Even in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, latitude 1 degree 30 minutes north of the equator, there are days when the sun is at it’s farthest south--like about now--when a warm dinner is welcome. Their hottest time of year is at the spring equinox, with the sun directly overhead, and on through April. In Kuching, and in Singapore, latitude 1 degree 18 minutes north, a warm salad has appeal.
Malay cooks start with raw peanuts. They shell them, toast them and grind them. They send some agile youth up a coconut tree, somehow cleverly open that tough nut, remove and grate the flesh and strain the juice from it. Now they’re ready to start making the sauce and preparing vegetables. My recipe is generously adapted from the recipe in my Malay cookbook, acquired decades ago on a visit to relatives on a mission post then, Dick and Jean Hall. Jean and their cook spend the morning preparing the peanut sauce and the vegetables from scratch. My sauce needs 45 minutes cooking and stirring time, peanut butter and canned coconut milk hasten preparation.
I cooked chicken the evening before, making enough for two meals, and swapped it for tofu or eggs. That’s because I’m an omnivore. I’ve made the sauce with 1/2 coconut shreds and 2 cups or more of water when I had no coconut milk on hand.
Makes about 2 cupfuls
1 13.65 ounce can coconut milk
1 small red onion, or 1/2 large red onion, minced
2 Tablespoons coconut fat from top of can
1/3 cup Adams creamy peanut butter
1/8 teaspoon cayenne or a sprinkle of dried hot red pepper flakes, or 1/2 to 1 fresh red or green chili pepper, frozen and grated into the sauce (wear rubber gloves here)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt to taste
Skim off 2 Tablespoons of coconut fat and heat them in a 6-cup heavy saucepan or skillet. Stir-fry the onion 5 minutes, then add the chili pepper if using and stir-fry a couple of minutes more. Add remaining ingredients except lemon juice. Stir-cook until heated through. You can eat it now, or continue to cook, stirring often and thinning with water vegetables were cooked in or hot water, about 45 minutes, until thick. Any time between just heated and 45 minutes, the sauce tastes raw.
Hot Vegetables: Boil and skim out by turns: 2 sliced carrots,2 peeled and sliced potatoes, 2 handfuls green beans cut in 1 1/2- or 2-inch lengths, 4 cups nappa cabbage (cook just until somewhat wilted). Keep these warm while you prepare the cold veggies.
Cold Vegetables: 2-inch cucumber strips, red bell pepper strips.
For vegans: 1 lb. tofu, drained and cubed.
For vegetarians: 1 egg for each child, 2 for each adult, boiled, cooled, peeled, and sliced.
To serve: Arrange on a platter in this order: Nappa, potatoes, green beans, carrot slices. Ring with cucumber and bell pepper strips. Boiled eggs may be halved or sliced and served on a separate plate. Present the peanut sauce in a sauceboat or bowl with a small ladle.