Family vacation” is a phrase that fills half the people I know with dread and the other half with blissful memories. Which are you? Does the phrase make you think of battling your brother in the back seat of the station wagon while you pass Mount Rushmore — or does it make you think of peaceful moments on the beach, skipping rocks on placid waters?
These days, there might be a third option. For a night, for instance, you could take the whole family to Malaysia for the price of a bag of groceries. How’s that? The Internet has made cuisines and cultures more accessible than at any other time in history. If you merely enter “Malaysia” into any search engine, you’re seconds away from a fascinating photographic tour of lush, tropical jungles and pristine ocean beaches. Add a few recipes from a book like James Oseland’s wonderful Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia and a few specialty ingredients from an Internet grocer, and there you are: on vacation, immersed in exotic flavors and scents, but with your family in the comfort of your very own kitchen.
Oseland, who most foodie-Americans know as the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, fell in love with the cooking of Malaysia and the rest of the Spice Islands while on a trip there 20-odd years ago. Ever since, he has devoted himself to making the cuisines of these tropical lands accessible to Americans and Europeans.
“We in the West don’t know these cuisines because there isn’t much of an expatriate community here,” Oseland observes. “But when people cook with these flavors, most of them find that, first, it’s not a particularly difficult cuisine, and that, second, there’s a lot of friendliness to the foods. When I say friendliness, I mean that there’s almost a subconscious familiarity that a lot of us in the West have with these foods, because a lot of the core ingredients are ones we know and love, like nutmeg, cloves and shallots.”
The difference is that when Americans use nutmeg or cloves, it’s usually as a sweet, subtle accent in a cookie or bread. But Indonesians, Malaysians and others use those spices in abundance in savory dishes. This might be attributed simply to the fact that any nutmeg, cloves or cinnamon that made it to Europe had to travel thousands of miles by boat, while the people of the Spice Islands, where those spices grow, had them readily available in quantity.
Work in a predinner discussion with your kids about the value that precious pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon and nutmeg had to both pirates and kings in the days of giant wooden ships, and you might even get your preteens interested in spices in a way you never imagined possible. After all, how many other cuisines involve pirates?
Still, if cooking food from Malaysia — or any of the Spice Islands — seems about as intimidating to you as walking the plank, Oseland says it’s a lot easier than you might think. “Beyond the few pantry items you’ll need to stock your larder with, like coconut milk or tamarind paste, the techniques for cooking [like stewing or grilling] are very forgiving,” he says.
Consider, for example, a rendang. “It sounds mysterious and exotic,” says Oseland, “but it’s essentially just a beef curry that you’re allowing to cook for hours and hours.” The flexibility of most of these recipes is such that even beginning cooks can set aside their fear of failure. “In French cuisine, you can really fall on your face with a sauce and have to start from scratch,” says Oseland, “but with this food, I have found that even if you make the most major gaffe, you might lose a bit in terms of presentation or consistency, but it’s still going to come out tasting good.”
It’s also going to come out healthy, since the foods of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore tend to rely on spice, not fat, for their flavor. Oseland recommends his Lemongrass-Scented Coconut Rice (see Web Extra!) as a great starting point, because it’s a simple recipe that showcases an unfamiliar ingredient — lemongrass. Pair that rice with the recipe for Sautéed Cabbage With Ginger and Crispy Indian Yellow Lentils (reprinted below), and you might just have an entirely new sort of family vacation to reminisce about — and a delicious one, at that.
Sauteed Cabbage With Ginger & Crispy Indian Yellow Lentils
- 3 tbs. peanut oil
- 1⁄4 tsp. black mustard seeds
- 1⁄4 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 heaping tsp. small Indian yellow lentils
- 2 small dried red chilies such as arbol, stemmed and broken in half
- 10 to 20 fresh curry leaves (optional)
- 1⁄2 medium-size white onion, finely minced
- 1 tsp. ground turmeric
- 1 lb. green cabbage, cored and coarsely chopped into 1⁄4-inch pieces
- 1 piece fresh ginger, 1-inch long, peeled, very thinly sliced and cut into fine matchsticks
- 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
- 4 tbs. finely grated fresh coconut or grated dried coconut
- Heat the oil in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, but not smoking — it should appear shimmery — toss in the mustard seeds and begin sliding the pan back and forth over the heat. The mustard seeds will start to pop and sputter within 30 seconds. When nearly all of the mustard seeds have popped (just a few seconds more), remove the pan from the heat for about 30 seconds to cool slightly.
- Return the pan to medium heat and add, in quick succession, the cumin, yellow lentils, red chilies and curry leaves (if using), distributing them evenly in the oil with a spatula or spoon. Sauté until the yellow lentils begin to turn a deep gold and the curry leaves have picked up translucent spots, about 45 seconds. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until it’s soft and limp and no longer raw, two to four minutes, reducing the heat if necessary to make sure that it doesn’t change color and become golden. You want the onion to remain white. Add the turmeric and stir well to mix.
- Add the cabbage, ginger and salt, and vigorously stir everything with the spatula, making sure that the cabbage is tinted an even yellow color from the turmeric. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Gently cook the cabbage, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until it’s cooked through and slightly translucent, about seven minutes. Taste a few pieces. They should be crunchy tender to the tooth, neither firm nor mushy. Add the coconut, stirring well to combine. Taste for salt, and add a pinch more if needed.
- Transfer to a serving bowl or plate. You may remove the broken chilies if you prefer, though I like cautiously crunching down on them. Let the cabbage rest for at least five minutes before eating; this dish should be served warm to room temperature, since its flavors are muted by heat. It will make an excellent leftover for the next day.