Malaysian cooking class with Zaida & Chef Liza

The longer I reside in New Zealand, the more I yearn for traditional food from my childhood. We can get Malaysian food here, but the lack of certain ingredients and the still somewhat conservative palate of the general populous mean we don’t get the truly authentic range of foods I used to take for granted back home.

That’s why I get excited when chance arise to learn how to recreate some of these authentic dishes. I  might be hard-pressed to whip these up on a weekly basis; but these are perfect when you want to surprise and impress family and friends with your culinary prowess.

A few weekends ago, Zaida Ahmad (Auckland Malaysia Society‘s Food Programme Co-ordinator), with her guest, Chef Liza, held a special cooking class. It is clear that a culinary gene runs in Zaida’s family. Liza Zainol, Zaida’s aunt, is a celebrity chef in Malaysia. On top of running her own Culinary Academy and jetting around the world advocating Malaysian cuisine, Chef Liza also manages her own television production company making her cookery series.

‘Sedapnya!’ (It’s delicious) – Chef Liza

Chef Liza demonstrated three kuih recipes, – Bingka Ubi Kayu (cassava cake), Puding Nyonya Manis (layered sweet pudding) and Talam Keladi Berlauk (yam cake). I was surprised how easy it was to make these spectacular looking kuihs; all three were whipped up with what seemed like no time at all.

Finishing off the Talam Keladi Berlauk; topping of crunchy coconut solids, fried shallots, dried shrimp, spring onion, chillies and sliced celery

Zaida demonstratrated her fantastic otak-otak recipe. The Malay word ‘otak’ translates to ‘brain’, the imagery this dish supposedly evokes. I can’t say I agree with the supposition, but obviously the moniker stuck. Traditionally, otak-otak is a fish paste, but I much prefer Zaida’s version which has a more chunky texture while retaining all the wonderful aromatic herbs and spices. Absolutely delicious.

Otak-otak (recipe courtesy of Zaida Ahmad)

Banana leaves, – thawed and cut into 20 x 18cm pieces
Baby spinach or daun kadok

1kg fish fillet (red snapper, tarakihi)
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp rice flour or corn flour
3-5 kaffir lime leaves (finely sliced)
Vietnamese mint (finely sliced)
1 tsp lemon juice

2 red onions
3 cloves garlic
5 fresh green chillies
5 dried red chillies
3 stalks lemongrass
2cm galangal
2cm fresh/frozen turmeric or 1 tsp turmeric powder
5 candlenuts
2cm ginger
½ tsp black pepper
½ cup coconut milk

Soak the dried red chillies in some hot water. Blend the soaked red chillies and ingredients (C) with ½ cup coconut milk until smooth.

Chop the fish into small pieces, or if you have a food processor, pulse until the meat consists of small chunks. Marinade the fish with salt and sugar. Mix in the 2 light beaten eggs, lemon juice and cornflour. Then, pour over the spice blend, and fold until well blended.

To make the otak-otak ‘bungkus’ (parcel), place a piece of daun kadok or young spinach leaf in the middle of the steamed banana leaf, then two tablespoonful of fish mixture and fold, and secure the ends with skewers. Always fold with the grain, the leaf can tear if you fold against the grain.

Traditional otak-otak parcel fold

Or if you want a more elegant bungkus, try this folding method:

Getting hands-on instructions from Zaida

Steam for 10 minutes, and serve. These parcels can also be baked at 180°C for 15 minutes. Fantastic on their own, or serve with rice or lemang (coconut rice).

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