Chinese New Year Cake

New year cake and mandarin oranges are two standards eaten during Chinese New Year’s

My family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year in a big way. In fact, my dad has always insisted we are NOT Chinese. My siblings and I always took that statement with a pinch of salt, and we had a real giggle the day he got a phone call from an old classmate asking for Tan Giok Sin (his entire family officially changed their Chinese names to Indonesian names in the 1960’s to promote “assimilation”).

This year, I’ve been thinking about this holiday in a new way since our baby is due on February 16th, two days after the Spring Festival (another name for the new year as it also marks the transition of winter into spring) on the 14th. I expounded on my reflections in an essay to be published on Leite’s Culinaria on this date so I won’t repeat them here but I did try out a few new year recipes I’ve been craving, one of them being nian gao (literally “year cake” or as a homonym, “higher year”) made with Chinese brown candy/sugar and glutinous rice flour.

When I was growing up, my dad would come home with a gift basket of goodies from the office during Chinese New Year and nian gao was inevitably one of the items nestled among the luxury dried goods (mushrooms, scallops, oysters and other expensive unidentifiables), candies, sweetmeats and mandarins. Legend has it that nian gao was offered to the Kitchen God either as a bribe or so that his lips would be busy chewing on the sticky cake that he wouldn’t report unfavorably on your family to the Jade Emperor in heaven.  An unfavorable report meant bad luck for the household for an entire year and you didn’t want that!

I didn’t really like nian gao then—the circular cake was usually wrapped in lotus leaves which to my childhood nose had an odd musky smell, I hated how the brown sticky bits got stuck in my teeth, and besides the cake was far from sweet enough.

Funny how tastes change. I now love its mellow sweetness, and each slice coated with a light, crisp egg batter and a heat-softened sticky interior offers my mouth bites akin to delicate pillows of edible goodness.

New Year Cake (Nian Gao)

Adapted from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Simon & Schuster Editions, 1999) by Grace Young


The main ingredient, glutinous rice flour, is a symbol of cohesiveness; be sure you don’t use regular rice flour. Brown candy (peen tong in Cantonese) is a Chinese sugar sold in slabs about 5 x 1-1/4 x 1/2 inches. You can find them in 1 pound packages or sometimes sold loose in bins at Chinese herbal shops or Asian markets. Use soft golden brown sugar if you can’t find it. In Indonesia, nian gao is called kue keranjang (basket cake) or kue cina (Chinese cake) and are sold widely during Imlek, the Indonesian name for Chinese New Year. Instead of being dipped in egg and fried, the slices can be grilled and rolled in shredded coconut.

Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (30 minutes active) plus sitting overnight
Makes: 1 (6-inch) cake

3 slabs brown candy (peen tong), about 6 ounces
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, plus more for pan-frying
3 1/2 cups (16 ounces) glutinous rice flour
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 egg, beaten until frothy

Chop the brown candy into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the sugar and set aside until it dissolves into syrup.

Grease a 6-inch, round, straight-sided baking dish with 1 teaspoon oil (or use cooking spray).

In a large bowl, place the flour and make a well in the middle. Stir in the cooled syrup and knead into a dough, adding about 1/4 to 1/3 cup more cold water. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes until the dough is smooth, slightly moist and shiny.

Turn the dough out into the dish and pat down until it fills the dish evenly.

Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top and pour 1 teaspoon oil over, using your fingers to lightly press down on the seeds.

Steam the cake for 35 to 40 minutes over high heat until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the dish. (Click here for steaming tips).

Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and place on a rack to cool. Cover loosely and let cool at room temperature until the next day.

Run a knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it and invert onto a plate. Flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board and cut into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges but into 2-inch wide strips and cut each strip crosswise into scant 1/4-inch-thick slices.

When ready to serve, coat a frying pan with oil and heat over medium until hot. Dip each slice into the egg and pan-fry in batches, cooking each side until golden-brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Pat’s notes:
Nian gao is usually served over the course of the 15 days of the new year celebrations when family and friends come to visit. You can wrap it up in plastic and refrigerate for this time, if it lasts that long!

As grandma always says, please share!

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What’s in a Curry?

Golden-hued Madras curry powder

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a generic curry powder. In fact, the term curry powder didn’t exist until the 18th century when local cooks in Madras (now called Chennai in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state) packaged a spice blend for British colonialists to take home with them. Hence, Madras curry powder is one of the most common curry blends you can find on the market.

So what’s in a curry? It is, to put it simply, a blend of spices called a masala and may contain two or three spices, or a dozen or more; and it varies from region to region, household to household.

It is widely accepted that curries originated in India and the phenomena has spread across the world through migration and trade over the centuries. The Indians who migrated to Southeast Asia brought with them not only their religion and cultural practices but their cuisine and cooking techniques as well.

In Singapore, I grew up eating Indian-style fish head curry and roti prata dipped into mutton curry. I also ate curries based on spice pastes called rempah (Malay) and bumbu bumbu (Indonesian). These pastes comprised herbs and spices such as chilies, lemongrass and galangal plus other ingredients like candlenuts and shrimp paste to make a wet paste instead of a dry spice blend.

My mum would also make what she called a Chinese-style curry. And surprise, surprise, I discovered the Vietnamese have a very similar version. Cathy Danh was gracious enough to share her grandmother’s recipe with me.

Vietnamese Chicken Curry (Ca Ri Ga)


This mild adaptation of an Indian curry has a Vietnamese twist added—sweet potatoes. Cathy Danh’s grandmother cuts up her chicken into various parts. But Cathy likes to make it with just drumsticks since they’re a hot commodity in her family. She also uses a combo of white and sweet potatoes. If possible, allow the curry to sit overnight so that the chicken really absorbs the flavors from the spice-rich gravy.

Time: 2 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons Vietnamese or Madras curry powder
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
3- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces; or 3 pounds bonein
chicken parts of your choice (drumsticks, wings, breasts, etc.)
20-ounce can (2 1⁄3 cups) coconut milk
1 cup water, plus more as needed
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes and/or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and stir and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and stir until fragrant, about 15 seconds.

Add the chicken and brown for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Don’t worry about completely cooking the chicken at this point, you just want to sear the meat so that it retains its juices and doesn’t fall apart during cooking.

Add the coconut milk and water followed by the potatoes. Make sure the chicken pieces and potatoes are completely submerged in the liquid. If necessary, add more water. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer for at least 1 hour, preferably 2.

When the dish is done, the chicken will be fall-apart tender and the gravy will be thick from the starch of the potatoes. Add the remaining salt. Serve hot with freshly steamed rice or French bread.

Variations: When frying the onion, throw in chopped lemongrass or crumpled kaffir lime leaves for a very Southeast Asian flavor.

Add red chili flakes or ground red dried chilies to give the curry a little more kick.

For a lighter curry, decrease the amount of coconut milk and top off the difference with water.

Pat’s Notes: For a true Viet flavor, buy Vietnamese curry powder from an Asian market. This golden curry mixture is very similar to a Madras curry powder and is made of curry leaves, turmeric, chili, coriander, cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, allspice, and salt. Cathy’s grandmother prefers the Con Voy brand but D&D Gold Madras curry powder is also recommended.

As grandma always says, please share:

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Macaroni and Cheese My Way

You caught me. I used leftover holiday ham instead of Spam to make this dish.

People either recoil in terror or express intrigue when I tell them about one of my favorite comfort foods—Spam mac and cheese. Yes, you read right: Spam–aka luncheon meat–that processed and prepackaged meat product (I daren’t call it real meat!) in a can. Growing up in Asia, Spam was called luncheon meat and branded Ma Ling (which I recently discovered was banned in Singapore in 2007 for containing nitrofurans, an antibiotic for pigs. Whoa. Click here and here for two interesting articles).

Technically, the dish is called macaroni schoetel, a Dutch-inspired dish that has become a staple in the Indonesian culinary landscape. For some people, pronouncing “schoetel” (scott-tle) might be more of a challenge than the thought of eating Spam. If you’re a stickler for details, I admit it’s more of a macaroni casserole because unlike American mac and cheeses, it contains egg, and the minimal amount of cheese may offend the mac and cheese connoisseur. Regardless, it’s a hit with children (and some adults :)).

If you really don’t like Spam, alternatives abound in sausage, ham, chicken or corned beef.

Macaroni Schoetel


I’ve had versions of this dish that are baked until the egg binds the macaroni together firmly so that it can be cut into slices and eaten as finger food—great for picnics or as a party appetizer. I like mine still mushy and served on a plate. Use 6 eggs and bake for an hour if you prefer firmer macaroni schoetel. Of course, the peas are my doing to make it seem “healthier.”

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes (30 minutes active)
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

Half pound shell or farfalle pasta (or any small pasta shape of your choice)
¼ cup (1/2 stick), plus 1 tablespoon butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup flour
2 1/2 cups milk
8 ounces luncheon meat, ham, or cooked chicken, cubed
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
3 cups shredded Gouda or Edam cheese (about 8 ounces)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg
4 eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Cook the pasta according to package directions with 1 tablespoon of butter. Drain and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and stir and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Sprinkle in the flour and stir until pasty and light golden. Pour in the milk, and stir until the sauce thickens and starts to bubble, about 2 minutes.

Add the cooked pasta, luncheon meat, green peas and cheese, and mix well. Stir in the sugar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary, keeping in mind that the cheese is already salty.

Turn off the heat and stir in the eggs until well blended.

Transfer the pasta into a greased 2-½ quart dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or until bubbling and golden brown on top.

A Fried Chicken Conundrum

Deep-fried drumsticks and thighs glistening just after their turn in the hot oil

I couldn’t help but feel a wee bit like a traitor when I made this fried chicken dish.

Growing up, I loved my mum’s fried chicken. In fact, I worshiped it. To me, there was no comparison. Mum made two versions of fried chicken: one, we called ayam goreng kuning (yellow fried chicken) that was tinged with turmeric, and ayam goreng manis (sweet fried chicken), which was made with palm sugar. Both were braised in a rich array of spices before being deep fried to a crisp.

I always ate both fried chickens with my fingers, and still do to this day. Licking the juices and spices off my fingers at the end of the meal was part of the sublime experience. I would tear away some succulent flesh from the bone and scoop it up with a handful of rice. I loved the meeting of crispy skin and fluffy, white rice in my mouth, as well as the taste and texture of the fried bumbu (or seasoning) bits that added flavor and crunch to each bite.

Yes, my mum’s fried chickens were the end-all and be-all until … I discovered Scott Peacock’s and Edna Lewis’s Miraculously Good Fried Chicken.

I was longing for fried chicken but didn’t want to attempt my mum’s long and laborious recipes so I did what everyone does nowadays. I sent a request out to the Twitter universe, asking for easy yet tasty fried chicken recipes. Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl fame came to my rescue and suggested I try this recipe.

The recipe didn’t require any pounding of spices and while there’s no instant gratification (the whole process took about 24 hours), most of the prep time was taken up by passive brining and soaking. It seemed pretty simple to me, and simple was what I was looking for. I also got to try my hand at deep frying with lard, which I’ve not attempted before.

Fluffy, white-as-clouds lard sizzling in my Staub with butter

The resulting chicken had tasty, tender, and juicy meat (because I used only dark meat, it was all the more luscious) and a crusty coating that fell apart as I crunched into it. As my husband and I sat there enjoying our meal in silence, I consoled myself that Southern fried chicken was worlds apart from Indonesian fried chicken and there was still no comparison to mum’s.

I have to admit though, that the flavor of the lard was a little overpowering and next time, I’ll try using a combo of butter and cooking oil instead. There is a limit to how much my arteries can take after all.

Scott Peacock’s and Edna Lewis’s Miraculously Good Fried Chicken
Adapted from “The Gift of Southern Cooking”

This recipe blends the authors’ best chicken-frying tips from Virginia and Alabama. The chicken is soaked twice: first in brine, Alabama-style, and then in buttermilk. The brine helps the flesh retain moisture and season it all the way through; the buttermilk adds a tangy flavor and helps tenderize it. The Virginia-style frying fat originally includes country ham but I figured the lard and sweet butter would make the chicken rich-tasting enough. I couldn’t help but embellish the recipe with a couple of Asian twists by using soy sauce to inject some rich umami into the brine and tapioca starch instead of cornstarch in the dredge.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 1 to 1 1/2 hours, plus 24 hours or more for brining

3 tablespoons sea or kosher salt (don’t use table salt for brining as the iodide will discolor)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1 quart cold water
3 pounds chicken thighs and drumsticks
1 to 2 cups buttermilk
1 pound lard
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Make the brine: In a large nonreactive bowl or pot, stir the sea salt and sugar into the cold water until dissolved. Add the chicken, making sure the brine covers the pieces completely. Cover and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.

Drain the brined chicken and rinse out the bowl it was brined in. Return the chicken to the bowl, and pour enough buttermilk over to cover. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. Drain the chicken on a wire rack, discarding the buttermilk.

Prepare the fat for frying by combining the lard and butter in a wok or large cast iron pot (my 2 liter Staub pot worked beautifully). Cook over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, skimming as needed, until the butter ceases to throw off foam.

Just before frying, increase the temperature to medium-high and heat the fat to 335 degrees F. Prepare the dredge by blending together the flour, tapioca starch, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Dredge the drained chicken pieces thoroughly in the flour mixture, then pat well to remove all excess flour.

Prepare a plate covered with crumpled paper towels or a wire rack to drain the fried chicken.

Using tongs, slip some of the chicken pieces, skin side down, into the heated fat. Do not overcrowd the pan or the cooking fat will cool. Fry in batches, if necessary. Regulate the fat so it just bubbles, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes on each side, until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through. Drain on paper towels, and serve with mashed potatoes and braised greens.

Some useful tips for frying chicken from the book:
-Be sure to pat off all excess dredge.
-Drain the chicken well on crumpled-up—not flat—paper towels or a wire rack.

Sardines wrapped in a sustainable (and baby-friendly) package

My (baby’s) heart beats for sardines

Pregnancy does strange things to you. Let me count the ways:

1. Baby brain (If you thought morning-after hangovers were bad … and you have it ALL the time).
2. Multiple aches and pains (Everywhere! Even in places you didn’t know existed).
3. Food cravings (Yes, pregnant women really do love pickles, but not always with ice cream)
4. Heartburn (Horrible, horrible, and especially if you’ve never had it before).
5. Frequent visits to the potty (Self explanatory).

One of the biggest changes I’ve experienced, especially as a food writer, is a diet that has gone topsy-turvy. On some days, even post-morning sickness, I don’t feel like cooking or eating.

Then, there are all the food no-no’s. No rare steak. No sashimi. No foie gras. No alcohol. No soft cheeses. No deep sea fish. Granted most of these items are not a huge part of my diet, I am an avid fish eater. I’ve long been aware of sustainable choices but since getting pregnant I have been more careful about what fish I consume especially since one of the biggest concerns is seafood contaminants.

Large predatory fish—like swordfish and shark—end up with the most toxins (such as mercury, which affects brain function and development), industrial chemicals (PCBs and dioxins) and pesticides (DDT). These toxins usually originate on land and find their way into the smallest plants and animals at the bottom of the ocean food chain. As smaller species are eaten by larger ones, contaminants are concentrated and accumulated.

I really wanted to participate in this year’s Teach a Man to Fish event (sorry Jacqueline!) but I was a bad, bad girl and missed the deadline.

However, I figured it’s never too late to expound on the pros of sustainable seafood.

We all know about the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List right? In October, they released a “Super Green” list of seafood that’s good for human health and doesn’t harm the oceans. The Super Green list highlights products that are currently on the Seafood Watch “Best Choices” (green) list, are low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. A triple whammy!

An unusual find–canned sardines packed not in tomato sauce but in olive oil with an assortment of other goodies

On this list is a childhood favorite of mine—sardines. Fresh sardines are not the easiest to come by (especially in Asia) so the next best thing is canned sardines. Now don’t scoff at me please, but I loved canned sardines as a child. My mom would simply sauté them in the tomato sauce they were nestled in and serve it over rice.

As a matter of fact, one of my first “cooking” lessons during home economics class in secondary school was how to make sardine sandwiches. I can still remember my teacher, Ms. Judy Loh, eagerly opening a distinctive red oval can to reveal the headless specimens packed tightly within. (A little about Ms. Loh: she had super-short hair shaved close to her head but she still managed to look somewhat feminine with a fringe that fell over her forehead in wispy curls. Did I mention she also taught physical education? Go figure!)

Next, she lifted the sardines out of the can, into a bowl and mashed them with a fork, mixing in the tomato sauce from the can. “Don’t worry about removing the bones,” she said. “They’re soft enough to chew and full of calcium!”As a 14-year-old, you’re skeptical about everything so I wasn’t quite convinced. Then again, you also never argued with your teacher when you’re in Catholic school.

Ms. Loh threw in some chopped bird chillies and shallots and mixed everything together into a paste. She scooped the mixture onto white bread, spread it out evenly and cut the sandwiches into dainty fingers for us to try. Honestly, it wasn’t bad!

Well, Ms. Loh was right about the goodness of sardines. A 3 ounce serving of the canned variety (with bones) has 38% of the daily value of calcium, PLUS as a rare natural food source of Vitamin D, that same 3 ounce serving has well over 100% of the recommended daily intake. Did I mention that it also contains omega-3 fatty acids good for heart/eye/brain function and health?

In addition, sardines are low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly, making them a very sustainable option. Being low on the food chain also means being low in mercury and PCBs, which makes sardines an especially smart choice for pregnant women like me. I can meet my recommended fish intake goals to support brain development in my little bundle of gestating joy.

Sardine puffs–a childhood favorite

One fine day a few weeks ago, being a pregnant woman, I was struck by a craving for sardines. As luck would have it, I had just received a copy of Andrea Nguyen’s new cookbook Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More. And guess what I spied flipping through it? A recipe for sardine puffs, a favorite in Singapore and Malaysia where it is known tenderly as “karipap.”

I was up for a challenge so I also made Andrea’s Chinese flaky pastry dough to go with the sardine filling. The pastry came out with delightful concentric swirly patterns (hence the name “karipap pusing”) that just fell apart into delicate shards in your mouth (and elsewhere).

Can you see the concentric circles in the cross-section of the dough?

For the exact recipe for the Chinese flaky pastry, do pick up a copy of Asian Dumplings. And for additional tips on making all manner of dumplings, everything from pot stickers, to soup dumplings, to wontons, visit Andrea’s helpful website

Karipap sardine all bundled up and ready to go into the fryer

Sardine Puffs (Karipap Sardine)

Instead of the usual sardines in tomato sauce, I found a Portuguese brand that came packed in pure olive oil with bits of chili pepper, carrot, cucumber and even a laurel leaf. This recipe, adapted from Andrea’s, uses store-bought puff pastry. Yes, I give you full permission to be lazy and head to the supermarket. For the Chinese flaky pastry recipe, please pick up a copy of Asian Dumplings. This filling tastes great on toast too!

2 (3 oz) cans sardines in pure olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of ketchup
1 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil (from the can)
1/4 cup chopped shallot or red onion
1 hardboiled egg, chopped
1 pound store-bought puff pastry, thawed

Remove the sardines from the can and reserve the oil. Use a fork to split open each sardine and lift off the spine bones. Set the flesh aside and discard the bones (or not, just like Ms. Loh advises).

In a small bowl, mix the sugar, salt, ketchup and lemon juice together. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet and add the shallot and cook for about 3 minutes or until translucent and fragrant. Add the sauce and cook stirring for about 2 minutes. Add the sardines, stirring to break up the flesh. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the egg. Cool completely.

Preheat the oven according to package directions.

Roll out a pastry sheet to about 10 inches square and cut into four 5-inch squares.

Fill each square with 1 to 1½ tablespoons sardine filling. Moisten adjoining edges with water and fold over to form a triangle and press closed. Use the tines of a fork to press on the edges to seal well and place on a prepared baking sheet.

Repeat until all the pastry or filling is used up. Brush with beaten egg and bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.

As grandma always says, please share:

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Alloooo Aloo Gobi!

Aloo gobi. Aloo gobi. Aloo gobi. Aloo gobi.

No matter which syllable, or syllables, I place the inflection on I can’t help but crinkle my lips into a smile every time I utter the name of this popular North Indian dish. And I must say I’ve been uttering these words more often in recent months.

A staple at Indian restaurants with the star ingredients being potatoes (aloo) and cauliflower (gobi), aloo gobi is fairly simple to make at home as well.

Don’t believe me? Well, I wouldn’t believe me either if not for Sangita who showed me how to make it from start to finish.

It does require some time and has quite a lengthy list of ingredients. But after a little chopping (enlist a sous chef or two) and a gathering of herbs and spices (be sure they’re all on hand and don’t skimp, please!), the ingredients can be combined in a pot and left to simmer until done.

With hardly any effort, you’ll have an authentic Indian dish ready to eat as is or as a side dish to accompany a meat or fish dish.

Aloo Gobi

This recipe is adapted from Sangita’s and although aloo gobi’s main ingredients are usually only potatoes and cauliflower, I threw in some carrots for color and sweetness.

Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 hour

3 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 pound small yellow waxy potatoes like new potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 teaspoons sugar, divided
1 small bunch cilantro, separated into leaves and stems, and chopped
½ teaspoon chili flakes
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon coriander powder
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1/2-inch sliver fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
2 medium ripe tomatoes, seeded and quartered
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
¾ cup water
1 teaspoon store-bought garam masla or make your own: ¼ teaspoon ground cloves, ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground cardamom

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the potatoes and fry until lightly browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove and set aside. In the same pot, add the cauliflower and fry until lightly browned, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove and set aside.

In the same pot, add 1 tablespoon of oil and heat over medium heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the bay leaves and cumin seeds. Fry until lightly toasted and fragrant, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Cumin seeds burn very quickly so pay attention! Add the onion followed by 1 teaspoon sugar and fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Add the cilantrooriander stems, chili flakes, cumin and coriander and fry for about 5 minutes, adding water if the paste sticks to the bottom of the pan. Add the ginger and garlic. Tumble in the potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and tomatoes. Mix well to coat vegetables with the spices. Add salt to taste, 1 teaspoon sugar and turmeric and continue to fry for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Pour in the water, cover and simmer over medium-low heat for about 35 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the vegetables are cooked and the curry sauce is almost dry, add the garam masala. Stir, taste and add more seasonings if desired. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves and serve with naan or basmati rice.

Celebrating with Yellow Rice (Nasi Tumpeng)

A few weeks ago, I was in Seattle to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.

cutting the tumpeng

That’s my mom and dad. The peak of the nasi tumpeng is sliced off first, in the same tradition as slicing into a birthday cake (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

My visit wasn’t a surprise–I was there on “business”–but the party was!

Preparing for the party of about 80 guests was quite an orchestration. My mom single-handedly prepared all the food, starting two weeks beforehand, and my sis, Mo, sent out Evites and tasked everyone with setup, decorations and Costco runs for the day.

Everything was meticulously planned. To avoid any suspicion, we had a family dinner on Friday night to celebrate dad’s birthday, and Mo asked dad to come over on Saturday to help her put together her patio table.  I was very concerned that someone was going to give it all away, and ironically, I was the one who almost did! A gentle shoulder squeeze from my mom was all that stood between my big mouth and a ruined surprise.

The Saturday morning of the party dawned bright and sunny (not always a given during Seattle summers). It was a bustle of activity as we set up in the cabana next to the swimming pool in Mo’s condo.  I even managed to get my 7-year-old nephew to help with unmolding and arranging the desserts.

The amazing spread of food comprised: Sate Manis (sweet pork satay), Beef Rendang (curried beef), Ayam Goreng (fried chicken), Tahu-Tempeh (sauteed tofu and tempeh), Sayur Asem (sour vegetable soup), Krupuk (shrimp, fish and tapioca crackers) and seven different types of dessert including Longan/lychee Jelly, Kue Salat (sticky rice topped with coconut custard), and Durian Roll (a roulade filled with durian cream—yum!). And let’s not forget the keg of root beer, my dad’s favorite soda!

However, the highlight of the meal was the Nasi Tumpeng, turmeric-tinged yellow rice piled high into a cone and served with an assortment of dishes.


Shredded egg omelet, cucumbers, sambal teri (anchovies with chilies and peanuts), telor belado (twice cooked egg with sweet chili sambal), tahu-tempeh, are just some of the foods that usually surround the base of nasi tumpeng (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

Mom went all out with the decorations, fashioning bell peppers, chilies, and onions into flowers, and arranging eggplant, cabbage and lettuce leaves around the gorgeous display.

At around 5 p.m., Mo lured dad down to the pool saying she needed to get dropcloths to protect her carpet.

From inside the cabana, I watched as my dad sauntered closer to the cabana, pausing to peer at the potted plants and flowers surrounding the pool.


Mom leading a surprised dad into the cabana to meet his friends (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

As he walked through the door, everyone shouted in unison, “Surprise!”  And from the look on his face–eyes wide, eyebrows raised, jaw dropped–he didn’t suspect a thing!

Fragrant Yellow Celebration Rice (Nasi Kuning)


(Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

The foundation of nasi tumpeng is, of course, fragrant yellow rice. In Indonesia, this dish is traditionally served to celebrate a special occasion, be it a birthday, a marriage or even success at work. The height of the cone symbolizes the greatness of Allah or God, and the food at the base of the cone symbolizes nature’s abundance. The yellow tinge in the rice symbolizes wealth and high morals. When I was growing up, nasi tumpeng was served alongside roast beef at Christmas dinner, fitting perfectly into our holiday celebrations, a time of thanksgiving and hope for a prosperous New Year. But you can enjoy in place of white rice any time!

Time: 45 minutes plus frying shallots
Makes: 6 to 8 servings as a as part of a multicourse family-style meal

2½ teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1½ cups coconut milk
1 plump stalk lemongrass, bruised and tied into a knot
1 salam leaf
4 kaffir lime leaves, crumpled
2½ cups long-grain rice
2 cups water

1 small red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into coins
Fried shallots

Dissolve the turmeric and salt in the warm water.

In a large pot, bring the coconut milk, lemongrass, salam leaf, and kaffir lime leaves to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the turmeric water. Tip the rice into the pot and add the water. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally.

Simmer uncovered until all the liquid has just been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender but not mushy; the rice grains should still be separated. If the rice is still hard, make a well in the center of the pot, add a little water, and cook a few more minutes. Halfway through the estimated cooking time, gently fluff the rice with a fork or chopsticks.

Let the rice cool. Fish out the lemongrass, salam leaf, and lime leaves and discard.

On a large serving platter, mound the rice into the shape of an upturned cone. Garnish with red pepper strips, cucumber slices, and fried shallots.