Thursday, September 3, 2009

Maldivian amaranth and lentils

This is going to be an odd one, folks. Unless you live in the Maldives, I suppose, but with the substitutions I made maybe it's odd to them too. The Maldives, for those who don't know and haven't Googled it up yet, are a small island chain in the Indian ocean and, like most islands on trade routes, has a cuisine that takes in influences from all around. This particular dish has a lot of South Indian and Thai elements. I found this recipe on where it was miscatalogued under Chinese recipes. The inclusion of Maldive fish in the ingredients was a giveaway as to its origin, but I checked to make sure and it looks pretty traditional. I had never made Maldivian cooking before so I was pretty excited to find such an accessible recipe.

4 1/2 ounces green amaranth leaves a.k.a. callaloo
(but lots of other plants are a.k.a. callaloo so check what you've got. If you do happen to have amaranth, and that's what my CSA supplies most commonly under the name, there's plenty you can do with it outside of Caribbean cuisines.)
10 1/2 ounces (can you tell I'm translating from metric?) lentils
(the original recipe calls for red lentils but I have plain brown so I used that)
2 cups thin coconut milk
3 Tablespoons thick coconut milk

(A good trick here is to carefully open a can of good quality coconut milk without disturbing it too much. There's frequently a thick layer of coconut cream on top separated from the coconut water below. Skim off the cream for the thick and then add water to the rest to make the thin.)
1 dried red chili, stemmed and seeded and broken into pieces
(I used an ancho. I figured if the recipe calls for seeding then heat isn't the goal.)
1 teaspoon turmeric 2 teaspoons pounded Maldive fish
(Maldive fish is smoked or sun dried spiced tuna. The good bits are left in chunks. The not-so-good bits pounded to a powder. No idea what it tastes like, but my money is on funky. I substituted in 1 Tablespoon of Chinese shrimp paste and 1 Tablespoon of Thai fish sauce to get in the right neighborhood.)
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1 onion, thinly sliced

1 small stick cinnamon

1 sprig curry leaves

(I could have sworn I had dried some from the last fresh batch I bought, but I must have used them up. I substituted in salam leaves which have a similar flavor.)
1 strip pandan leaf
(This is a fragrant leaf used mainly in sweet Thai dishes. I wasn't confident enough to substitute so I just left it out.)
1 stalk lemon grass, trimmed and bruised
salt to taste along the way

1. Wash and roughly chop the amaranth. Put into a dutch oven

2. Pick over, wash the lentils. Add to the dutch oven.

3. Add thin coconut milk, chili, turmeric and Maldive fish (or substitutes).

4. Turn heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, stirring well once the amaranth has wilted a bit. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until lentils are soft, around 30 minutes. Add a half cup of water if it seems like it needs it. I think salting might slow down the cooking here so refrain at this point.

5. Meanwhile, in a medium pan, heat the oil over medium heat and fry the curry and pandan leaves (or substitutes), onion, cinnamon and lemon grass until everything is fragrant and the onions are soft and just turned a light golden brown. Do salt here.

6. When lentils are ready, add the pan contents to the dutch oven along with the thick coconut milk. Optionally, toss in some shrimp at this point too if you want some protein beyond what's in the lentils. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Serve with rice.

Yet another dish that tastes better than it looks. Maybe it's my photography?

It's earthy, but not muddy as the flavors are clear. The amaranth and lentils go together quite well. Yeah, lentils go well with greens in general, but you can tell this is amaranth and that particular flavor works surprisingly well. Who knew? The coconut milk and funky fishy ingredients tie the two together the way bacon and chicken stock might in a more European version of the dish and give a really interesting undertone to the dish. The spices linger around the edges, rounding out the flavors without asserting themselves. Maybe the cinnamon is identifiable; the rest are just light fragrant notes freshening the flavor of the greens. A squeeze of lemon helps there too. The shrimp are a nice addition. They picked up the seasonings of the dish and matched with the other main ingredients well.

I don't think any of my explanations here are going to evoke this combination of flavors for you, but take my word that it was pretty darn good and worth trying yourself.


Margie said...

This dish looked so good, I wanted to fix some for dinner on Labor Day. So I got an extra bunch of callaloo from Three Sisters to keep for ourselves at the farm. I never got the chance... someone TOOK my bunch when they picked up their order! So I'm still salivating....

billjac said...

I choose to believe that people only take items they're not entitled to by accident. Otherwise, it's a level of pure consciouslessness that I'm really not comfortable with acknowledging.

As for the dish, I don't understand why lentils and callaloo aren't commonly paired in the Caribbean. They go together so well! Use salt cod instead of the Maldive fish and curry powder instead of the curry leaves and it would fit perfectly into the cuisine. I wonder why it doesn't happen.