Tag Archives: Malaysia

Happy Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Traditional Diwali Lamps

Yesterday was the first day of – Diwali – The Festival of Lights for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world. This means that for the past few weeks, women have been working overtime in kitchens throughout the subcontinent and diaspora communities to prepare traditional foods for the five-day long celebration.
Many things are celebrated on Diwali, but the overarching reason for the holiday for Hindus is to commemorate the return of Lord Rama from his long exile and his triumph over the demon-king Ravana. To welcome Rama, people clean and decorate their homes and businesses, dress in new clothes, perform religious rituals (puja), and feast on sweet and savory snacks and light firecrackers to frighten evil spirits away.

Although traditions vary by geographic location and ethnicity, generally speaking, on the first day, Hindus celebrate the return of prosperity to the earth. In many places cows and calves are worshipped or given special consideration, and for many Indian businesses, this is also the first day of the new financial year. Today (the second day) commemorates the birth of Dhanvantari, the Physician God and is an auspicious day to make certain purchases. Tomorrow, the third day, celebrates Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura and in preparation for a Krishna/Vishnu puja, oil lamps are lit and elaborate ritual artworks called kolams or rangolis are prepared. These rangoli can either be simple decorations of powdered rice or grain or elaborate mandala-like geometric patterns made with multi-colored sand or flour or even flower petals. People often get up before sunrise to bathe under the stars and after worship, feasting, and visiting family and friends begins.

Simple and Complex Rangolis

On the fourth day, the Lakshmi puja celebrates the Goddess Lakshmi and the God Ganesh and renewed prosperity is once again celebrated. The fifth day is day is celebrated as Govardhan puja or Annakoot, and is celebrated as the day Krishna defeated Indra and by the lifting of Govardhana hill to save his kinsmen and cattle from rain and floods. In some places on this day, mountains of food are piled up and decorated symbolizing the earth lifted by Krishna. The day after Diwali is a special celebration for brothers and sisters, with the women and girls traditionally making and serving their brother’s favorite foods and receiving gifts from their brothers in return.

For Jains, Diwali has a very different meaning. It is celebrated as the day Lord Mahavira, the last of the Jain prophets of this era, attained nirvana. To the Jains, the name for the celebration, Dipalikaya roughly translates as “light leaving the body”. Hence the thousands of lamps lit during these holidays are seen as “souls” to the Jains. The Jain New Year begins after Diwali celebrations conclude.

For Sikhs, Diwali is particularly important because it celebrates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, and 52 other princes with him, in 1619. Having been imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir, the guru was to be released but begged for clemency for the 52 princes that had been imprisoned with him. The emperor declared that only those princes who could hold onto the gurus cloak could leave with him. In a brilliant ruse, the guru made a cloak with 52 pieces of string to allow all the princes to grab onto the cloak and exit with him. Today, the Sikhs celebrate the return of Guru Hargobind by lighting their Golden Temple and other Sikh places of worship around the world.

A Selection of Diwali Sweets

The many sweets enjoyed at this time of year are called mithai* and are made from a ground of chickpea flour, rice flour, semolina, various beans, lentils and grains, squashes, or carrots, thickened condensed milk or yoghurt. These ingredients are then pounded together or cooked and flavored with cashews, almonds, pistachios, or raisins. Other ingredients can include fragrant spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or cumin or kewra (pandan leaf essence). The most fancy of the sweets can contain silver or gold leaf design elements as well. Households cook and exchange elaborately decorated boxes of these sweets with family and friends as part of the Dewali celebrations.

Savory Snacks for Diwali

The savory snacks enjoyed at this time are made from chickpeas, rice, lentil and several other varieties of flours, sesame seeds, fresh fenugreek leaves or coconut, and pounded into assorted shapes and usually deep-fried or in these health-conscious days baked. Sometimes different snacks are combined with nuts and flavored in special ways to make special snack “mixes”. Small breads, such as puris and pakoras fried in ghee are also enjoyed as savory snacks at this time.

Recipes for Diwali snacks are available in the Silk Road Gourmet Volume One in the Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka chapters and include:  Pastry in Sweet Milk and Rosewater (Ras Malai), Sweet Milk Squares with Cardamom, Cinnamon and Almond Custard, Semolina Squares with Saffron and Cardamom, Sweet Split-Pea Pudding and Sweet Coconut-Cardamom Balls.  Additional recipes will be available in the next volume of the book as well.

(Words and Photo of A Selection of Diwali Snacks by Laura Kelley; photo of Tradtional Diwali Lamps by The Final Miracle@Dreamstime.com, and photo of Savory Diwali Snacks by Ashwin Abhirama.  Individual images for the photo simple and complex rangolis are from Wikimedia Commons.)

*Please notice the root “mith” as in Mithras (or Mithrandir for fantasy fans) to denote the connection to fire and light as in zoroastrianism.

Making a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

The phrase, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” was coined by Johnathan Swift’s punster Mr. Neverout in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation In Several Dialogues published in 1738. When quill touched cotton, the phrase was used to refer to the strange character of Sir John. Mr. Neverout uses it to proclaim that Sir John, being of low birth, is not a proper Duke and deftly goes on to disparage his character. Although this turn of the phrase is still in play, it has over the years also been used to discourage ingenuity and inventiveness or to encourage people to accept things as they are – in other words, to not rock the boat.

This month’s 5-Star Foodie Makeover Challenge was Junk Food. Specifically, we were asked to use junk food or a favorite snack in a real dish of our choosing. I really hated this idea at first and didn’t want to do it, I thought of telling the group organizers that I was unable to participate due to illness, overwork or travel – something – some excuse NOT to participate.

Having selected my junk food and prepared my dish, I think it was a great challenge and although I am new to the group, I hope that future challenges will be so . . . well I’m not sure whether thought provoking or emotion inspiring is the right phrase, but there it is. I used bar snacks: Beer Nuts, 5-Alarm Chili Peanuts and Planter’s Creamy Peanut Butter to make delicious Malaysian Chicken Satay that we all loved – even the kids. What’s not to like about that.

I suppose the there was a bit of artful dodgerness in the selection of junk food – its not really junky. I mean, come on, its not a Twinkie right! That said, I never use processed or flavored peanuts in my satay sauce, and despite the millions of recipes on the web for peanut sauce from peanut butter, I have never used it before the challenge for that purpose. So the challenge forced me to abandon my habits and preconceived notions and to try something outside of my food box – which, covering the continent of Asia, is generally pretty big.

Junk Food used in Challenge

This recipe is a wonderful example of how meat is eaten all across the Indo-Malay archipelago. It is marinated for hours in a sweet and spicy paste, then barbequed on a grill and drizzeled with a rich and flavorful peanut-based sauce. Feel free to substitute beef or shrimp for the chicken and adjust the cooking times, or make a mix of all three meats and allow diners to mix and match flavors.

Grilled Chicken with Peanut Sauce (Satay)

1 lb, chicken, chilled and cut into thin slices

Marinade
8 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, sliced
2 tablespoons ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup water (more as needed)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt

In a food processor, or blender, make a smooth paste out of the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and water (using water ½ cup at a time). Set aside.

In a wok, dry roast coriander seeds over medium heat until they become fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and empty into food processor or grinder and blend into a fine powder. Mix dark soy sauce and salt with the ground coriander and then add to the lemongrass paste.

Rub paste mixture into both sides of the chicken. Sprinkle the cumin powder over the chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours at room temperature. If you wish to marinate overnight – cover and refrigerate.

When almost ready to cook, prepare the peanut sauce (see below) below and set aside. Thread seasoned meat on to fine metal or soaked bamboo skewers. Grill over charcoal or gas fire or under hot grill 3 minutes per side.

Chicken and Beef Satay

Spicy Peanut Sauce (Satay)
5 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, thinly sliced
¼ cup lime juice
Water (as needed to make a thick sauce)
2/3 cup beer nuts
1/3 cup Planter’s five-alarm chili peanuts
2 tablespoons Planter’s creamy peanut butter
6 dried red chili peppers, diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar

In a blender, grind shallots, garlic, lemongrass and lime juice into a fine paste – adding water as necessary. Add ground peanuts and peanut butter and grind until blended. The key to this recipe is not to add too much water too soon, so use a gentle hand.

Heat oil in wok or saucepan and stir fry peanut paste for 3-5 minutes. Lower heat and cook covered for another 5-10 minutes until lemongrass softens.

Add chili peppers, ginger, salt, and sugar and cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes till sugar is dissolved, stirring constantly. The sauce will darken considerably as it cooks.  Cool peanut sauce and serve with barbecued meat.

———-

Even made with junk food, this recipe is a winner.  Unlike a lot of satay sauces it balances the peanut flavor with the flavors offered by the other ingredients.  What I like most about this recipe is the strong gingery flavor that the marinade and sauce combined offer to diners.  The recipe for the sauce makes a lot, so either cook a lot of meat or do as I do – save the sauce for later use.  It can be reheated and used on meats and vegetables or used cold as a dip for veggies.

Sows Ear Purse

In closing I’d like to attest that it is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear – both figuratively AND literally. In the first sense, it is possible to use salty snacks that one would pop back while watching TV or enjoying a drink to create a great chicken satay. In the latter sense, well . . . I think you all understand what literally means.

It seems that in 1921, Massachusetts industrialist Arthur D. Little was tired of hearing Mr. Neverout’s discouraging phrase, and set out to prove him wrong. He instructed the scientists and engineers working for him to make a silk purse out of “pork by-products”. From a meat-packer they obtained a form of glue made from the skin and gristle of sows’ ears. Taking an amount roughly equivalent to one sow’s ear, he had it filtered and forced through a spinneret into a mixture of formaldehyde and acetone. This glue emerged as 16 fine, colorless streams that hardened and then combined to form a single composite fiber. Little soaked the fiber in dyed glycerin. Then he wove the resulting thread into cloth on a handloom-and fashioned the cloth into the elegant purse shown here, the kind of item carried by Medieval ladies.

Silk Purse Made from a Sow’s Ear

If you would like to know more about this interesting tidbit from the History of Science, click on Suki’s snout on the picture above for a full period description of the effort. I think its ingenious and charming and I absolutely adore the subtitle: A Contribution to Philosophy. To all who encounter a Mr. Neverout from time to time. Take a look at this every time you start to feel discouraged. It won’t last long.

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Chicken and Beef Satay by Btktan @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of purse and pamphlet on creation of a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear from MIT Archives and Special Collections; 5-Star Foodie Challenge Hosted by 5 Star Foodie & Lazaro Cooks!)

Games of the Great Silk Road – Mancala

Most parents will be quick to agree that they learn a lot from their kids. When you have kids, you cease to be the center of your own life and the lessons range from the mundane to the profound. When they are little, you realize how little they know when they come into the world and how much you, as an adult, have come to take for granted. When they are older, you begin to see fragments of yourself or of your spouse or partner who helped raise them. But these characteristics are not a direct reflection. Rather, they are more like a mosaic. From mother to daughter or father to son the tesserae can be the same, but the patterns that they are arranged in can be very different.

Ethiopian Mancala Board, 6th or 7th C.

I am beginning to pass into a new stage, with a teen and a tween in the house, they are beginning to introduce me to things I have never heard of before. By exploring their interests with them, I am learning things about the world that I never knew. This is quite humbling to someone like me who has always considered herself something of a well-traveled brainiac.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the National Geographic Society to see the latest treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings and religious items (The Staffordshire Horde) that have recently been uncovered in England. Rich, finely worked 24-carat gold with sparkling garnet inlay filled the display cases. Videos to explain the details of the craftsmanship accompanied the exhibition, along with recordings and quiz games of Old English helped to bring the exhibit alive and make it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Endodoi Board – Tanzania

On the way out, we did the obligatory pass through the gift shop on the way to the exit. While we were browsing, my daughter came flying at me – begging for a mancala set, telling me how fun it was and explaining how it was played. We got the set and later that evening she taught me how to play. That night, I learned that the game is played all over the world and has been for the better part of the last couple of millennia.

Pallankhuzi Board – Sri Lanka and S. India

What my further research has shown, is that the Silk Road trade of goods, ideas and cultural elements was probably responsible for its spread – at least across the Old World. From Vietnam and Mongolia, through Central and Western Asia, across Central and Northern Africa and into Europe through Andalusia, the Old World plays this game. It passed into the New World with the slave trade and is played from Louisiana and Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Toguz Kumalak Board – Kazakhstan

If you’ve never seen or played mancala, count and capture or any other variety of the game, it is often played on a board containing at least two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. The number of cups varies across cultures and over time, but the game remains the remarkably the same. The goal is to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent, and there are strategies, societies and in some nations, major competitions in which people play mancala. Our board is a nicely carved wooden set with small, irregularly shaped stones as pieces, but some mancala boards consist simply of holes dug in the ground or bored into stone into which other stones or objects are moved.

Girls Playing Oquan in Vietnam

There are 19th and 20th Century claims that the game is arose in ancient Egypt, Jordan or even Mesopotamia – but none of these are accepted by modern game scholars (did you know there was such a thing?) or archaeologists specializing in these areas. The oldest definitive set comes from Axum (Ethiopia) and date from the 6th or 7th century ACE, but an earlier set may come from a 4th Century Roman-era fort in Egypt along the banks Red Sea. The earliest European set is found in Spain’s the Museo de Burgos. It belonged to a daughter of Abd-al-Rahman III, the emir (912-929) and first caliph (929-961) of Cordoba. The scholar Murray, writing in the mid 20th Century, concluded that the game spread from east to west across Africa and from west to east across Asia – which again points to an Eastern African or Levantine origin.

Importantly, Arab and Muslim traders were probably an important force in moving the game around the Old World. The very name, “mancala” comes from the Arabic verb “naqala” meaning, “to move”. It is not mentioned in the Koran by this name, but must have been known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages, as it is referred to in the commentary to the Kitab al Aghani, the “Book of Songs,” which speaks of a “game like mancala.”

Ornate Congkak Board – Malaysia

Today, the game is played competitively in many Central Asian nations, with Kazakhstan having a national association for their version of the game, Toguz Kumalak, whereas in most of Africa, it is a game to be played while relaxing after the day’s work.  Interestingly, in the New World it is sometimes played as part of mortuary or funerary practices – to amuse the spirits of the dead.  This suggests that this might have been a practice among the Africans who carried the game with them to the New World, although this practice seems to have vanished in modern-day Africa.

I’ve played a few games with my daughter and can attest to the game being both fun and a great way to teach strategy and the consideration of future consequences when deciding current moves. Thanks to my daughter, to whom I dedicate this post, I’ve found an unexpected echo of the Silk Road found in an ordinary board game. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos from Mancala Wiki).

N.B. I will be in China for the next couple of weeks and will blog if I can. Hopefully, I will return with loads of tales and photos.

Durian: The Fruit We Love to Hate

No Durian Sign – Upscale Hotel

Either you love them or you hate them – there’s no in-between.  Durians are one of those foods.  Some people anxiously try to pick the best one and can’t wait to get it home to open it, and others make faces of disgust at the mere mention of the name.  For those of you not already divided into one camp or another – the odor of the fruit – which can smell like a cross between smelly athletic socks and rotten meat –  puts a lot of people off.  The flavor is, by comparison, quite mild, and to me tastes like a cross between vanilla custard and onions not fresh enough to cook with anymore.  Since its almost durian season again, a post both extolling and denouncing the flavorful, pungent fruit seemed like a great idea. Because of the odor, the fruit is banned from many public place across Asia, as the,”No Durian”, signs here attest.

No Durian Sign – Subway

The British Naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace noted in describing the sight, smell and taste of a durian: “The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

No Durian Sign – Airport

The culinary uses in Southeastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific are many. In addition to sweet uses of durian fruit in ice cream, milkshakes, candy, mooncakes, sticky rice and popcorn (yes . . . popcorn), almost all cultures from Thailand to the Moluccas (except for the Philippines) have a savory or spicy use for the durian as well. In parts of Malaysia, durian is cooked with onion and red chili peppers and served as a side dish (not unlike the recipe for pat sataw) vinegar is sometimes added to this; in Indonesia a variety of sambals are made with both fresh and fermented durian, and in Sumatra it lends its distinctive flavor to fish dishes or other curries. Unripe durian is cooked like a vegetable all over the region and the leaves are used as greens. The Malays have both sweet and salty durian preserves, durian honey is a local delicacy in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, the ash of burnt durian rind is added to some special cakes and blossoms are eaten in many ways – not unlike banana flowers.

So if the fruit and all of its parts are such traditional centerpeices of regional cuisine, why is it banned from so many public places? Is it really just the odor, or is it modernism squeezing out tradition with rules; or western “sensibility” pushing out native customs in the name of progress?  I leave you with a poem extolling the sight, taste and aroma of the durian by Malaysian-American poet, Juli Herman:

Cracks upon cracks, riches revealed,
Slivers of gold, treasures concealed,
Grasping fingers prying apart
Doors to rooms, now no longer hidden.

Every room is amply filled with
Golden riches on pure white pith.
Guards of green, prickly menacing,
Litter the field at every inch.

On beds of glossy shiny white,
Soft golden pillows greet your sight.
Nestled close, cradled with love,
Molding in to every curve.

Wafting aroma, strong and bold,
Releasing tales of young and old.
Pungent and putrid, revolting to some,
Yet delectably fragrant — how can that be?

A whiff chock-full of controversy,
Opinions riddled with fallacy.
Banned in places of fancy manners,
Lest it render people unconscious.

A golden treasure now in your hand,
Airy and soft, yet it feels so grand.
Moistness dissolving, lilting the senses.
Flavor so rich, it tastes so divine!

Buttery, custard-like, tastes like heaven,
Alluring appeal intricately woven.
Golden pillow releasing its magic,
Emanating warmth, inside and throughout.

Airiness filled with ultimate richness,
Subtlety bursts with utter creaminess.
Soft yellow flesh promising enchantment.
Leaving you sighing in sheer contentment.

(Words by Laura Kelley; poem, “Durian” by Juli Herman. Photos of No Durian Signs borrowed from Google Images. For more Durian posts on Silk Road Gourmet, see East Asian Market Day from 2008.)