Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hawker Heaven

I learned to make today's dish on one of my cooking trips to Singapore, where I ate it at one of the many Hawker stalls you will find throughout the city. I got chatting to the man who ran the stall after complimenting him on how much I enjoyed his dish - a fragrant curry of beef and pineapple. (Ok, it was so good I contemplated licking the plate!) Like many of the stalls, it had been run by generations of the one family - his father and his father before him. They specialised in 3 or 4 dishes and it had been this way for many years - family recipes that were passed down and perfected. I loved his curry - it had a lovely complexity of flavours with a perfect balance of hot, sweet, sour and salt. The meat was meltingly tender and the pineapple added a contrasting freshness to the earthiness of the spices.

Like every local I met in Singapore, he was full of passion for food and eager to talk about it. I took notes as we talked about the spices he used, how he prepared them and how he put the dish together and the next day I headed to the market to buy spices and ingredients to try my hand at my own version of the dish. (If you are ever in Singapore, head to Tekka Market in Little India for a jaw dropping array of produce, spices, meat and seafood) I don't flatter myself by thinking for a moment I would replicate what I ate at that stall exactly, but I figured I had a starting point and I would go from there. I was really delighted with the resulting dish and it is a real crowd pleaser when I serve it to friends. And every time I make it I still think of that Hawker stall in Singapore :)

You will probably not find ingredients such as Belacan (shrimp paste) and Candlenuts at your regular supermarket, you will need to head to an Asian grocer/supermarket. They will be really easy to get there as they are staples in many Asian cuisines. And finally, don't be daunted by the fact that you need to make the extra effort to get the proper ingredients or the fact that you are making the spice paste from scratch - it is really easy and the result is a really authentic tasting dish that you will make again and again. The little bit of extra effort is worth it, I swear!

Beef and Pineapple Hawker Curry

A note about the ingredients:
Belacan (shrimp paste) - smells awful, tastes amazing. This dense paste adds a wonderful richness to curries and I promise that the smell will disappear as it cooks. It is usually sold in blocks or in screw topped containers. I go the container option as it is less messy and keeps the aroma under wraps when it is stored. It lasts for a long time and a small amount goes a long way. Once you use it, it will become a regular addition to any curry you make.

Candlenuts - These oily nuts look a lot like Macadamias and are grated and used in Asian cooking as a thickening agent. Despite their resemblance to Macadamias, do not eat them raw. The oils in them will make you sick unless they are cooked.

Palm Sugar - This can be sold in 1 large block, or in packs of small ones. It ranges from a light golden colour to a dense dark brown. I prefer to use the kind that is darker in colour and I have found that the varieties from Indonesia have a superior flavour. A lot of palm sugar also comes from Thailand and whilst this is completely fine to use, I really recommend the Indonesian product if you can get it. Just check the label to find out where it is from. And one last hint - If your palm sugar is very hard, grating it will make it easier to handle.

You will need:
(For the spice paste) 8 long dried red chillies soaked for 15 mins in water, 3 fresh red chillies, 8 eschallots, 3 cloves garlic, 3cm piece ginger, 2cm piece galangal (it tends to be pretty hard, so instead of chopping it, I recommend grating it finely), 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 1/2 tablespoon cumin seed, 8 whole cloves, 1 teaspoon white peppercorns, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1/3 cup warm water.

(For the curry) 1 kg diced beef shin (gravy beef), 1/2 fresh pineapple - core and skin removed and cut into chunks the same size as the beef, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 2 teaspoons shrimp paste (Belacan), 3 diced tomatoes, 400ml coconut milk (I use the light version - it still gives the rich flavour without the humungous amount of fat that is usually contained in coconut milk), 1 tablespoon fish sauce (Nam Pla), 2 tablespoons grated palm sugar, 3 grated candlenuts, 1 cup water, 1 bunch fresh coriander roughly chopped.

Method: First, make your spice paste. In a dry pan, add the peppercorns, coriander seed, cumin seed and the cloves. Toast them gently until they begin to darken slightly and release their fragrance. Be very careful not to burn them - if you do, start again. If they are burnt you will end up with a bitter and unpalatable dish.

In the food processor, put the roughly chopped ginger, eschallots, roughly chopped fresh and dried chillies, chopped garlic, grated galangal, toasted spices and the warm water. Blend for a minute or two until it forms a paste. It will not be super dense or ultra smooth like commercial spice pastes - this is normal. (You can also use a mortar and pestle for this step if you have the time and upper body strength!)

Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy based pot (I use my cast iron/enamel casserole dish for this). Add the spice paste and cook it gently until it starts to darken slightly. Add the shrimp paste and cook for another minute. Add the beef and combine with the spice mixture. Allow the beef to cook for a few mintues.

Add the tomatoes, palm sugar, fish sauce and half of the coconut milk. Mix well and simmer for a minute or two. Add the rest of the coconut milk, pineapple and the water. Simmer on a very low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

After one hour, add the grated candlenuts. Stir thoroughly and cook for another hour. When the meat is super tender and you are ready to serve, stir through the fresh coriander.

Serve with rice or noodles.



  1. Yum yum. i love a good curry. I was just saying to someone the other day that the best food i've had in Cambodia has been on the street from hawkers.


  2. Can't wait to sample some when I come to visit!! Looking forward to seeing what ingredients are available too. I will definitely cook for you when I come over XX

  3. Curries are so good. I've never tried to make my own spice blend before. Normally i would just use a bottle. I am definately going to try this recipe.

  4. It's really worth it Katherine - despite the large number of ingredients, it is really easy and you won't believe the difference in flavour!

  5. This recipe looks off the chart, cooking it soon! check out my website and try some of our spices @

  6. Thanks Cheyne - it is really delicious and every time I have made it for friends they love it. Hope you do too! Will head over to look at CenturiesAhead :)