Monday, 6 December 2010

Malay Cuisine: Masak Lemak Cili Padi

According to Julia Child, poaching is one of the many techniques of cooking that involves submerging and cooking food in a liquid that is barely simmering or shivering. There are many Malay dishes which uses poaching as a method of cooking. Among them are, asam pedas, masak lemak cili padi, masak tempoyak, and curries. What I'm going to write in this entry concerns Masak Lemak Cili Padi.

The way my grandma does it is, she'd ground bird's eye chili peppers with some salt and fresh turmeric tuber in a mortar and pestle and store it in a fridge for future use. She'd pick as many chilies and prepared the mix. That can cut your time to cook 'masak lemak' in half. However, it is also possible to blend the chillies with some water in a mixer if you don't have a mortar and pestle. Here's how to do it.

What you need:
Mortar and pestle/ Blender

Ingredients of the sauce: (serves 2-4 persons)

1 big-sized red onion (you can also use any kinds of onion you have or 8shallots)-slice thinly
1 medium-sized lemongrass*
1 medium-sized turmeric leaf (optional, if you can't find it)-shred roughly
1 tsp turmeric powder/fresh ground turmeric
5-10 medium sized pieces of bird's eye chillies (depends on your tolerance)-blend or grind
400 ml coconut milk
salt to taste
some water

With "Masak lemak" you can choose one of the below choices to accompany the sauce:
chicken/fish/smoked beef/dried fish/vegetables of your choice


Gather all of the ingredients in one pot except the chicken/fish/smoked beef/dried fish/vegetables of your choice. Mix them well before putting it onto the stove above medium heat. Stir the sauce by filling a ladleful of the sauce and then draining them. Repeat the steps to cover every surface area of the sauce*.

Let it simmer for about 8-10 minutes before adding your meat/poultry/fish of choice.

  • If you use chicken or fish, it is better to add 'asam keping'* into the sauce prior. When you are done cooking, remove the 'asam keping' the way we used to remove bay leaves after making a sauce. It is alright if you can't find it because the lemongrass will mask the fishy smell coming from the fish.

Keep stirring until the meat/poultry/fish is cooked. If the sauce starts boiling, reduce the heat quickly because we don't want the coconut milk to separate forming a layer of oil residue as a result of overheating or overcooking. While stirring, be careful as to not disturb the solid ingredient because we want it to be whole not mushy. Add the salt to taste. Give the sauce a taste. If you are cooking the sauce with salted fish, omit the salt or just add a pinch. Add some water to thin out if it gets too thick or too reduced.

Check for doneness. Chicken or beef may need longer time to cook. As for seafood, give it around 10-12 minutes or so. Best served with rice and stir fried vegetables or sambal belacan.

Your 'Masak Lemak' should look like the picture above, source: . His is the only one I found that closely resembles my grandma's and my 'Masak Lemak', not too thick like it will 'coat a spoon*' or too runny like plain water. For those who wants to try, I want to wish you happy cooking.

*Lemongrass: When choosing a lemongrass look for firm stalks, the bottom stalk should be pale yellow (almost white) in colour. To prepare, the lemongrass in cooking 'masak lemak', remove the outer layers of the stalk. Cut into two parts and bruise it using the back of the knife. You can also use the pestle to do so.

*Sauce: Doesn't actually means sauce because it doesn't have the texture of a sauce. It has a rather curry-like consistency.

*Asam keping: Not a tamarind paste. It's Garcinia Antroviridis commonly used in Malay cooking.

*coat a spoon: This term is used to indicate the thickness of a sauce. A spoon dipped into a cream soup and withdrawn would be coated with a thin film of soup. If dipped into a sauce destined to cover food, the spoon would emerge with a fairly thick coating.

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