Traditionally, cooking for an average day is done once in the morning - and that dish is eaten throughout the day, with rice. I remember waking up to the sound of roosters crowing, frogs in the rice paddies - and the beautiful smell of cooking early every morning, as the women in the various family compounds around where I was staying prepared food for the day. Early morning in the Balinese hills has a very distinct smell - like an exotic aromatic cloud made up of woodsmoke, incense, chillies, lemongrass, tumeric and flowers. Totally intoxicating.
Today I have a craving for some of that aromatic gorgeousness, so I thought I would share one of the dishes that I learned in my travels. I haven't made this for ages, but it is really beautiful and full of layers of flavour. Making your own spice paste may seem fiddly, but it is absolutely worth the effort - and you don't have to use a mortar and pestle if that doesn't appeal to you. A food processor is fine.
You will find all of the spice paste ingredients at any asian grocer or market. Be sure to use the fresh versions of the ginger, lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and tumeric - dried won't cut it for this recipe. A note about the fresh tumeric - it stains like crazy, and if you get it on your clothing you will never get it off, so wear an apron and gloves when you are preparing it - unless you want ruined clothes and yellow Homer Simpson hands!
So here is today's recipe, courtesy of the gorgeous Indonesian island of Bali. This golden coloured aromatic curry is quite mild and "safe" to serve to those who might be a bit hesitant about spicy food. But of course if you are a chilli devotee, feel free to add more chillies - or leave the seeds in for extra punch.
Kare Ayam Tuwung
(Chicken & Eggplant Curry)
You will need: 6-8 skinless chicken peices (I use legs or thighs on the bone - much better flavour. I wouldn't use chicken breast for this as it will dry out too much),1 large eggplant,1 large sliced red onion, 1 tablespoon peanut oil, 1 cup coconut milk, 4 lime leaves, 1 stalk lemongrass about 10cm long,2 large tomatoes, 1 tablespoon palm sugar (you can substitute brown sugar if you don't have palm sugar),salt, pepper, 3 cups water.
For the spice paste: 6 shallots, 1 peice of ginger the size of your thumb,1 tablespoon fresh galangal, 6 cloves garlic,2 long red chillies with the seeds removed, 1 tablespoon fresh tumeric,1 tablespoon coriander seed,1/2 tablespoon cumin seed,2 teaspoons tamarind paste,1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste,3 grated candlenuts,1 teaspoon black peppercorns.
Method: Cut the eggplant into peices about half the size of a matchbox. Sprinkle with salt and place in a colander in the sink to drain. In the meantime, start preparing the spice paste.
Take the coriander seed, cumin seed and peppercorns and place them in a pan on a low heat. Gently toast them until you start to smell the aromas releasing. Be sure to move them constantly so they do not burn. If they do, start over, as burned spices will give an unpleasant bitter taste to your dish. Remove them from the pan and grind them to a powder (I use a mortar and pestle for this)
Chop the shallots, ginger, galangal, garlic, chilli and tumeric roughly. Place these in a food processor or large mortar and pestle. Add the cumin, coriander, peppercorns, candlenuts, shrimp paste and tamarind paste.Add about a third of a cup of warm water to the mixture and hand grind or process these until you have a fragrant paste. If the mixture is a little dry, add a few more teaspoons of warm water. Set the paste aside.
Cut a cross in the base of the tomatoes and place them in a bowl of boiling water for about 5 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the water and peel off the skins - they should come off easily. Roughly chop the tomatoes and set aside.
Rinse the eggplant with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Set aside.
Bruise the lemongrass stalk, still keeping it in one peice (a mortar and pestle is good for this!) Tie the stalk in a knot - this makes it easy to remove later and stops the fibres from breaking up through the dish.
In a wok or large saucepan, heat the peanut oil on a medium heat. Add the spice paste and allow it to cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constatntly. Add the sliced red onion and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the chicken, eggplant, lemongrass and lime leaves.
Cook the chicken, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Now add the tomatoes, water, palm sugar and a little salt. Simmer gently for 20- 25 minutes.
Now stir through the coconut milk. Turn up the heat so that the mixture is boiling a lot more rapidly and allow it to cook like this for 5-10 minutes remembering to stir it from time to time.
Taste the curry and adjust the seasonings to taste - add more salt and pepper as needed. Remove the lemongrass and lime leaves before serving.
Serve with rice and fresh chillies if you like it hot.