The cuisines of Southeast Asia are the flavours of the sun. Like the bright colours of the tropics, and the heady vibes of the cultures here, there is nothing subtle about the food of Southeast Asia. Bold, spicy, rich, they are meant to be eaten with steamed rice, our staple which also serves as a neutral canvas for these big flavours.
In Southeast Asian cuisines, much of the magic comes from the rempah, or spice paste which home cooks long ago spent their days preparing and pounding in heavy mortars and pestles. These piquant mixes comprise mainly of the herbs and spices readily available, and which cooks and housewives a long time ago surely picked from bushes and trees along village lanes and kampong gardens. Except for the most ardent gardeners or upcoming urband farmers, the rest of us buy them from the supermarket these days, of course. Essential ingredients include shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, galangal or blue ginger, lemongrass, coriander, and enriched with coconut milk and candlenuts. They are all diverse in flavour, all pretty strong and aromatic.
This prawn dish which goes by the the Malay name sambal udang, is one which captures these sunshine flavours of the tropics perfectly. Even its colour is vibrant. The list of spices is long, but that’s really the only hard part of this recipe to assemble. Once you get it all blended together in a modern day food processor—thank goodness for that convenience—the rest of the cooking is very easy. For a bit more citrus aroma, finely slice two kaffir lime leaves and sprinkle it over at the end of the cooking process. Serve it with rice.
Spicy Turmeric Prawns in Coconut Milk
16 tiger prawns
2 Tbsp oil
Salt to taste
½ tsp sugar
A handful of coriander, washed and plucked
1 cup water
1 cup thick coconut milk
1 tsp assam paste
6 dried chillies, soaked, then discard water
3 fresh red chillies, sliced and seeds removed
3 cloves garlic,
6 slices ginger
2-cm length fresh turmeric
4-cm length galangal / blue ginger
4 candlenuts (macadamia nuts are a good substitute)
1 scant tsp belacan*, toasted
2 stalks lemongrass, sliced
Place all the spice paste ingredients into a blender, add 2-3 tbsp water and blitz into a rough paste.
Heat oil in a wok and fry the blended spice paste over medium heat until it is fragrant – about 10 minutes.
Stir in assam paste, coconut milk and water, and bring it all to a boil. Add in the tomatoes and let it cook until a little soft.
Add in the prawns and salt, boil until the prawns are cooked – about 5-10 minutes. Feel free to add more water if you find it is too thick.
Sprinkle over with coriander and serve with white rice.
Note: *You can make a bigger batch of this paste and freeze it. It’s pretty versatile and can be used as a base for stewing meat and seafood, or even as a marinade for grilling meat.
**To toast belacan, wrap it up in a bit of foil and toast it in a dry pan for about 3-4 minutes. It will be pretty pungent.