Family vacation” is a phrase that fills half the people I know with dread and the other half with blissful memories. Which are you? Does the phrase make you think of battling your brother in the back seat of the station wagon while you pass Mount Rushmore — or does it make you think of peaceful moments on the beach, skipping rocks on placid waters?
These days, there might be a third option. For a night, for instance, you could take the whole family to Malaysia for the price of a bag of groceries. How’s that? The Internet has made cuisines and cultures more accessible than at any other time in history. If you merely enter “Malaysia” into any search engine, you’re seconds away from a fascinating photographic tour of lush, tropical jungles and pristine ocean beaches. Add a few recipes from a book like James Oseland’s wonderful Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia (W. W. Norton and Co., 2006) and a few specialty ingredients from an Internet grocer, and there you are: on vacation, immersed in exotic flavors and scents, but with your family in the comfort of your very own kitchen.
Oseland, who most foodie-Americans know as the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, fell in love with the cooking of Malaysia and the rest of the Spice Islands while on a trip there 20-odd years ago. Ever since, he has devoted himself to making the cuisines of these tropical lands accessible to Americans and Europeans.
“We in the West don’t know these cuisines because there isn’t much of an expatriate community here,” Oseland observes. “But when people cook with these flavors, most of them find that, first, it’s not a particularly difficult cuisine, and that, second, there’s a lot of friendliness to the foods. When I say friendliness, I mean that there’s almost a subconscious familiarity that a lot of us in the West have with these foods, because a lot of the core ingredients are ones we know and love, like nutmeg, cloves and shallots.”
The difference is that when Americans use nutmeg or cloves, it’s usually as a sweet, subtle accent in a cookie or bread. But Indonesians, Malaysians and others use those spices in abundance in savory dishes. This might be attributed simply to the fact that any nutmeg, cloves or cinnamon that made it to Europe had to travel thousands of miles by boat, while the people of the Spice Islands, where those spices grow, had them readily available in quantity.
Work in a predinner discussion with your kids about the value that precious pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon and nutmeg had to both pirates and kings in the days of giant wooden ships, and you might even get your preteens interested in spices in a way you never imagined possible. After all, how many other cuisines involve pirates?
Still, if cooking food from Malaysia — or any of the Spice Islands — seems about as intimidating to you as walking the plank, Oseland says it’s a lot easier than you might think. “Beyond the few pantry items you’ll need to stock your larder with, like coconut milk or tamarind paste, the techniques for cooking [like stewing or grilling] are very forgiving,” he says.
Consider, for example, a rendang. “It sounds mysterious and exotic,” says Oseland, “but it’s essentially just a beef curry that you’re allowing to cook for hours and hours.” The flexibility of most of these recipes is such that even beginning cooks can set aside their fear of failure. “In French cuisine, you can really fall on your face with a sauce and have to start from scratch,” says Oseland, “but with this food, I have found that even if you make the most major gaffe, you might lose a bit in terms of presentation or consistency, but it’s still going to come out tasting good.”
It’s also going to come out healthy, since the foods of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore tend to rely on spice, not fat, for their flavor. Oseland recommends his Lemongrass-Scented Coconut Rice (see Web Extra!) as a great starting point, because it’s a simple recipe that showcases an unfamiliar ingredient — lemongrass. Pair that rice with the recipe for Sautéed Cabbage With Ginger and Crispy Indian Yellow Lentils (reprinted below), and you might just have an entirely new sort of family vacation to reminisce about — and a delicious one, at that.
For the recipe pictured above, Sauteed Cabbage With Ginger & Crispy Indian Yellow Lentils, as well as more recipes from Cradle of Flavor, see the Web Extras! at the top right of this page.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.