A Multi-Culti Christmas and New Year To You!

I was about 14-years-old in this picture taken during a family celebration. You can see the tippity top of the nasi tumpeng in front of my parents. No one is smiling except my mum! Hmm… My excuse? I was a teenager!

When I was growing up, fragrant yellow coconut rice was right at home sitting next to the roast beef and/or honey-baked ham during Christmas dinner.

Every year, my mum would make nasi tumpeng, yellow coconut rice served with a smorgasbord of Indonesian dishes. Come to think of it, the roast beef and the Bûche de Noël were probably an afterthought!

Mum’s first task was to make rice imbued with the fragrance and flavor of coconut milk and turmeric (nasi kuning or yellow rice, my recipe here). She would then mound the rice into a cone atop a bed of banana leaves folded in an intricate pattern origami-style. This “mountain” represents the numerous mountains and volcanoes that dot the  thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.

Around the base of the cone, Mum would arrange various foods that she’d prepared over the past week in neat piles: shredded egg omelet, ayam goreng, (fried chicken), empal (sweet and spicy fried beef), teri kacang (anchovy with peanuts), tempe orek (fried tempe), perkedel kentang (potato cutlets), and anything else that she fancied.

My mum recently made this nasi tumpeng for a friend's wedding
My mum recently made nasi tumpeng for a friend’s wedding

The cone mimics the holy mountain, once revered as the abode of ancestors and gods, and its height symbolizes the greatness of Allah. The rice’s golden hue symbolizes prosperity and wealth. The food at the base of the cone symbolizes nature’s abundance.

Traditionally, this feast was created in thanksgiving for an abundant harvest or a blessing that a family has received. Today, nasi tumpeng is still widely served to celebrate any special occasion, be it a birthday, a marriage, or even a successful business venture.

Without a doubt, nasi tumpeng fit perfectly into our holiday celebrations, a time of thanksgiving and hope for a prosperous New Year.

Buoyed by my own memories, I asked my friends if they had any fusion holiday traditions to share. They sure did!

Filipino

Large bibinka (bebinca).
Bibinka is a popular Christmas treat in the Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Happy, Filipinos traditionally go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. When they come out, the streets in the Philippines are usually lined with vendors selling tasty, freshly steamed treats. “People look forward to Christmas midnight mass because this is the only time the vendors sell these items this early in morning,” she says. The treats include “puto bongbong,” a purple rice flour treat steamed in a bamboo tube and served with shaved coconut; and “bibinka” is a rice flour and coconut milk treat, steamed in banana leaves and cooked in a clay pot.

“In America, it is common for families to continue cooking these treats during the holidays to remind them of the Philippines,” she explains.

Japanese

New Year's Dishes
A variety of Japanese New Year’s dishes (Photo credit: JanneM)

Hiroko spends two days preparing a traditional Japanese New Year’s Day feast for family and friends. “For New Year’s Day, each food has meaning… We always start with these three as the root,” she says, describing the following foods: “kuromame,” black beans, which represent the hardworking ethic of the Japanese people; “kazunoko,” salt-cured herring roe, the thousand eggs symbolizing a wish for a large and prosperous family, and “gomame,” a tiny fish that reflects growth and good luck.

Chinese

Sticky rice stuffing is a common dish served by Chinese Americans during Thanksgiving and Christmas

Every Christmas, Virginia’s family combines American traditions of turkey and ham along with their  family tradition, Chinese Sticky rice, at the dinner table. “Inside the sticky rice, my parents would add … Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimp,” she says. “For us, sticky rice represents family unity and togetherness — which is especially important now that my siblings and I live in different parts of the country.”

“Sticky rice is something I look forward to every year!” she says. (Find my recipe here.)

Taiwanese

hot pot!
Assorted ingredients surround a hot pot waiting to be dipped into the soup (Photo credit: StudioGabe // Gabriel Li)

Tina, a Taiwanese who grew up in Guam, remembers spending New Year’s Day around a hot pot. “It brings the entire family together over one pot of boiling soup with a variety of ingredients,” she says. “Moreover, it’s a hot soup dish and simply appropriate for the cold winter.”

Indonesian

Chicken porridge, Jakarta, Indonesia
Indonesian bubur or congee or rice porridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Titania, congee and Chinese wine were staples to ring in the New Year when she was growing up in Indonesia. “We put preserved salty plum in the wine to create a unique salty and sour (from the wine) taste and we’d toast with that at midnight,” she says. “Then we would eat up the chicken and pork “bubur” (Indonesian-style congee) that my mom made to warm us up.”

By blending old and new, adding a dash of east meets west, plus a sprinkle of creativity, we can all design our own family traditions for the holidays. But regardless of what is served on the table or what gifts are under the tree, remember that being together as a family and sharing each other’s company should be number one on everyone’s wish list.

(These quotes were originally published in a 2007 Northwest Asian Weekly article)

Do you have a fusion holiday tradition to share?

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This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month, it’s holiday celebrations around the world.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

 Annabelle’s Pecan Slices at Glass of Fancy

Emma’s Latkes at Dreaming of Pots and Pans

Grace’s Persimmon Salad at Hapa Mama

Lucy’s Ham and Cheddar Scones at A Cook and Her Books

Joe’s Orange Honey Cake

Ingredient Spotlight: Kecap Manis

kecap manis art II
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:

Homemade: Sambal Oelek (and a Chili Paste Comparison)

sambal oelek
Chilies pounded in a mortar; a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of salt; homemade sambal oelek is ready

If you’ve bought Sriracha sauce at the Asian market (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you’ve probably noticed two other bottled chili sauces parked right by it—sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce. All three are made by the same company, Huy Fong, and sport lids of the same shade of grassy green.

So what’s the difference, you might ask? First of all, the ingredients differ slightly. Here are the ingredient lists according to the labels on the bottles:

Sriracha sauce: chilies, sugar, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar

Chili garlic sauce: chilies, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar

Sambal oelek: chilies, salt, distilled vinegar

Try sampling the condiments side by side, you’ll taste the finer nuances of each. And while you could use them interchangeably, I reserve each sauce/paste for a different purpose.

Mellow and sweet, Sriracha sauce is often used as a condiment for soups (what would Vietnamese pho lovers do without Sriracha?!), fried noodles, even hamburgers, and pizzas. In fact, its popularity knows no bounds as trendy restaurants invent novel ways to incorporate the vermillion-colored sauce into mainstream dishes. Some concoctions I’ve come across: Sriracha mixed into mayo for an Asian-style aioli, or in a Bloody Mary.

Chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek are used more for cooking. Chili garlic sauce, with its garlicky flavor, is perfect for stir fries and to make mabo dofu. I also use it in a dipping sauce with soy sauce and vinegar for dumplings. The combination of heat and tang in sambal oelek is well-suited for tuna salad, and as a shortcut ingredient to make beef rendang (or any other spicy Indonesian dish for that matter).

My heart, however, belongs to sambal oelek. Of course, since we both come from the same Indonesian stock. And while I do have a Huy Fong bottle sitting in my fridge, I also enjoy making it fresh the traditional way—hand-ground in a basalt stone mortar or ulek (oelek is the old Dutch spelling) with a pestle (ulekan). It’s so simple, I make just enough for one meal.

There are so many other sambals in Indonesian cuisine: sambal terasi, sambal badjak, sambal kecap, etc., and I’m planning on a sambal series over the next few months. Plus, I’ll also show you how a little tweaking to the original sambal oelek recipe can give you Hainanese chicken rice chili and steamboat chili!

For now, here’s my method for making sambal oelek.

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Sambal Oelek

sambal oelek

The basic sambal oelek “recipe” calls for just chilies and salt. If you like it spicy, add some bird or Thai chilies. The Indonesian name for the long chilies used in sambals is cabe keriting or curly chili, but any long chili like Fresno or Serrano (or whatever chilies are waiting to be picked in your garden before the first frost appears) will do. I found some nice, fat unnamed long chilies about 8-inches long at my market. A small bowl of the finished sauce plate-side next to some fried chicken or fresh-cut vegetables will have you dip-dipping away!

2, 8-inch long red chilies (about 2.5 ounces)
Large pinch of salt, and more to taste
Juice from 1 key lime (about 2 teaspoons), or 1-2 teaspoons vinegar
Sugar to taste (optional)

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: enough for 2 people to enjoy at one meal

Remove the stems and slice the chilies lengthwise. Remove as much membrane and seeds as you like (these are what give chilies heat, and as you can tell from the photos I’m a wuss).

Chop the chilies up and place in the mortar with a generous pinch of salt. Grind the chilies with the pestle using a twisting motion until pulpy.

Chopped chilies (top); ground chilies (bottom)

Add the lime juice and more salt and sugar to taste. Serve immediately.

Note: If you make the sambal in bulk (I strongly advise a food processor!), it will keep in a sterilized jar in the fridge for a few weeks.

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sambal oelek
All done! Here's my mess ...

What’s your favorite way to use sambal oelek?

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For those dying for a Sriracha sauce recipe, here are 2 great sites to visit:

Viet World Kitchen: Andrea has recipes for fresh and fermented versions
Leite’s Culinaria: A recipe from “The Sriracha Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, 2011) by Randy Clemen

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