Ingredient Spotlight: Kecap Manis

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Kecap Manis II — Jackson Pollock would be proud!

A very important person once said, “You can’t argue with taste.” This V.I.P. happens to be my dad. He’d make this declaration while pouring kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce, literally “sweet sauce”) over whatever food was on his plate, be it fried noodles (normal) or spaghetti (not so normal). When it comes to food, Dad’s tastes are simple. He likes Asian food and he likes it cooked by my mom. Any other dish can be remedied by drowning it in kecap manis. Seriously. When Dad travels, he carries a miniature bottle (just like those pint-sized Jim Beams and Johnny Walkers) in his waist-pouch, tucked in nice and snug next to his passport and wallet. No doubt, he equates kecap manis with the elixir of life. Dad must be on to something. Kecap manis is popping up more and more on the culinary landscape as chefs are discovering the wonders of this thick, viscous sauce made from sugar, water, salt, soybeans, and wheat. Heck, even Yotam Ottalenghi, the famous Israeli-born chef who owns five London eateries, uses kecap manis in his Black Pepper Tofu recipe (Plenty, Chronicle Books, 2011). Kecap manis is used both as a flavoring sauce and a condiment at the table. It is a mainstay in dishes like babi kecap (soy sauce pork), nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay. I like to float cut Thai chilies in a tiny dish of kecap manis to serve with fried fish, and I find that a squirt or two of kecap manis in my bowl of chicken noodle soup adds subtly sweet undertones. Don’t restrict kecap manis to Asian dishes though. Marinate your steak, simmer your stews, and baste your roasts with it. You can find two brands of kecap manis in the U.S.: Cap Bango and ABC. More Asian markets carry the ABC brand but I always pick Cap Bango if available for its thicker consistency and sweeter, more complex flavor. Molasses is a worthy substitute although I think it tastes more similar to the Chinese version of sweet soy sauce that accompanies Hainanese chicken rice or popiah. If you can’t find kecap manis, I’ve provided a quick method to make your own at home below.

English: Kecap Manis Achli Masak(left) and Kec...
ABC brand kecap manis                                             Photo courtesy: wikipedia.org

I used to be offended that my dad would pour kecap manis over every meal I served him at my house. I’ve since learned to put things in perspective. My dad was a chain smoker for more than three decades and at the ripe old age of 72, his taste buds are probably a little worn and weary. So a taste of something familiar is comforting to him ??. Now I’m just proud he’s at the forefront of a new food trend, plus he’s taught me a very valuable lesson–you really can’t argue with taste.

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Quick and Easy Kecap Manis

Some methods will have you simmering herbs and spices like galangal, star anise and cinnamon in the sauce. I don’t think it’s necessary but feel free to do so if you’d like. If you can find Indonesian palm sugar (gula jawa/merah), use it. A brand called SweetTree has it in granulated form and is available at Whole Foods. Time: 2 minutes Makes: 1/4 cup Mix 1 tablespoon water, 1 tablespoon regular soy sauce and 3 tablespoons brown sugar together in a small bowl. Microwave on medium for 20 to 30 seconds. Stir to mix. Microwave a few more seconds if the sugar has not completely dissolved. The flavor is similar but the consistency will be thinner than store-bought. To make larger quantities, use the same ratio 1 water:1 soy sauce:3 sugar and simmer on the stove top over low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes until the sugar has completely dissolved and the sauce is thick and syrupy. Store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 months.

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Here are more recipes for making kecap manis:

Here are recipes that use kecap manis:

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Homemade: Peanut Sauce

I’m a peanut sauce convert. There I said it.

It’s true, I never liked peanut sauce.

It probably has to do with the fact that my mom always served peanut sauce with boiled vegetables, i.e. the popular Indonesian dish gado- gado. C’mon, do boiled vegetables sound appetizing to you? I didn’t think so. To my 8-year-old self, gado gado’s only saving grace was the crispy shrimp crackers (krupuk) crushed and scattered atop this mound of rubbery greens.

Peanut sauce plus boiled vegetables=Gado-gado
In the U.S., however, it seems people don’t have such prejudices and just about everyone is enamored with peanut sauce. This fact is, of course, reflected on the menus of Southeast Asian restaurants all across the country. Without fail, you’ll find Swimming Rama (the Thai version of gado gado) on page 1 or 2, and if you look a little further down you’ll find the ubiquitous satay (grilled skewered meat) accompanied by its faithful companion–peanut dipping sauce.

Heck, even my husband adores peanut sauce!

Thankfully, I have seen the light in recent years. My peanut sauce awakening came in the form of a soba noodle salad tossed with a peanut dressing singing of ginger and rice vinegar. This was when I decided I could like peanut sauce after all. A quick call to my mom and a few days later I was making peanut sauce from scratch.

Many peanut sauce recipes start with peanut butter as a shortcut. Not for me. In fact, I’m so dead serious about making it from scratch I pass on the food processor and grind the peanuts using pure muscle power instead. (Ok, ok, so our food processor is in storage).

Indonesian cuisine has a dizzying array of peanut sauces, each with subtle nuances. Each region has its own version and a different dish to go with it.

By tweaking the basic recipe below, you can make a sweet and sour sauce for a dish called asinan comprising salad leaves, eggs, tofu, cucumbers, and cabbage tossed with the sauce. Just add dried shrimp (dry-fried in a wok) and enough sugar and vinegar for the right balance of sweet and sour.

Or mix in sweet cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste, vinegar and petis udang (black shrimp sauce), for tahu telor, a tofu omelet of sorts. I asked my mom how much garlic to add and she told me, “Supaya wangi bau bawang putih,” until it is fragrant with the smell of garlic. I love how poetic that sounds!

You could add any of the above ingredients to flavor your peanut sauce regardless of what you want to eat it with.

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Toss the vegetables with the peanut sauce and top with shrimp crackers and fried shallots, and your gado-gado is ready to be eaten

As a healthy veggie-eating adult, I usually toss the basic peanut sauce with a medley of vegetables like green beans, cabbage, and beansprouts (yes, they’re all boiled), and top it with fried tofu, potatoes, and/or hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes, I’ll rebel and use fresh vegetables like Romaine lettuce and cucumbers. Or I’ll mix it in with vermicelli rice noodles and tofu.

A light drizzle of kecap manis, plus the mandatory shrimp crackers, and lunch is ready.

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Peanut Sauce
peanut sauce

The raw shelled peanuts I buy at the Asian market usually come with their skins on, but don’t worry, the skins aren’t noticeable once they’re all ground up. The 12 oz bag makes 2 cups of ground peanuts but since I like to make my peanut sauce in small batches, I only use 1 cup of ground peanuts at a time (half the total amount). I’ll fry the entire bag of peanuts at one go, grind them up and refrigerate the remaining cup. If you prefer to make the sauce all at once, just double the amount of water and increase the seasonings judiciously.

Makes: about 1 cup sauce
Time: 30 minutes

1/4 cup oil (or just enough to coat the peanuts)
1 (12oz) package raw peanuts (about 2 ¼ cups)
2 to 3 kaffir lime leaves
Sliver of shrimp paste (terasi), toasted (optional)
1 tablespoon seedless wet tamarind, or lime juice
3 tablespoons Indonesian palm sugar or packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chili paste like sambal oelek(or to taste)

Pour the oil into a wok or large skillet. Heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the peanuts and stir-fry them until the skins turn a darker shade of reddish brown and the insides turn golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes. Toss them continuously so they cook evenly and don’t burn.

When the peanuts are done, scoop them up with a slotted spoon and leave to cool on a plate lined with paper towels. Remove any burnt peanuts, they will taste bitter.

When the peanuts are cool enough to handle, grind them until fine like sand, in a food processor or pulverize them with a mortar and pestle like I did, in which case, grinding them till the texture of coarse sand will do. Otherwise your arm might fall off!

In a small pot, combine 1-1/2 cups water, the lime leaves, shrimp paste, tamarind, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, breaking up the shrimp paste and tamarind pulp. Inhale the intense fragrance of the lime leaves!

Using a strainer or slotted spoon, remove the leaves and any remaining tamarind pulp. Add 1 cup ground peanuts and bring to a boil. Save the remaining 1 cup for later. Simmer until thick and creamy like gravy, stirring often so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes.

Stir in the sambal oelek. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Serve the peanut sauce with vegetables, over soba noodles, or as a dipping sauce with grilled meats like satay. Garnish with fried shallots, fried shrimp crackers, and kecap manis.

Pat’s note: The sauce will keep for up to a week in the fridge. To reheat, add a little water if it’s too thick, and warm on the stove or in the microwave.

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Stocking a Gluten-free Asian Pantry

I’d be so sad if I couldn’t share bakmi, one of my favorite Indonesian dishes–it contains wheat noodles, sweet soy sauce, AND soy sauce–with my gluten-free friends. 

A few years ago, my friend randomly mentioned that her mom has a stash of wheat-free soy sauce kept in a safe place at her neighborhood Chinese restaurant. And every time she goes there the owners whip out the bottle and happily prepare her favorite dish–shrimp fried rice–for her.

I was much bemused by this. I’d never even considered that Asian cooking contained a lot of wheat products, and besides, I didn’t know any Asians who were bothered by wheat. In fact, we live on wheat products. Egg noodles, wheat gluten (aka TVP), bean sauce, soy sauce–all of these products contain wheat.

Then last year, I was visiting my husband’s aunt who was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. I wanted to cook for her from my cookbook and her pantry was stocked with gluten-free products. Both she, and I, were pleasantly surprised at how many Asian meal options she had.

Read more (plus print my list in PDF-format) … 

Savory Pancakes, However You Like It

IMG_3731 by you.

Whenever I dine at a Korean restaurant I never fail to order seafood pancake or haemul jeon, chunks of shrimp, squid and the odd bell pepper or green onion nestled in a tasty, savory cushion of a pancake. So when I received a copy of The Korean Table-From Barbecue to Bibimbap, 100 Easy-To-Prepare Recipes by Taekyung Chung and Debra Samuels (Tuttle Publishing, 20008) I was pleasantly surprised that it was so simple to make.

Korean pancakes can be filled with seafood, kimchi or vegetables like zucchini or green onions. It’s so versatile and an easy and delicious one-dish meal Korean mothers and grandmothers can make in minutes. I just scrounged around in my fridge and came up with my own version based on Chung’s recipe.

Korean Pancakes (Jeon)

Adapted from The Korean Table-From Barbecue to Bibimbap, 100 Easy-To-Prepare Recipes by Taekyung Chung and Debra Samuels (Tuttle Publishing, 2008)IMG_3720 by you.
In Chung’s recipe, rice flour adds texture for crispy edges while leaving the middle slightly chewy but even if you omit it, the pancakes will still be tasty. Aim for a consistency that’s between a crepe and American pancake batter. The batter should coat the back of a spoon and drip down in a thick stream. Ingredients like seafood or zucchini will introduce water into the batter so start with a little less water first before adding more to achieve desired consistency. I’ve never been good at flipping pancakes and omelets. If you’re like me, feel free to divide up the batter into smaller portions and make smaller pancakes.

Makes 2 large pancakes

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup rice flour
1 1/2 cups water
Half a small head of Chinese (napa) cabbage, cut into strips (about 2 to 3 cups)
1 small onion, cut into thin slices
1/4 pound bacon, cut into julienne strips
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup soy dipping sauce (recipe follows)

In a large mixing bowl, mix the all purpose and rice flours with water.

Blanch the cabbage in boiling water and squeeze dry in a cheesecloth. Fluff them up.  

Add the cabbage, onion and bacon into the batter and mix well.

In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat for 30 seconds. Pour half the batter evenly into the skillet and cook until the bottom is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip the pancake and press down on the pancake with a spatula to flatten it.

Cook until the pancake is golden brown and the edges are crisp. Turn and press the pancake 2 to 3 more times until the pancake is cooked through.

Transfer the pancake to a serving platter and keep warm in a low oven.

Repeat with remaining batter.

To serve, cut each pancake into bite-sized pieces and serve with soy-green onion dipping sauce.

Soy and Green Onion Dipping Sauce

This sauce keeps for 3 days in the refrigerator, up to 1 week at most, if you leave the green onions out.  Add them only when ready to serve. Serve extras with fresh greens or pan-fried tofu.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons Korean coarse pepper flakes
2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
2 green onions, chopped

Whisk everything together in a bowl.

In memory of a chef-dad, plus his from-scratch black bean sauce

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Cathy Chun stir-frying vegetables to use with her dad’s black bean sauce recipe

Not everyone grew up on the tasty goodness of mom’s or grandma’s cooking.

Cathy Chun is a valid case in point. Her late father, David Chun, reined in the kitchen. And everyone, including Cathy’s mom, was happy with that arrangement.

Ironic as it was, Cathy’s dad was the first son in his family. The antithesis to the stereotypical, pampered, first-born son (FBS) in a Chinese family (more often than not, a FBS is showered with attention, isn’t expected to lift a finger, and lo and behold if he steps into the kitchen!), David spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a boy and learned to cook.

Cathy and her siblings were the happy beneficiaries of their dad’s talents in the kitchen. Food was the medium he used to show his love, she explained. “He was not expressive emotionally but he made sure we ate good food.”

On a surprisingly sunny day in autumnal Seattle, I was cooking at Cathy’s house with her sister Carol who was visiting from Hawaii. Cathy wanted to show me how to make her dad’s black bean sauce–from scratch!–and a couple of other dishes from their family cookbooks.

Yes, they had not one, but three, family cookbooks!

In 1988, Cathy’s family published a family cookbook entitled Potluck at Popo’s followed by the sequels Just One More in 1989 and Once Again at Popo’s in 2002. When Cathy was growing up in Hawaii, her grandmother, whom she called Popo, hosted numerous potluck parties to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. Relatives stretching across five generations would gather at Popo’s house, each family bringing a favorite dish. Eventually, they decided to compile these dishes into several cookbook volumes for posterity.

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As we chopped asparagus and peeled shrimp, Cathy and Carol bantered and reminisced about their dad and their childhood.

Turns out that not only was their dad a superb cook, he was a meticulous one too.

Carol remembered how, wielding a pair of tweezers, he would pick the tiny hairs off pork destined for the pot, and pull the pin feathers off the chickens he was about to cook. And he could always be found on Thanksgiving morning cutting bread into cubes to roast in the oven for croutons and stuffing. Boxed versions never passed muster.

The conversation meandered organically: we discussed all the different things you could do with spam and Vienna sausages–staples in Hawaii, of course–and whether rice is better cooked on the stove or in the rice cooker. Cathy explained it simply. “I grew up on rice made in a pot.” And that’s how she’s always liked it.

In the end, it all boils down to what you’re used to. Yet another quirk–Cathy’s dad never used a wok and “his cast iron skillet was always on the stove,” she recalled. This might explain why her favorite kitchen accoutrement is the skillet.

Through osmosis, Cathy incorporated many of her dad’s tips and tricks into her culinary repertoire. And the ever-sentimental daughter still keeps his sharpening stone on her kitchen counter as a reminder of the loving father who nourished her both physically and emotionally.

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For the recipe and useful tips and tricks Cathy’s dad used in the kitchen, go here.

Top 10 leftover turkey tips

Once thanksgiving has come and gone, and the food coma has dissipated (hopefully!), one is faced with the next big thing–leftovers.

Who doesn’t love turkey leftovers? I do! But having overdosed on one too many turkey sandwiches and turkey tetrazzinis, I’m looking for a turkey leftover makeover. My solution? Reincarnate the turkey in Asian-style dishes.

Just like grandmas and mothers everywhere are experts at improv in the kitchen, let your creativity run (turkey) wild. Hint: you can use leftover turkey in just about any recipe that calls for chicken bits.

Here’s my top 10.

10. Turkey stock

Place the turkey carcass in a big stockpot, cover with enough water, add some herbs and spices–I pop in a few smashed cloves of garlic, diced onions, a few ginger slices, peppercorns, and two to three stalks of green onions tied in a knot– and voila!

9. Turkey macaroni soup

One of my favorite comfort foods! Add shredded turkey, sausage slices (ballpark sausages will do) and a cup or two of frozen veggies to the stock above, and boil some elbows of macaroni . To serve, top with squares of Spam (you can fry them up first if you’d like), fried shallots and green onion ‘O’s. 

8. Turkey lumpia

Shredded or chopped turkey tastes yummy rolled into a lumpia or egg roll with all the usual accoutrements. Dip in plum sauce … mmm … turkey and plum sauce … mmm … Try this recipe from food blog Pinoy Cook.

7. (Curried) turkey salad

Ever heard of Coronation chicken? Well, neither had I before I lived in England. It’s basically precooked chicken mixed with mayonnaise, curry powder, nuts and apricots/or raisins, and served between two slices of white bread (duh, it’s a sandwich!) or on a bed of lettuce. I know it sounds funky, but it tastes really good. Have a go at a turkey version by improvising on the original recipe or trying this Allrecipes.com one.

6. Turkey with nutmegged kecap manis gravy 

This is a gravy my mum makes for Indonesian steak (basically the meat’s marinated in kecap manis or Indonesian sweet soy sauce) but I bet it tastes great with roast turkey too! 

Fry 1 finely minced shallot and two cloves of garlic, minced, in a couple of tablespoons of butter until golden brown and fragrant. Add about a quart of turkey stock (#10), 1 to 2 tablespoons of tomato paste (my mum uses tomato ketchup) and 1/4 cup kecap manis, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and add 1/4 cup milk. Stir and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or to taste), and salt and white pepper to taste. Drizzle gravy over turkey slices and rice.

5. Turkey stir-fry with vegetables

Add bite size pieces of turkey to almost cooked stir-fried veggies. Give everything a good stir and serve.

4. Turkey sticky rice casserole

Pork is usually the staple in this popular Chinese dish but why not use turkey bits instead? Throw the turkey, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), water chestnuts, shrimp and sticky rice into a rice cooker and it’ll be ready in no time! Or if you are a stickler for tradition, cook it in a claypot.  Try this recipe from Epicurious.com.

3. Turkey Tom Ka Kai

Instead of chicken, add turkey (toward the end of cooking time though) to this yummy Thai sour soup made with coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and  lemon grass. Replace the chicken stock with turkey stock (#10) too. This recipe was given to me by Rin Nedtra, owner of Sea Siam Thai Restaurant in Miami, FL.

2. Turkey noodle soup

Here’s that indispensable turkey stock (#10) again! Boil your favorite noodles–egg, rice, or mung bean–and serve in seasoned stock. Top with turkey slices and your choice of vegetables–I recommend bok choy.

And now for my #1 way with turkey leftovers … drumroll please …

10.Turkey congee

Using the turkey stock (#10), making turkey congee is as easy as 1-2-3 and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Light and filling, it’s the perfect antidote to the previous day’s gluttony.

Combine strained stock and rice in a stockpot (about 8 cups of stock to 1 cup of uncooked rice.) Bring to a boil and stir. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until consistency of oatmeal, about 1-3/4 hours. Stir frequently during last 1/2 hour of cooking, adding water if necessary. Season with salt or soy sauce. Ladle into individual bowls and serve topped with shredded turkey, and your choice of green onion ‘O’s, chopped cilantro and chung choy (preserved turnip.) 

Drop me a comment if you have any other un-Thanksgiving leftover recipes to share!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!