SOK Goes To School

1 Dec

One of the things I’d really wanted to do since moving to KL was to take a cooking class. I’m generally pretty comfortable experimenting with new ingredients and trying to recreate dishes in on my own, but Southeast Asian cuisine is so far outside my sphere of knowledge that I knew I needed some professional help. (Like, what do you do with a ginger flower? Or a banana blossom?) Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of the cooking classes here are geared towards locals who want to learn how to cook “exotic” cuisines like French and Italian, because Malaysian home cooking is something that you learn at, well, home. (Or that your maid cooks for you.)

Luckily, I found Bayan Indah, which came highly recommended and had a whole slew of classes that sounded intriguing, including one called Home-Style Malay. (They’ll even teach your maid to cook, in case her skills aren’t up to par.) The menu — chicken braised in soy sauce, cassava greens in coconut milk, banana-leaf grilled fish with chili dip, and a Nyonya-style cake — sounded perfect. (Click here to go straight to the recipes.) Plus it was only 10 minutes from my house.

The idyllic setting for Bayan Indah's classes

Well, 10 minutes if you can find it; the house is tucked away in a kampung, and if they hadn’t put out signs at every turn, I would never have gotten there. I narrowly avoided 1) driving into a ditch and 2) running over some distinctly unconcerned chickens. (Insert chicken-crossing joke here.) Bayan Indah is actually the home of the charming and energetic Rohani Jelani, a Cordon-Bleu-educated chef/food editor/cookbook author/culinary mentor who has been teaching cooking for over 10 years, and started offering bed-and-breakfast accommodations last year. In fact, two of the people at the class were a couple from Brisbane staying at Bayan Indah for holiday.

Cooking class at Bayan Indah is kind of like going to your auntie’s place, if your auntie happens to have a chef-grade kitchen, a lush garden from which to pluck fresh ingredients, and a staff to whisk away dirty pots and pans. We started with a leisurely cup of iced lemongrass tea (steep the green ends of the lemongrass, add sugar) and prawn fritters, while Rohani explained ingredients, cooking techniques, and the Malaysian school system, among other topics.

Cassava, or yucca, shoots from the garden

After an hour or so of chitchat, it was time to get to cooking.

Ingredients prepped and ready for class

We started, logically, with dessert. The kuih kosui (glutinous rice cakes rolled in coconut) was by far the most time-intensive of the recipes, as the batter had to be cooked before being steamed. (Most Malaysian sweets, even the “baked” ones, don’t involve an oven.) The cake batter is a combination of rice and tapioca flours, and has to be cooked on a double boiler until barely thickened, so that the flours emulsify and don’t separate during the steaming. We were working in teams of two, so I offered to do the stirring while my partner worked on the main courses.

Rohani accepted my request for a banana-blossom version of the cassava shoot curry (masak lemak pucuk ubi). The banana blossom has to be boiled, then shredded for cooking.

Banana blossom before cooking...

...And after

Meanwhile, my partner was preparing the ayam masak kicap, or Malay-style soy-braised chicken. (I told you every Asian cuisine has a version of this dish.) Kicap, pronounced “ketchup,” refers to a sweet soy sauce widely used in cooking in these parts. (If you want actual ketchup, you have to ask for sos tomato.) I’d eaten this particular dish quite a few times, and now I learned the secret to its tastiness: the potatoes and chicken are fried before being braised in soy broth. (One thing Malaysian cuisine is not: low-fat.)

The chicken, getting tasty

We still had two more dishes to prepare: the ikan bakar (grilled fish) and the sambal belacan (chili dip). It was at this point I found out that I had put the cake in the steamer too early. When Rohani checked on it, she told me I hadn’t cooked the batter long enough. We quickly poured it back into the double boiler and let it thicken some more, then back into the steamer.

Luckily, the fish was a lot harder to screw up. It’s basically fish wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. Normally this is done on a grill or open flames, but Rohani taught us the pan method, which is much easier when you live in a high-rise that bans grills on the porch.

"Grilled" fish

Sambal belacan is like the salsa of Malaysia: best when homemade, yet something people insist on buying in a jar. The big question I had was, what do you do with the belacan (fermented shrimp paste)? I had purchased it a while ago; it looks like a stick of butter, basically, though woe unto you if you ever confuse the two. The answer: slice it into small cubes (about the size of bouillon cubes), toast the cubes on an unoiled skillet until a deep brown, then wrap in saran wrap for future use. Rohani had, of course, prepared little pre-roasted cubes for us, which bore an uncanny resemblance to chocolate. Any resemblance disappeared once we took a whiff. (Did I mention that it’s fermented shrimp paste?)

Mixing up the sambal belacan

With the mains ready to be served, we came back to the beginning: the kuih. Luckily, there’s no such thing as oversteaming these cakes (so Rohani assured us). After letting the cakes cool a bit, we cut them into small pieces to roll in freshly grated coconut.

The kuih, naked and after being garbed in coconut

I’m sure you’re all asking at this point, “Did you get to eat? And was it any good?”

The fruits of our labors: clockwise from top left, masak lemak pucuk ubi, crudites with sambal belacan, a plate of ayam masak kicap, banana blossom curry, ikan bakar with sambal, and another plate of chicken

Everything was so delicious and so authentic-tasting that it was hard to believe we were the ones who made it. (Of course, all the ingredients were sourced by Rohani, so that made a huge difference.) The masak lemak pucuk ubi, or cassava shoots in coconut milk, reminded me of a Malaysian twist on collard greens. The banana blossom really did taste like artichokes. The ayam masak kicap (chicken in soy)…well, it’s hard to go wrong with fried chicken and potatoes in soy sauce, isn’t it? Even the sambal, which turned out a little more fiery than intended, was a hit.

And after the lunch feast, dessert:

A piece of cake

I’ve had kuih before, but this was my first time having it homemade, or so fresh. The kuih is flavored with palm sugar, which gives it a deeper sweetness than plain brown cane sugar, a little bit like maple syrup. The texture was closer to a pudding than cake. A fitting end to a full day of cooking, talking, and learning.

And now, for intrepid SOK readers who want to try this at home: the recipes.

All recipes copyright Rohani Jelani and Bayan Indah, 2010

Masak Lemak Pucuk Ubi (Cassava shoots cooked in coconut milk)


4 to 5 pieces of salted fish (optional)

100 g cassava shoots (can be substituted with another green vegetable, like kale or collard greens)

1 Tbsp ikan bilis (small dried salted fish) — optional

4 to 5 Thai chilis or other small, hot chili (use fewer for less spice)

1 cm fresh turmeric root (galangal), sliced

5 Asian or 2 European shallots, sliced

250 ml coconut cream*

375 ml water*

1 slice dried tamarind (asam keping) — optional


  1. Rinse salted fish, if using, and soak in water for 15 minutes to draw out excess salt.
  2. Blanch tapioca shoots for 2 to 3 minutes, then rinse immediately in cold water, squeezing out as much water as possible.
  3. Pound chilis, turmeric, and shallots with a mortar and pestle until a rough paste forms. Combine spice paste with the water, the salted fish, and a splash of coconut cream.* Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium heat for 5 minutes.
  4. Add prepared cassava shoots and the remaining coconut cream and continue to simmer, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. Add the tamarind and ikan bilis (if using) and simmer for 10 more minutes. Season with salt to taste and serve.

*If coconut cream, a very thick form of coconut milk, is unavailable, use 625 ml of regular coconut milk and omit the water.

Ayam Masak Kicap (Chicken cooked with soy sauce, Malay style)


600 g (about 1 pound) chicken, skinned and cut into chunks (can use a whole chicken or chicken legs)

1/2 tsp salt

4 cloves garlic, sliced

2 cm piece of fresh ginger, sliced

1/2 tsp black peppercorns

1/2 cup oil

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks or wedges

4 cm cinnamon stick

1 floret star anise

2 cardamom pods

2 Tbsp sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)

1 tsp dark soy sauce

300 ml water

1 onion, sliced into rings

2 large red chilies, sliced lengthwise (optional)

1 stalk green onion, cut into 2-inch pieces

Salt and sugar to taste


  1. Season chicken with 1/2 tsp of salt and set aside for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, pound garlic, ginger, and peppercorn in a mortar and pestle until ingredients form a rough paste.
  2. Heat the 1/2 cup of oil in a wok or deep saucepan and fry the potatoes until golden brown. Set aside, but do not drain.
  3. Fry the chicken in the same oil, being careful not to overcrowd the chicken. Set aside, but do not drain the chicken. Discard all but one tablespoon of oil.
  4. Fry the whole spices (cinnamon, star anise, and cardamom) until fragrant. Add the spice paste, being careful not to burn.
  5. Add chicken and the sweet and dark soy sauces, stirring to coat the chicken. Add the 300 ml of water and bring to a boil. Simmer on medium heat for 15 minutes.
  6. Add potatoes and continue to cook until potatoes are tender. Add in the onion and chili, if using, and cook for another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add the green onion and cook for an additional minute. Serve with rice and side dishes.

Ikan Bakar (Grilled fish) with Sambal Belacan (chili dip)

For the fish:

  1. Soften the banana leaves** by passing quickly over a gas flame or on the grill.
  2. Use one small fish (like a sardine or trout) or fillet per packet. Season fish with salt and wrap in banana leaf.
  3. If using a grill, place packets on indirect heat and grill about 5 to 6 minutes per side. If using the stove, heat a pan on medium heat and lightly oil, then cook packets about 5 to 6 minutes on each side. Serve with sambal belacan.

For the sambal belacan:

1/2 tsp tamarind paste (combine with 2 Tbsp water to make extract)

3 large red chilis (can be substituted with red jalapenos)

4 to 6 Thai chilis (do not use if using jalapenos)

1 clove garlic (optional)

5 to 8 g of belacan (fermented shrimp paste), toasted

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1/2 conventional lime or 1 calamansi lime, if you can get it

  1. Squeeze tamarind pulp and water together to dissolve as much of the pulp as possible, discarding any solids (like seeds).
  2. Pound chilies, garlic, and belacan together in a mortar and pestle to make a fine paste. Add tamarind extract, salt, sugar, and lime juice. If desired, add lime zest. (Note: this part can be done in a food processor.) Serve with crudites, grilled fish, nasi lemak, etc., etc.

**Just in case you don’t have banana plants in your backyard, frozen leaves can be purchased from grocery stores specializing in Latin American foods.

Kuih Kosui (Rice and tapioca flour cakes flavored with palm sugar and rolled in coconut)

200 g rice flour

20 g tapioca flour

175 ml water (for dough)

160 g palm sugar, roughly chopped

120 g dark brown sugar

80 g white granulated sugar

400 ml water (for sugar syrup)

450 ml water (for mixing batter)

2 Tbsp “lime” water (calcium carbonate, diluted)

1 cup freshly grated coconut

Pinch of salt


  1. PREVIOUS DAY: Combine rice and tapioca flours with 175 ml of water to make a firm dough. Refrigerate overnight. 
  2. Combine palm, dark brown, and white sugars with 400 ml of water and bring to a boil. Simmer until sugars dissolve, 5 to 8 minutes. After the sugars have dissolved, turn off heat and let the syrup rest for 5 minutes to let any impurities settle. Strain the syrup into a measuring cup: you should have 600 ml of liquid. If necessary, add water.
  3. Preheat a large steamer and place a 9 in x 9 in cake pan in the steamer.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the dough from step one with the sugar syrup from step two and 450 ml of water, mixing well until smooth. Add the lime water and pour into a heatproof bowl.
  5. Bring a pot of water to a low simmer, then place bowl over the water and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture just begins to thicken. Pour into the cake pan and steam for 25 to 3o minutes, until set.
  6. Remove cake from steamer and allow to cool until it can be cut into squares or diamonds. Mix the grated coconut and salt in a shallow plate and coat the cake pieces just before serving.

5 Responses to “SOK Goes To School”

  1. Chris Sheets December 3, 2010 at 1:27 am #

    Although I am glad I took a moment to read your latest blog post, perhaps I chose the wrong time to do such. I am sitting at my desk at work and drooling. Why does lunch have to be an hour away?

    We look forward to your return and perhaps a Home-Style Malay dinner with friends?


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