Wednesday, January 30, 2013

lodeh manisa, a maid's recipe

I woke up one morning with an intense craving for lodeh manisa. The only person who can make it the way I like it is our maid in indonesia, Mbak Mi. I emailed my father and asked for it to be added to the list of food I'd like to eat on my visit in a few months to Malang, East Java. My father emailed back and assured me it won't be a problem. My craving subsided, if only by a little bit, knowing that it won't be long now.

Mbak Mi cooks us all sorts of food, all of which are delicious and tailored exactly to our taste, including this dish. Lodeh manisa is a thin indonesian curry with choko as the main ingredient. A few prawns lends the dish its savoury sweetness otherwise not found without using any animal protein. It is not at all complicated to cook. The extent of the process consists of chopping up ingredients and grinding spices to a paste then boiling all the ingredients into a curry. Quite simple, if you know the how, and the ratio of spices to use, which I didn't before.

Upon my return from Malang and a cooking lesson from the masterchef herself, I happily inform you that I can now satisfy my cravings anytime. You don't know how pleased I am with that, but when you've followed this recipe and cook it for yourself, I'm sure you'd be as pleased as I am.

The first step in this recipe is to find the choko. I didn't know where I could find this green fruit at first, I've never consciously looked for them before, I only knew how it looked like after I came back from indonesia and I didn't know its english name. After a bit of googling, off I went to the local greengrocers and noted a few that stock them with surprising frequency. Unsurprisingly, you'd have the most luck with asian greengrocers.

Choko is like a spy in the plant world, it goes by many different monikers. According to wikipedia, it's also called chayote, christophene, cho-cho, merleton, pear squash, vegetable pear, chouchoute, pipinola, güisquil. In indonesia, I've always known it as manisa.
When picking a choko fruit, aim for a firm flesh without a hint of mushiness. It's probably why it's called a pear squash by some, as the flesh should be as firm as a fresh green pear, without a hint of browning on the skin.

The choko in this picture here has been in my fridge for a few weeks, you can see how it's quite mushy on the skin. But but but, I promise you, there's a reasonable excuse for it.

I bought two chokos not long after I got back from indonesia. Being the conscientious blogger that I am, I decided to cook one of them first to see if I can successfully emulate Mbak Mi's recipe, and I did! So, I promised myself to cook the other one, but this time to also take pictures and blog about it. Well, it turns out, it wasn't until three weeks later.

Though, I must say, the flavours that goes into this dish is quite robust, and can take some abuse, seeing as my second attempt ended up producing the same delicious dish.

The first step would be to prep all the ingredients.
Cut the choko in half. With a spoon, extract the seed from the fruit inner flesh and scrape the white spongy flesh out. Discard. Apparently the seed is edible, but discarding was how I was taught.

Peel the choko with a vegetable peeler. Choko's normal surface is wrinkled with grooves, I used a knife to peel the skin in between those grooves. (And if yours is also slightly older like mine, cut off and throw away the mushy bits)

Slice the choko into matchsticks.

It was a bit awkward because of the grooves. I cut them into segments first to make it more manageable, then into matchsticks.

Place the choko matchsticks in a bowl and sprinkle with a healthy amount of salt. About two heaped tablespoons for one choko fruit?

And rub rub rub... 
rub rub rub....

rub rub rub...

Massage every inch of the choko with salt.

Let them sit for at least 15 minutes. This would drain the moisture and slime away from the flesh.

After which time, you can rinse the salt off the choko thoroughly and completely.

Drain the water, set the choko aside.

Dry roast the candlenuts and coriander seeds by heating them on a small frying pan without the use of any oil. Stir constantly.
The spices should produce a faint but aromatic smell in about a minute. Take care not to burn them and risk making your dish bitter.

If you have a small blender with a grinding blade to blend all the spices together, this would be the time to use it.
I used to have a magic bullet, yes, I'm ashamed to say that I believed the ads. But, I have since gotten myself this small blender from indonesia that is mighty powerful. I named it my cow blender.

Depending on how fine your blender can grind spices down to, you may need to transfer the spices onto a mortar and pestle (which I had to do) and manually grind them down to a smooth paste, especially the coriander seeds.

I find chunks of coriander seeds taste like soap.
Remember, smooth is good.

Make the aromatic puree by using your blender to puree the red shallots, garlic, red chillies, bird's eye chilli, tumeric and galangal.
My tiny cow blender is more powerful than the magic bullet, but it's no match for the woody galangal. Please chop the galangal into as small pieces as you can possibly manage before adding them to your blender. I had to chop the other aromats as well to fit them into my tiny blender.

Mbak Mi would usually use small tiny little adolescent prawns that has skin so thin and soft you can eat, good for your calcium intake.

But I used these large local prawns that I have peeled, deveined and cut into 3-4 pieces.

Don't throw away the prawn heads. Prawn head juices are sweet and acts as a stock base to the curry, we will be using these later.

Take out your firm tofu from the fridge, cut them into small cubes, let's say approximately 1cm x 1cm x 1cm, you know, quite small.

Now's the time for some action.

Fry them gently in a small frying pan with oil until they are golden brown and slightly crispy.

Set aside on a paper towel to absorb the residual oil.

Place a medium sized saucepan on medium heat. Add some canola oil, until the bottom surface is covered.

Add the spices and the aromatic puree and stir, if you think the heat is too much, turn it down so that the aroma of the spices are released gently and not burnt.

Add the choko matchsticks.

Add the tofu cubes.

Add the coconut milk and the kaffir lime leaves.

As you can see, the ayam brand coconut milk that I like is a lot thicker than most coconut milk brand, more like coconut cream. I added a few tablespoons of water to thin it out to the consistency of melted vanilla ice cream. Most coconut milk brands are thin enough and do not need the water to thin out.

Add the prawn heads.

Bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat to simmer for 20 minutes, or until the choko is cooked through and no longer crunchy.

Taste the curry. Do you need more sweetness (sugar), more saltiness (salt), more heat (ground pepper)?

I didn't feel like I needed to add anything more as the prawn heads were sweet enough and the spices and chillies provided the salty and spiciness.

Add the prawn meat. Simmer for a few minutes until the prawns are cooked through.

Remove from the heat and let it sit for a few minutes for the spices to soak through the prawns before serving with a plate of steamed jasmine rice.

Lodeh Manisa
Adapted from Mbak Mi's recipe

  • 1 choko fruit, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 2 large tbsp salt
  • 200g firm tofu
  • 250mL coconut milk (+ water, if required)
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves
  • 3 prawn heads reserved for stock
  • 3-4 large prawns, skins off, deveined, and chopped into bite size pieces
  • Salt, pepper, sugar to taste, if required

Dry spice:
  • 2 candlenuts
  • 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds

Aromatic puree:
  • 4 red shallots
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 cm galangal
  • 2 large red chillies
  • 1 bird's eye chilli
  • 1 tsp tumeric

  1. Prep the choko, by peeling the skin, discarding the seed and cutting into matchsticks. Place in a bowl, add two heaped tablespoons of salt, and massage the choko thoroughly with the salt. Leave for 15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. Set the drained choko aside.
  2. Dry roast the candlenuts and coriander seeds using a small frying pan until fragrant. Grind them with a grinding blade of your blender until smooth. Mortar and pestle maybe required to finish the grinding process and achieve the smooth paste consistency. Set aside.
  3. Puree the "aromatic puree" ingredients until smooth. Set aside.
  4. Cut the tofu into small cubes and deep fry until golden brown and slightly crispy, set aside on a paper towel to drain.
  5. Place a medium saucepan on medium heat. Add canola oil until the bottom is covered evenly. Add the dry spices and "aromatic puree" and stir until fragrant. Control the heat so that the spices and aromats don't burn.
  6. Add the choko, the tofu cubes, the coconut milk, the kaffir lime leaves and the prawn heads. Thin the coconut milk with water to the consistency of thick milk, if necessary. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes or until the choko is cooked and soft. Taste, and add salt, pepper, sugar if required.
  7. Add the prawn meat and simmer until prawns are cooked, about a couple of minutes. Remove saucepan from the heat and set aside for a few minutes. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

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