Village voices

Updated: 2011-09-03 07:48

By Pauline D. Loh (China Daily)

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Village voices

There are some things that call out from home when you are far away, and Pauline D. Loh says homesickness is best cured with food that is familiar.

Rice slightly salty to the tongue with the full fragrance of rich coconut milk, and the underlying herbal scent of warm banana leaf. Turmeric-marinated chicken that tingles the tongue and then bursts into salty juiciness in the mouth. Fish fried to a crackle and prawns smothered in an onion-chili paste - both with the sweetness of seafood that surfaces in spite of the spices.

It is a plateful of imagery in which the homesick prodigal son or daughter can imagine the stiff sea breeze whipping up tears in the eyes, and the rippling fronds of swaying coconut palms pointing the way to the beach.

I am a child of the southern seas and no matter how far I wander or where I put down roots, I still dream of wet sand between my toes and childhood picnics on the beach. There have been mornings when I wake with tears in my eyes, but I cannot be sure they come from sorrow or joy.

The people who populate my childhood memories are mostly gone now, the elders to a much better place and the younger scattered to the four winds, but on the occasions that we do gather in whichever country the reunion takes place, there is one meal we always go back to - nasi lemak.

Nasi Lemak is literally, rich rice, an allusion to the fat that it is cooked in with the fragrant but fattening coconut milk. But that's not all. It is a meal; for the rice must be eaten with the spicy onion-chili paste that is called sambal, and then there is a plethora of accompaniments both vegetable and animal.

In our family, it has to be eaten with turmeric-flavored fried chicken or whole little fishes. As for vegetables, yard-long beans are cut up and then fried in the sambal that also cooks the prawns. Often, the whole meal would be accompanied by a huge platter of cool cucumber slices.

In Australia, the United Kingdom and in America where our various aunts and cousins now reside, we have had to adjust the recipes, not having immediate access to herbs and spices that used to be just a-walk-to-the-backyard away.

Another family favorite used to be a regular sequel after we have had our fill of the nasi lemak. Any left-over coconut rice would be mixed with a bouquet of fresh herbs, again from the backyard, and revived as the village classic. This is the herbal rice or nasi ulam.

I have tried making nasi ulam in Beijing, and although I can get basil, mint and Vietnamese mint in my market at Sanyuanli behind the Westin Hotel on the Third Ring Road, I am still missing many of the herbs.

Still, it's fair copy of my grandmother's recipe and so I am passing it on to you. It's the crisp fried salted fish and the roasted dried prawns that add bite to the rice and herbs, and of course, credit has to go to the little lethal bird's eye chili.

Go easy on the chili if you are faint of heart. There is still lots of flavor to savor as the different herbs release their fragrance in the mouth, mingling with the unmistakable sweetness of coconut.

This is a recipe from my heart and home, and I hope it touches yours. If you have queries, please write to me at

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