I had to wake up at 8 in the morning after a late night of work and hitch a ride with my aunt, who was biting her nails that morning having to share the pressure of her daughter’s ballet test (thus was not actually in her best mood) and I had to grind, chop, and snap till four hours before sundown, but dammit, I did it.
Indonesian food, at least the ones I’m constantly exposed to, does not offer much for the vegetarian life. The soups and stir-fries often contain animal stock and the seemingly innocent sauces sometimes include shrimp paste as one of their ingredients.
So I decided to try out one of the recipes in my ‘Asian Vegetarian’ cookbook: The Laksa.
Now, Laksa is a rich food. Correction: it is in fact one of the billionaires of cusine. There are plenty of variations available throughout southeast asia and even throughout the country: the malay one, the Betawi one, the bogor one, and so on.
Despite the variations, all Laksas apparently have two things in common: They are children born out of a happy Peranakan (Malay and Chinese) marriage , thus making them historically rich and they need like gazillions of spices to work, making them rich in, duh, spices.
I was determined that I’m not going to follow some Laksa recipe in a “how to cook asian food” book in a city where the laksa man pass through the local streets everyday, so I decided to browse for local laksa recipes. However, all of them use either chicken or prawn
so, to add the veg touch and to do the book some justice, I combined the vegetarian cookbook version and what I found in cyberspace, and whaddayaknow, it wasn’t that bad. I think I’ll add up more vegetable and chili in the future, but since the cuisine was to go with spicy tempeh I didn’t think it necessary.
Back to the story, so I shopped in my beloved neighborhood market for the ingredients and I fell in love with the place all over again.
The pasar rocks. First of all, I love the flexibility. Grab a bunch of chilis, say, “Ini dapat dua ribu?” (can I have this for Rp 2,000?) and you’ll walk away with just the right amount for your recipe. No way you can do that in supermarkets, where you tend to end up buying and paying way too much.
Second, I used to be so intimidated of the place because I’m an amateur cook and I didn’t want to look stupid for not being able to tell the difference between ginger, turmeric and galangal in front of the seasoned housewives. But that morning I discovered that I wasn’t the only novice.
Some shoppers were also inquiring the sellers about what spices and ingredients they should use forenglish making lodeh soup and some were asking about vegs they weren’t familiar with and what they could do with them. It was fun!
Mission one accomplished. Now to get whippin. It was exhausting but maann, i felt so productive that day.
Here’s how I do it, folks:
First of all, you need broth for the flavor. There are no ready-use veg broth here, but I found an easy breezy recipe in the net that I used:
Oriental Veg stock:
around 1 litre of cold water
Some greens ( I used a stalk of Bok Choy)
a bit of garlic
a lemongrass stalk
3 citrus leaves
3 coriander stalks-chopped
half an inch of ginger
boil everything for around 40 minutes and strain.
The Vegetarian Laksa
For the paste, you’ll need:
3 garlic cloves
around 1 cm of turmeric (kunyit)
1 cm of ginger
1 cm of galangal (lengkuas)
2 cm of curcuma mangga (temu mangga)
2 candlenuts (kemiri)
1 tbsp of coriander (ketumbar)
half tsp of cumin (jinten)
half tsp of pepper
See? I told you the number of spices involved is crazy. grind all this to form a paste. For me, it’s a bitch. but nothing beats the old mortar and I have found it to be an interesting exercise.
the main ingredients are:
about two handfuls of bean sprouts (tauge)
two pieces of firm, fried tofu, cut across to form triangles
about a handful of snow peas (kapri)
about 100 grams of oncom (a soybean product slightly similar to tempe but made with different fungi. has a crumbly texture and orange on the surface), chop roughly into small pieces
a little more than half a litre of thin coconut milk.
a stalk of lemongrass, give it a nice, firm whack with the mortar so that its slightly hammered
half a handful of perilla leaves (kemangi)
2 citrus leaves
2 indonesian bay leaf (daun salam)
Blanche or pour boiling water over the sprouts, oncom and snow peas (preferably separately) to have them mildly cooked
sautee the paste to the point where it lets out its mild, fragrant scent
add the lemongrass, citrus leaves and daun salam
add around half of the veg stock, or to your suitable consistency, cook to a boil
add the coconut milk, cook again to a boil, stirring constantly
arrange in serving plate: the sprouts, the snow peas, the kemangi and oncom, preferably in that order.
arrange the tofu on the sides
pour the boiling coconut milk concoction over them, thus speed-cooking the ingredients again.
serve while hot.
Better eat it fast because it spoils quickly. This is a showy dish great to serve while having guests.
I had a feeling that this rich but mild-tasting dish goes well with greasy, spicy tempe balado -spicy, stir fried tempe, so I planned to cook that as well.Hooowever, I made a mistake, which was in a way a blessing because it gave me a chance to experiment on a new way of cooking the dish and use the leftover of my veg stock. Let me explain…
Tempe Balado, sort of:
around 7 shallots (bawang merah), peeled, cut in half
4 garlic cloves, peeled, cut in half
a tomato, peeled, cut into four pieces
a handful of chilies, cut in three pieces
a lime (jeruk limau)
2 citrus leaves
The main ingredients
Half a block of tempeh, which is a little more than half a block of supermarket butter -cut into small pieces
How I do it:
First, grind the whole paste ingredients into..ta-daah, a rough paste. add the citrus leaves and squeeze some juice from the lime into it. grind again until smoother.
Ok, the second part, if you’re making proper tempe balado: fry the chopped tempe until it’s slightly crispy but not too brown.
Put that aside for a bit and sautee the paste until it lets out the yummy scent. then add the fried tempe and mix good, add the rest of the leaves in the process.You’re done.
I forgot the first frying part, so when I mixed up the stuff, the tempe was still uncooked and limp.
the spices might get burnt while the tempe would still be raw. Oh no.
So I added the stock and let it simmer, in a covered saucepan for around 10 minutes.
everytime it gets dry, I added a little more stock, until I am convinced it is well cooked despite not being brown and crispy as I want it.
The tempeh wasn’t a disaster. It was tasty, and, in fact, I’m pretty sure that there is a dish somewhere in Java that tastes, and looks, just like it.
But still, I was hoping for something slightly crunchier than that to go with the soupy laksa. so this dish is probably better suited when you’re cooking stir-fried green beans or the like.
Anyhoo, that’s a wrap, guys. Hope to share more recipes with you in the future.
PS. check out another version of Vegetarian laksa here!