Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Golden Coconut Rice: from a Malay wedding

Having lived nearly 8 years in Malaysia, I was lucky enough to eat, and learn to cook from people who did them well, many delightful dishes from that multi-ethnic country. One of the lesser known cuisines, at least to the outside world, is Malay cooking. It can be quite wonderful. Having a lot of overlaps -- and some origins -- with Indonesian cooking, especially Sumatran cooking, Malay cuisine also has Indian, Chinese, Arab, and perhaps some Thai influences. One of the best known Malay dishes, 'satay', the grilled kebabs on skewers (in turn originally from Indonesia with hints of Arab ancestry), with their sweet-tangy peanut sauce, has been happily borrowed into Thai cooking and made widely popular as 'sateh' or 'saté' at Thai restaurants.

One of the dishes I recall fondly is rice cooked with coconut milk ('nasi lemak'; 'nasi' meaning rice and 'lemak' meaning rich) and its fancier version, golden coconut rice ('nasi lemak kuning'; 'kuning' meaning yellow). Golden rice invoked royalty (Malay sultans still officially wear yellow silk vestments), and was served at special occasions, like weddings. I was fortunate enough to go to a number of these. Golden coconut rice also shows up in the cooking of southern Thailand, where many of the people are of Malay ancestry, are Muslim, and share a number of cultural features with their Malaysian neighbors to the south.

This richly flavored dish is more typical of Malay and Indonesian rice cooking than of Thai, where preparing rice with any seasoning, even salt, is exceptional. Coconut rice is a dish in its own right and would typically be served with dry accompaniments, such as caramelized rings of onion, roasted peanuts, crisp-fried tiny fish, and cucumber wedges, rather than with a wet curry or sauce. With this rice I particularly enjoy chicken marinated and fried with soy sauce, called 'kicap ayam' in Malay and 'gai see yu' in Thai. (That easy chicken recipe will show up in a subsequent blog posting.) We serve these dishes with each other at 'Donderos' Kitchen' in Athens.

The recipe serves six generously, at least six Westerners. In terms of beverage, good Malays, being Muslim, would not drink alcohol, with or without food. For me, a beverage accompaniment would be based on what is served with the rice. Beer would be the most common drink in Malaysia among those not restricted on alcohol.

Golden Coconut Rice

1-3/4 cups Thai jasmine or other long-grained rice
3 tablespoons finely minced onion
3/4 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk, shaken well before opening can
1-2/3 cups water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons oil-roasted peanuts for garnish
1 to 2 small cucumbers, pickling type preferred, for accompaniment

In a heavy cooking pot (or in a rice cooker), rinse and drain the rice twice with cold water. Add the minced onion, coconut milk, water, salt, and turmeric. Stir. Bring to a boil. After 30 seconds, but without stirring, cover the pot, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer 20 minutes without opening the lid. Turn off the heat, keep the pot covered, and let the rice sit for another 10 minutes. If using a rice cooker, use the same ingredients and proportions, cover and allow the rice mixture to cook without opening the lid. When the light goes off, let the cooker sit at least 10 minutes before opening the lid.

Fluff the rice with a fork. Serve it on a platter, rather than in a bowl, sprinkled with the peanuts and surrounded by sliced (1/4-inch thick) cucumber, unpeeled unless the skin is tough or waxed.

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