In Southeast Asia, curry has a special place in our hearts and comes in endless forms. On at least two occasions, it has even stirred up passionate nationwide debates and uproar. Allow me to clarify this to international readers who aren’t familiar: curry is a type of dish, not a dish!
I’ve heard this question from foreigners many times, “Why eat something so spicy when the weather is so hot?” From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, the high humidity of our climate may cause our bodies to become saturated with the water element. Spices help to dispel excess moisture. They also have plenty of other health benefits proven by modern science. Eating a piping hot bowl of curry at a bustling hawker centre in 33C weather is my definition of shiok!
As a third culture kid who grew up mostly with family meals from a different part of the world, the Singaporean in me is determined to make a good Chinese curry. I can’t claim that this recipe is 100% authentic, but it is tasty at least to me. I was aiming for flavours similar to those from vegetarian economic rice stalls, where aunties would spoon curry gravy over your rice if you ask for “kali zhi“. I made some adaptations to a meat-based Malaysian-Chinese recipe.
CHINESE STYLE CURRY (SERVES 1)
- 3 slices each of firm tofu and tempeh
- 1 tbsp curry powder
- 1 tsp vegan sambal belacan
- 1/2 cup water/stock
- Pinch of salt
Mix curry powder, sambal and water in a bowl. Add tofu and tempeh slices to marinade, ensure they are covered by the liquid, leave aside for 15mins, then pan fry them just enough to form a light brown crusting.
- 1 tsp vegan belacan paste, best heated/toasted for 1 min
- 1 tbsp curry powder (Prefereably Chinese, but any can work)
- 1 stalk lemongrass, white parts chopped finely (green part keep for later)
- 2 candlenuts, halved (I like a thicker gravy, use 1 if thinner is preferred)
- 1 dried red chilli, seeds removed
- Half cm ginger
- ½ shallot (sub with more ginger, lemongrass or belacan if allium-free is preferred.)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp oil
Pound paste ingredients in a pestle and mortar the dry ingredients, then stir in the oil. Or pulse all in a blender.
- 1/2 medium potato, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
- ½ eggplant, cut into bite-sized chunks
- 2 long beans, cut into ~3cm length
- ¼ carrot, sliced
- 1/3 medium sized onion, diced (for allium-free, use more curry leaves/ginger/lemongrass/belacan)
- 1 bunch curry leaves
- Lemongrass stalk (green part from earlier)
- 1 and 1/2 cup water/stock (more for thinner curry)
- ¼ cup + 1 tbsp coconut milk
- 1 tbsp oil
- Salt, to taste
In a pot, heat 1 tbsp oil over medium-high heat. Add paste and fry till fragrant or oil separates from it, keep stirring to prevent burning. Add onion, eggplant and potato, stir till onion is slightly translucent. Add water/stock, bring to a boil. Add lemongrass, curry leaves, long beans, carrots, pan-fried tofu and tempeh, and ¼ cup coconut milk. Bring heat to low-medium and simmer for 10-15mins or until potatoes are soft enough to be mashed. Stir in the last 1 tbsp coconut milk and season with salt to taste. Serve hot with warm rice or breads.
- Tempeh isn’t common in Chinese curries but it absorbs gravies so well that I felt it had to be included 🙂
- I couldn’t achieve the “oil split” effect from my paste while frying it – if any curry pro has tips kindly let me know.
- Adding noodles or lontong (pressed rice cakes) will make it a complete and satisfying one-pot meal.
- Most veggies can be used for this recipe – just experiment! I personally don’t fancy those cabbage-y curries from some vegetarian stalls so I used firm veggies.
- Pan-frying tofu/tempeh before cooking in curry helps them to lock in more flavour. Other proteins can include legumes like tau pok (tofu puffs), soaked tau kee (beancurd skin), seitan, canned chickpeas for faster cooking.
- I don’t press firm tofu before using them – we Chinese actually don’t do that except for some cold dishes. I find that there’s no difference in taste and in fact makes it more dry after cooking.