Friday, August 8, 2008

Stir-fried Yam Leaf (Sweet Potato Leaf) with Belacan (Shrimp Paste)

I do eat vegetables and other foods. I really do. I just don't post them that much on this blog (which I intend to change soon) because seafood dishes are a lot more photogenic than, say, tofu, beans, turnip, chicken with skin and bones. I am partial to seafood, but I also love my greens, poultry/pork, eggs, soy products, and other foodstuff.

One vegetable dish that I simply can't do without in my cooking repertoire is a
signature Malaysian dish called kangkung belacan or stir-fried water spinach/morning glory with shrimp paste, even though it means that I have a stinky house! The key ingredient is none other than belacan, the Malaysian variety of shrimp paste. (Shrimp paste is an essential flavoring medium in Southeast Asian cooking.) Strong, pungent, yet aromatic at the same time, the pairing of belacan with vegetables is probably one of the most interesting stir-frying techniques for vegetables. The taste is bold, exquisite, and never boring.

For today's creation, I used yam leaf/sweet potato leaf (蕃薯叶), which works as well as water spinach. While it might seem or look simple, perfect execution is not easy. Wok hei (the breath of the wok) and timing are exceedingly important; a little too much wok hei or a tad too long in the wok can render the dish a complete failure, for example: burned belacan that tastes bitter or overcooked vegetables that look purple-ish in color.

While I love this recipe, I must warn you that it's an acquired taste, especially for an American palate. However, it's well worth a try because you probably can't find another vegetable dish as intriguing or delicious as this one!

  • 1 box of yam leaf (approximately 0.8 lb)
  • 1 tablespoon of belacan/shrimp paste
  • 2 red bird's eye chilies or 1 regular red chili (remove seeds and thinly cut)
  • 3 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 3 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
  • 1 tablespoon roasted chili paste
  • 1 tablespoon dried shrimp
  • A few dashes fish sauce
Roasted Chili Paste:
  • A handful of dried chilies
  • 2 tablespoon of cooking oil
  • Water
  • Grind the dried chilies and cooking oil in a blender. Add a little water while blending. Heat the wok, pour some cooking oil and stir-fry the chili paste for about 3 minutes. Set aside. Soak the dried shrimp in warm water for 10 minutes, then coarsely pound them using mortar and pestle. Set aside.
  • Cut the stems of the yam leaf. Keep only the tender part of the stems. Rinse with cold water and then set aside. Fire up the wok to HIGH heat and add the cooking oil. Wait till smoke comes out from the wok then add in the chopped garlic. Do a quick stir, add in the belacan, dried shrimp, and roasted chili paste and continue stirring. As soon as you smell the pungent aroma of belacan, toss in the yam leaf. Stir continuously until the leaves started to wilt. Add in a few dashes of fish sauce, continue stirring (make sure the color of the vegetable remains green). Dish up and serve hot.
Cook's notes:
  1. In the US, sweet potato leaf (蕃薯叶) is marketed as yam leaf.
  2. If you use water spinach, the recipe works the same.
  3. Dried shrimps should complement the belacan instead of competing with it, so you don't want to use too much of them.

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