March 22, 2009
Coconut milk on the boil
By Chris Tan
Q I'm confused by cookbook warnings to not let curry boil after the coconut milk is added, as that will cause stomach ache. However, some recipes fry the coconut milk together with the 'rempah'. If high heat is what makes the coconut turn bad, then how can it be fried together with the rempah? And does this apply to both fresh and packet coconut milk?
A Boiling coconut milk (above right) does not turn it bad, merely unattractive: It makes it curdle slightly and take on an uneven appearance, with small lumps floating to the surface. This is why curry recipes often simmer their ingredients in thin coconut milk, and only add thick coconut milk or coconut cream right at the end, without returning the pot to a boil. The presence of acidic ingredients also encourages the curdling. (Substitutes such as cow's milk or soy milk are equally or more likely to curdle.)
Many Thai curries begin by boiling coconut cream over high heat until it splits into oil and solids; curry paste is then added and fried in the coconut oil. This technique dates back to the days before commercially extracted cooking oil was common. The solids help to add rich and toasty flavour notes to the curry paste as they fry along with it. Some Malay and Indonesian recipes add a little coconut milk to the frying rempah for the same reason.
If you watch a pot of simmering rendang as it cooks down to near-dryness, you will see the gravy curdle and then transform into a thick, glossy glaze once most of the water has evaporated.
Packet coconut cream has typically been homogenised and pasteurised, which largely reduces the chances of separation. For this reason, they are not as suitable for the aforementioned Thai curry paste frying method, but are great for the final curry enrichment step.
Freshly squeezed or chilled squeezed coconut milk is more prone to curdling, and so is perfect for the Thai method, but less so for the enrichment step.
Q I usually add long cabbage to seafood/meat soup to make it a complete meal. However, I normally stick to Australian or Chinese 'wongbok'. I'm puzzled by the difference, if any, between the various types. What are the ways to use long cabbage?
Eva Ong Chew Mei
A The names wombok and wongbok - and even wok bom, as I've seen one wet market stall creatively misspell it - are Australian anglicisations of the Cantonese 'wong ngah pak'. These are all the same vegetable, brassica rapa var. pekinensis, also known as Napa cabbage, long cabbage, da bai cai, and hakusai in Japanese. You can find a few different hybrids in the wet markets, supermarkets and Japanese supermarkets, differing in length, girth and firmness, but with the same sturdy white ribs and crinkly pastel green leaves. As the photo (right) shows, Australian- grown wombok sometimes have darker, more loosely packed leaves.
Wongbok's cheerfully bland flavour is outshone by its ability to take on many different textures. Thinly shred it for a crisp raw addition to salads. Salt it or pickle it to enjoy a succulent, resilient crunch. I recommend Tsukemono: Japanese Pickled Vegetables by Kay Shimizu and The Kimchee Cookbook by Kim Man-Jo, Lee Kyou-Tae and Lee O-Young for scads of good pickle recipes. Blanch it, drain it well, chop it finely and stir it into minced meat for dumpling fillings, hamburgers or meatloaf - it will make all of them juicier. Stir-fry it over high heat to get a lively but tender texture. Braise it with meats so that it absorbs the tasty juices while becoming plush and silky, or simmer it slowly in soups to bring it to melt-in- the-mouth softness.
Because its taste is so mild, wongbok benefits from bright, vibrant seasoning in drier dishes, and in wet dishes, it should be matched with deeply flavoured stocks. It complements tangy or umami-rich ingredients well.
Q After baking, what is the best way to remove the smell from the oven so that it does not carry over to the next item?
A First, clean your oven as thoroughly as you can, scrubbing off the baked-on stains or spots from which off-smells can emanate. Next, cut an orange and a lemon (right) into thin slices and place them in a wide cake pan or roasting dish.
Place the cake pan on the middle oven shelf, then fill it with boiling water. Shut the door, turn the oven to 180 deg C, and leave it for 20 to 30 minutes. Switch off the oven and let it cool down a little, with the door closed.
Remove the pan and shelf. Soak a clean cloth in hot water and wring out, then give the oven a final wipe. The citrusy steam should have displaced any lingering smells.