The dish that I am sharing with all of you is a rustic northern malay curry or what we call ‘gulai’. This being my first ever attempt to post something original, I thought a dish with a bunch of spices, coconut, tropical fruit, and ginormous prawns would truly represent the Malaysian palate. At the same time its quick, foolproof and simple enough to avoid any sort of embarrassment in the kitchen or in front of camera.
Now before I get into the finer details of the recipe, which is quite straight forward, really... allow me to bore you further with a short history lesson on how this style of food actually came about.
For over 200 years, the Straits of Melacca had always been a hub for international trade and particularly in the north, now the state of Penang, attracted traders from Fukien with other parts of China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Middle East. After wealthy merchants and the British Empire plundered our natural resources, we were left with a strong and competitive economy ready to handle the hurdles of a developing nation.
Another result is George Town evolved to be a cosmopolitan island of different communities from mixed heritage where everyone takes their food a bit too seriously. Peranakans are a mix of a local Malay and a Straits settler, but when they are of muslim origin they would be called Jawi Peranakan. Similar to the Nyonya and Baba of Melaka who have Straits Chinese and Malay lineage, Jawi Peranakan food, which is very unique to Penang and is built upon the foundations of Malay food and South East Asian cooking, but with a strong influence of spices and herbs from Indian and Arab traders.
All these points are very noticeable in this dish. It starts with beautifully grown local produce, orange sweet potatoes and ripe pineapple, which adds sweetness and body, followed with a light yellow spice mix of turmeric, fennel seeds, pepper, fenugreek and cardamom or what we call ‘Rempah’. In this dish, we use ‘rempah’ specific for cooking seafood and not the fish or meat spice mix which tends to have more chili, coriander seeds and cumin. The spices are further mellowed down with the use of coconut milk and lemongrass intensifies the citrus fragrance. The flavouring ingredients like onions, garlic, ginger are pounded into a paste and simmered, very different from most curries which usually start with oil and browning onions with spices, and not the other way around. Then, after cleaning some healthy looking prawns, gently place them in the simmering liquid.
What really brings this dish to a different level of deliciousness is the art of ‘tumis bujang’. In ‘chefy’ terms its called tempering, and to temper hot oil separately and brown the aromatic ingredients which include onions, curry leaves and dried chili and pouring in on top of the ready curry as a finale is a very common practice in Malaysia and a known technique of Indian cooking. Palm oil is great for tempering as it is able to tolerate higher temperatures before it starts smoking unlike olive oil which would also add a peculiar taste to the dish.
I hope that for those of you who are getting into cooking, this would be a dish worth trying, a sure crowd winner and preparation time is less than an hour. For the readers who are familiar with gulais, I am very sure this would bring back some nostalgia and urge you further to balik kampung up North.
*Tip No 1 -This dish goes very well with Crab, shellfish and my favourite, Salted Queenfish.
*Tip No 2 -Pineapple gives out sweetness but absorbs salt so make sure you season accordingly.