edgewater Beach Café.)
“Trubadeaux” stars have restaurant chops
In fact, Group Mind Films managing partner John Berka — who co-created “Trubadeaux” and stars as pitifully piggish general manager Lyle — is in the business even today: “I started at age 15 at Applebee’s, and I’m currently a private-dining manager at the James Beard Award-winning Blackbird. I have done just about everything in the industry — except work as a GM! The one I play in the film is based on a few I’ve known here in Chicago.” Co-star Todd Wojcik — who plays Lyle’s brother, the head chef — likewise based his character on real-life ex-colleagues: “Todd has a ton of restaurant experience,” explains Berka. “We actually wrote a lot of the film while working together in a Rush Street restaurant.”
That scripting process, he adds, unfolded “very organically.” “Todd and I would meet for our weekly writing sessions and wind up talking about what had happened the night before on the job,” Berka recalls. “My business partner, Jay Sukow, stopped us one day and said, ‘Guys, this is the film.’ From there, we started making a list of all of the weird things that have happened to us working in the industry. Everything was a collaboration inspired by real events, brought to life with the ‘yes, and’ mentality that’s the pillar of improvisation. For instance, the scene about the water main breaking over the sugar supply is one that every restaurant person loves. That was entirely improvised.”
Meanwhile, the supporting cast brought their own experiences to bear on the script: “Duane Toyloy (who plays Jackson) is a very strong server. We wrote his part around his serving ability, while Jyo Minekowa (Blair) is not the best waiter, but has a great personality. Jyo sued one of our former employers; we incorporated that into the scene at the bar where he talks about how Lyle and the chef are stealing tips. And the letter Lyle reads to the staff” — a tirade on lackluster service — “was based largely off a real letter received at a restaurant that both Jyo and I worked at. Rafa the dishwasher (Juan Palomino) is also a local industry veteran; he’s from Puebla, Mexico, and he came up with the idea for his character himself.”
Ultimately, says Berka, the goal “for me, as a longtime waiter, was to show people what waiters go through. The dynamics of a high-stress environment populated by out-of-control egos fuels the natural humor in restaurants” — and also the misery, he admits. “One of the themes of ‘Trubadeaux’ is addiction. Addiction is one of the constants in this life. I don’t think people have a real sense of everything that goes into working in a restaurant. We wanted to show people what happens when no guests are around. That’s the most compelling aspect.”
For other worthy food-and-drink-fueled movies — both narrative and documentary, many lesser known — click this film list. I also heartily recommend the charming “I Like Killing Flies,” a slice-of-life look at New York City’s notorious Shopsin’s; “Blood Into Wine,” featuring Tool frontman-turned-winemaker Maynard James Keenan; and “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” a gorgeously detailed account of menu creation under the legendary Ferran Adrià.
Top photo: Todd Wojcik (left) and John Berka star in “Trubadeaux.” Credit: Jason Beaumont