Nasi Dagang Terengganu & Gulai Ikan Tongkol
Nasi Dagang, i.e. Trader’s Rice is a very common breakfast fanfare enjoyed by the masses along the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It uses a mixture of white rice (beras wangi) which is first soaked and subsequently steamed with glutinous rice (pulut) with coconut milk added for its wonderful aroma and flavour. This likens another popular breakfast dish, Nasi Lemak over here in Singapore. However, instead of pandan leaves, sliced shallots (bawang merah) and fenugreek (halba) are added. This concoction seems to be the preferred combination for many dishes, as we’d seen in Pulut Lepa and Ketupat Sotong. As we have seen in several dishes from Terengganu, fish is a staple amongst the folks from this region, and Nasi Dagang is no exception. It is eaten with Gulai Ikan Tongkol, a spicy fish red curry cooked with tuna and a hoard of spices as well as buah belimbing, one of my favorite ingredients I love to use in Straits cooking. And this month’s Malaysian Food Fest seem like a timely affair to visit and pay tribute to this time-honoured dish.
For Nasi dagang, the rice is quite easily prepared, and like my dear friend Annie, I’d opt for a simplified method for the rice steaming process with the use of a modern rice cooker. I think this is how it is commercially prepared by the kedais and restorans anyway, as to prepare the rice in large quantities by steaming and tossing the rice grains patiently while drizzling coconut milk over them to feed the hungry morning breakfast crowd would be near impossibility. So a rice cooker seemed like a sound way to go!
There are several recipes online for the Spicy Tuna Red Curry, i.e. Gulai Ikan Tongkol but I settled for one by Toh Puan Rosita Abdullah, a member of the Terengganu royal family , from in her book “Kulit Manis – A Taste of Terengganu’s Heritage”. The book was conceptualised as a legacy for the generations to come, a “legacy of love” as she aptly put. “What better way to honour these memories than by writing all these down and archiving pictures that may one day be lost on a generation,” she noted in her foreword. Toh Puan Rosita is a highly accomplished cook, learning the ways of the kitchen from her mother, and later her family cook, Cik Embong. Being well versed in both traditional Peranakan Chinese cuisine, as well as authentic Malay cooking under her belt, she is highly recognised for her culinary skills. I can’t wait to see the book in person, and hopefully be able to add it to my collection in the future.
Spices used in the cooking of Gulai Ikan Tongkol. Clockwise from the top -fennel seeds (jintan manis), coriander seeds (ketumbar), fenugreek seeds (halba) and black peppercorn (lada hitam). All of them are first toasted over a low flame before being ground into a fine powder.
Nasi Dagang (serves 4)
- 2 cups Thai jasmine rice (beras)
- 1 cup of glutinous rice (pulut)
- 5 shallots, thinly sliced (bawang merah)
- 1 thumb sized ginger, thinly julienned (halia)
- 1tbsp fenugreek (halba)
- 2 cups of coconut milk
- 1cup of water
- 1 tsp Salt
- Wash and soak glutinous rice for 90 mins. Wash and add in jasmine rice, soak both rice together for another 30mins. Drain well with sieve or colander and set aside.
- Transfer the rice, water and coconut milk into a rice cooker and stir well with wooden spatula under wll incorporated. Set to “rice cooking” mode and start the cooking process.
- Once the rice is cooked, add in fenugreek, ginger, shallots and toss well to combine.
- Switch the rice cooker to “keep warm” mode for another 30mins before serving.
- Serve Nasi dagang with gulai ikan tongkol and acar timun.
Gulai Ikan Tongkol (serves 4)
From Toh Puan Rosita binti Abdullah’s “Kulit Manis – A Taste of Terengganu’s Heritage” as published here
- 250ml oil
- 50g garlic, peeled (bawang putih)
- 20g ginger (halia)
- 30g galangal (lengkwas)
- 300g shallots, peeled (bawang merah)
- 250g dried chilli paste (chilli boh)
- 4 tablespoons coriander seeds (ketumbar)
- 2 tablespoons fennel seeds (jintan putih)
- 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek (halba)
- 1 teaspoon black pepper (lada hitam)
- 250ml fish stock, strained
- 3cm dried toasted shrimp paste (belacan)
- palm sugar (gula melaka)
- Salt to taste
- Coconut milk from 2 large grated coconuts squeezed with 1.5 litres of water
- Tuna (ikan tongkol) chunks, reserved from making fish stock
- 5 red chillies
- A handful of buah belimbing (belimbing buluh)
Heat oil in a wok over medium heat. Sauté blended ingredients until fragrant. Add ground spices and mix well. Add fish stock, belacan, gula melaka and salt to taste. Leave to simmer. Add coconut milk and bring to boil. Leave to simmer for 15 minutes.
Adjust consistency with hot water if a more diluted gravy is preferred. Add fish and cook until heated through. Add whole chillies and belimbing buluh. Remove from heat when chillies and belimbing buluh are cooked. Serve with Nasi dagang and acar timun.
Acar Timun (serves 4)
- 1 medium cucumber
- 1 medium carrot
- 2 red chillies
- 1 red onion
- half a pineapple
- 5 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 5 tbsp warm water
- In a small bowl, mix all the pickling condiments and stir thoroughly to dissolve sugar. Set aside to cool.
- Cut cucumber lengthwise and rub the two halves on the cut surfaces until it begins to foam. Rinse well and deseed with dessert spoon. Cut cucumber into long strips
- Peel carrot and cut into long strips
- Cut chillies lengthwise and deseed. Cut into long strips
- Halve onion and remove paper-like skin membrane. Juilenne into thin strips.
- Remove skin and eyes of pineapple. Cut into small chunks.
- In a larg mixing bowl place all the cut vegetables Drizzle pickling condiment over them and toss with a spoon or clean hands until well incorporated.
- Place in fridge to chill.
The use of pulut in nasi dagang lends the dish an interesting and somewhat chewy palate sensation. Though it also uses coconut milk, likening nasi lemak, nasi dagang is entirely different in both flavour and texture. Unlike Annie who tossed in all the auxillary ingredients, I chose to cook the juilenned ginger slices and fenugreek seeds with the rice to impart a stronger and hopefully more robust taste. The rice was also flavoured at the point of cooking and not later. Only the shallot slices were left to be tossed in.
Toh Puan Rosita’s recipe called for “cili boh” which is essentially dried chilli paste. The intensity of the colour depends entirely on the ingredients used. As with many heritage recipes, ingredient proportions merely serve as a guideline and could be tweaked to suit one’s tastebuds, and in this case one’s liking and tolerance for heat. I peronally love chilli and thus spicy dishes and would generously increase the stated amount, sometimes doubling it! But one also has to learn to strike a balance with the amount added as too much may mean marring the intricate flavours from the other spices.
The recipe also calls for fish broth which can be simply made by parboiling the chopped tuna. The water is brought to a strong boil before the chunks of fish are added. After the water begins to boil again, the flame is lowered bringing everything to a gentle simmer. The chunks of meat are then removed after 30s or so, as the primary purpose of the blanching process is to seal in the juices and not to cook the meat through. However, the fish heads were left to continue boiling for another 10 min. They were then discarded and scum on the surface skimmed off. The liquids are then allowed to sit for any sediment to settle. The liquids are then decanted ito a bowl. One generous tablespoon of toasted ikan bilis powder is then added to complete the broth. This is not mentioned in Toh Puan Rosita’s recipe but since ikan bilis is so commonly used in Malay cuisine, I am sure she wouldn’t mind it either. So there you have it, almost-instant fish broth!
Her recipe for Gulai Ikan Tongkol is quite delicious on the whole as the kuah is really flavourful. Unfortunately, I am not a big fan of ikan tongkol as I found the meat rather dry. I would very much prefer sweeter varieties like ikan batang, ikan tenggiri or even ikan pari to be used instead, probably because I m so used to cooking the Melakan Peranakan Ikan Gerang Asam. If I were to cook this curry again, I may opt to pan fry tuna steaks which had been lightly seasoned with salt and pepper prior. The gulai would then be drizzled over the fried fish. Otherwise, just replicate with the above fish varieties in place of ikan tongkol altogether.
My sister wasn’t home yesterday for dinner so there were leftovers. I refrigerated the Nasi dagang and steamed it again for brunch the next day. The flavours for the gulai ikan tongkol had matured considerably overnight and was tastier than the day before. That said, I think I would still prefer ikan batang or ikan tenggiri over ikan tongkol! But it’s all a matter of personal preference!