Don't Call Me Chef

Published: Saturday July 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday July 5, 2014 MYT 2:56:29 PM


Here’s a fruit that’s pre-packaged by nature. Our three Don't Call Me Chef columnists go bananas with food that’s good for sahur and buka puasa.

Know Your Fruit

Western recipes treat bananas like it’s a generic fruit. But local cooks will always specify the types of bananas and at what stage of its ripeness you must use in their recipes. For pengat, sweet broth made with coconut milk and palm sugar, use pisang raja or pisang nangka. If you're making jemput-jemput or cokodok that requires mashed bananas, they say you must buy ripe smaller bananas like pisang emas or pisang berangan.

I can’t say I know the many varieties of bananas we have. Luckily for me, there is a knowledgeable man at the banana stall in my neighbourhood. At that roadside stall, there are all types of bananas for sale. It’s their star produce even though they do sell many other local fruits.

I’ll tell the proprietor that I need bananas for my daughter to take to school the following week, and he’ll choose bananas that will only ripen after a few days. If I say I need bananas for bubur cha cha, he’ll give me pisang tanduk or pisang raja. If you want to make goreng pisang, you can even buy his flour mixture.

Knowing the variety of bananas is important for it does make a difference to the dishes made. Years ago, I interviewed a Chitty cook in Malacca who even specifies that the banana leaf used to line the mould for her pulut tai tai has to be from a particular banana species. These are precious folk wisdom and integral in our local culinary history.

Banana is as popular as ever, judging from the constant stream of customers at that small fruit stall and most of them order their bananas by their specific name. It’s also one of those fruits that tastes delicious cooked or baked.

One of our favourite breakfasts is lempeng, essentially local pancakes made with flour and coconut. Adding mashed bananas to the batter makes for even tastier lempeng. Instead of sprinkling the lempeng with sugar, we sometimes drizzle some palm sugar syrup over them. – Ivy Soon

Lempeng pisang, or banana pancakes, for a hearty breakfast.

Lempeng Pisang (Banana Pancake)

Makes 8-10

1½ cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
4-6 pisang emas or pisang berangan, peeled and mashed
1 cup coconut milk
½ cup water
½ cup cooking oil for greasing

Palm sugar syrup

200g palm sugar
2 tbsp sugar, or to taste
a pinch of salt
2 pandan leaves, knotted
1 cup water

Mix all the ingredients, except the oil, to make the batter. Add water if you want a thinner consistency to make thin pancakes. Leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Heat up a frying pan. Coat the pan with the cooking oil, and then pour out the oil. Put in a ladleful of batter, and cook over medium heat till bubbles form.

Then, flip the lempeng over and cook for three more minutes.

Serve with caster sugar or palm sugar syrup.

To make the syrup, bring all the ingredients to a slow boil. Then lower the heat and let it simmer till the syrup thickens. Stir from time to time.

Embraceable You

None of the people I have asked has heard of pulut dakap, although it’s not some weird kuih. It’s made with common Malay dessert ingredients (glutinous rice, banana and coconut), wrapped in banana leaf, and steamed. I know about it coming from the far north of the peninsula, where the snack was often served for tea at my fully residential school.

The name, though curious, is descriptive. After the rice et al are bundled up, two of the parcels are conjoined as if in a lovers’ embrace and then steamed. Even that hint of conscious coupling made us small-town teenagers snigger uncomfortably. In fact, we used to call the kuih aa gale lag jaa, after the Hindi-language movie where the hero finds a way to keep his feverish heroine warm after she falls into icy water (*blush*).

Cooks who make traditional pulut dakap stress the importance of using the right bananas. They must be a sweet eating variety, preferably indigenous to Malaysia such as pisang awak or pisang nipah. At a pinch, pisang raja can be used. I made and ate this kuih thinking of my school days... but without the sniggering and blushing. At my age, that would be very sad indeed. – Jane F. Ragavan

Pulut Dakap
Makes 10-12 pieces

400g glutinous rice, washed and soaked for 4-6 hours
150-180ml thick coconut milk
Salt to taste
5-6 ripe sweet eating bananas (pisang awak or pisang nipah preferably), peeled
2-3 tbsp grated gula Melaka
2 tbsp fresh grated coconut (optional)
Banana leaves
Raffia string, cut into 20cm lengths

Steam the glutinous rice until tender but not fully cooked, 20-30 minutes. Remove from the steamer and place in a bowl.

Combine the salt and coconut milk, and stir into the glutinous rice. If the rice is too soft, reduce the amount of coconut milk so that the rice is not overcooked later.

Cut each banana in half lengthwise; toss with the gula Melaka (if the bananas are very sweet, use less sugar) and grated coconut (if using).

Cut the banana leaves into 20cm squares (10-12 pieces), clean them and soften over a flame or scald with hot water.

Cut smaller pieces from the leftover banana leaves.

Place a large banana leaf square on the work surface and a smaller piece in the centre. Spoon about 2 tbsp of glutinous rice on top and flatten it evenly.

Place a banana half on top, together with the sugar mixture, then spoon a little more glutinous rice on top. Fold the banana leaf into a tight packet, compacting the rice. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

Put two of the rice parcels with bases together and tie them together at the two ends (you can also put in a third tie in the middle) with the raffia string. When all the parcels are paired up, steam over medium heat until cooked, 30-40 minutes.

Elusive Treats

I can bake a cake without much trouble but ask me to make a local kuih and I struggle every single time. I struggled when I made kuih lapis some years ago, onde onde soon after, and more recently, agar-agar. *Who* struggles when making agar-agar? I made a decent Mille Crepe cake on my very first try but the humble kuih ketayap (a rolled pancake with sweet coconut filling)? Five tries and I still end up with doughy, tasteless pancakes that don’t even interest my scavenging dog.

I find local kuih very hard to master. The recipes look deceptively straightforward and simple but once you get into it, you realise that the technique involved requires considerable skill and a lot of practice. And patience.

So, when I decided to try making cokodok (a deep-fried banana fritter) which is a favourite of my husband’s, I thought I’d better cover all bases. I looked online for recipes and compared at least a dozen recipes to see what each cook did differently and how their treat turned out; I spoke to friends who knew how to make the kuih and asked them for tips. And, I called my mother-in-law who I am convinced can make cokodok with her eyes closed, if need be.

Every time she makes a batch – there will be no less than three dozen small, petite balls on the tea table – it gets eaten up within minutes. So, yeah, I figured she’d be the best person to consult. She was only too pleased to share her recipe and method with me but as with most home cooks, she didn’t have exact measurements. Surprisingly, it only took me a couple of times to get the recipe right.

The tricky thing about this recipe is knowing how much or rather how little flour to add to the batter – too much and your fritter will be hard and unappealing; too little and the mixture might simply fall apart in the hot oil or stick to your pan. But here’s the silver lining – I managed my way around this kuih after just two tries. And if I can do it, I reckon anyone can. – S. Indramalar

Cekodok - banana fritter that's a favourite of many Malaysians

Cokodok Pisang
Makes 30-35 fritters

6-8 pisang emas (3-4 pisang berangan)
2 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp plain flour
A pinch of salt

Peel the bananas and roughly slice them. In a bowl, mash them with a fork or your hands.

Add the sugar, salt, and flour, and mix to incorporate. It shouldn’t be too firm like biscuit dough but you should be able to spoon the batter without it running off the sides of the spoon.

Heat enough oil in a wok or saucepan for deep frying. When hot (about 180˚C), gently drop a teaspoonful of the mixture into the oil so the cokodok retains a circular shape.

To test the consistency of the batter, try a tiny drop first and adjust accordingly.

Reduce the heat slightly (to make sure the inside of the fritter is cooked) and fry until the fritters turn a deep golden brown. Remove and drain, and repeat.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Lifestyle, Banana; Food; Ramadan; Sahur

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