If there's one thing I miss more than eating Malaysian food, it's hearing Malaysian food being prepared. The sizzle of garlic and onion in hot oil, the clanging of a Chinese metal spatula against the wok, and that conspicuous thump of a cleaver meeting a wood chopping block. Such is the soundtrack of a typical Malaysian kitchen. Add to that brilliant bursts of flames licking the sides of woks and you have a scene from a busy "daichow" (literally "big fry" in Cantonese) restaurant, like the one my dad used to cook in.
Back home, my mom moved to a different beat. A pestle in one hand and another hand pushing the mortar on the ground for support, she pounded an assortment of spices into a paste. The Malaysian spice paste, or "rempah" in Malay, is a vital foundation for many recipes, especially curries, and it is the base of this beetroot curry.
To sum it up, rempah is a blend of spices usually including garlic, shallot, ginger, lemongrass and chili. Depending on the recipe, a variation of other spice agents like turmeric, galangal, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, fennel seeds, cloves and coriander seeds are added. The convenience and speed of the food processor has replaced the traditional method of combining them in the mortar and pestle, but many a matriarch of Malaysian cooking would have no problem telling you it's just not quite the same as your own hand-pounded spice paste.
Before starting the Spring Discovery series on my blog, I never imagined adding radish into Acar (Malaysian pickled vegetables in the said rempah), having leeks in Chinese egg drop soup, and using beetroots in a curry recipe, but they have all worked so seamlessly that I wonder why we don't cook this way more often.
Rendang is an intensely tasty dry curry dish that involves stewing meat, usually beef or mutton but chicken is common too, in a spice paste-coconut milk mixture until tender and all the flavors are incorporated. The idea to use beetroots came when I decided to make a plant-based version of rendang and was looking for a vegetable that would not collapse, both in structure and flavor, in the recipe. I've used the red ace, forono and golden varieties and they've all turned out excellent. The earthy sweetness of beetroot features elegantly amidst the spicy and rich ingredients, and the texture is just the right balance of tenderness and bite to sop up the aromatic paste.
As an instant lover of beetroot the minute I tried it roasted in a salad last year, I didn't need a lot of convincing to include it in my diet. But when I came across a blog completely dedicated to beetroots called Just Beet It, I jumped at the chance to learn more about the quirky vegetable.
"The beetroot is one of my 'happy dance' foods," said Aarika Chilson, the writer of the blog. "They are foods that energize me because my cells are so ridiculously healthy and happy. The powerhouse nutrition in beetroot increases energy, so every time I eat or drink it, I truly feel like dancing!" Aarika's enthusiasm is infectious. She's taught me so much about the beetroot that I needed two posts to fit in all the information I'd like to share with you. Part 1 is focused on the root and Part 2 gives some deserving love to the greens. Let's beet it!
Getting to Know Beetroots with Aarika Chilson of Just Beet It (Part I)
Beetroots in a nutshell: Originally grown around the Mediterranean and along the coasts of Europe and North Africa, the native "sea beet" was primarily eaten for its leaves. Since ancient times, the beet has been used for consumption, dyes, teas, for its medicinal properties and even as an aphrodisiac.
Beetroot belongs to the chenopod family which also includes chard and spinach, and showcases extraordinary nutritional value and benefits, such as improving blood disorders, detoxifying the liver and colon, decreasing inflammation, and supporting heart health. When referring to the beetroot, it often means the root, which is the bulb portion of the vegetable. The terms "beet" and "beetroot" seem to be interchangeable in typical vernacular.
Varieties: Although we are most familiar with the vibrant red table beet, beetroot varieties range in size and color, including golden yellow. The chioggia beet is pink on the outside and pink and white striped (like a candy cane) on the inside. This beet is delicious and stunningly beautiful, but it also tends to taste the most "earthy" which could deter beet non-enthusiasts.
Many people are familiar with the white sugar beet which is commercially used for the production of table sugar. Another type seen in stores is the baby beet which is a type of beet harvested to thin the field and make room for other beets to grow, and they are usually smaller and sweeter.
Describe the taste: People commonly express that beets taste like "dirt". To me, beets are incredibly sweet and flavorful. They do have an earthy flavor, but it is harmoniously married to the vegetable’s natural sweetness. Raw beets are very sweet but can be challenging to work with as the flesh is quite hard, like carrots. Cooked beets are also sweet, more tender and juicy, and, when perfectly done, the flesh deliciously melts in your mouth, but roasting beets tends to bring out a unique smoky flavor.
How to select: Bigger is not always better! Avoid selecting giant beetroots as they will contain less flavor and be quite fibrous. Beetroots should be harvested at prime maturation before they become too tough and fibrous. The larger root means it may have been harvested late in the season. Choose small or medium-sized beetroots that are firm, smooth-skinned, uniform in size, and rich in color. Avoid beet skins that are bruised, shriveled or flabby. Choose organic when possible.
How to store: It is best to not wash beets before storing. Cut the majority of the beet greens and their stems from the roots, so they do not pull away moisture from them. Leave about one to two inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from "bleeding." Place beetroots in a plastic bag and wrap the bag tightly around them. Squeeze out as much of the air from the bag as possible and place in the refrigerator where they will keep for up to three weeks.
How to prepare and avoid "pink hands": The red color of the beetroot is actually a pigment called betalain and it is a potent antioxidant! Wear re-usable gloves when handling red beets. When cutting, always use a non-porous board as the red color will stain wood. To remove the skin, using a vegetable peeler, peel beets in a bowl of water in the sink. The beet stain will stay in the water and off your skin.
When beets are roasted, the skin will easily fall off when rubbed with your hands. To avoid pink fingers, slip off the skins under cool water. Alternatively, you can wrap a piece of cloth or paper towel around the beet and rub. To avoid turning an entire dish red, my suggestions are to "place" beets strategically or use golden and chioggia beets as these two varieties do not stain.
How to use: The beetroot is incredibly versatile and can be roasted, boiled, steamed, eaten raw, blended, juiced, pickled and baked. Beets are used in dips (hummus), added to pancakes, used as pasta sauces, sliced and baked as chips, and even baked in desserts! The red color is also a great dye and is used as a natural red food coloring.
Fun fact: Beetroot contains a chemical (organic compound) called "geosmin" which creates the seemingly earthy taste that is also found in foods such as mushrooms and spinach. This aroma also occurs in the air after a rainfall. Therefore, it seems that people who love the smell of a fresh rainfall are usually more fond of beets.
Don't forget to come back for the second part on beet greens. Spring Discovery is a series highlighting the season's best produce with new posts on Wednesday. If you can't get enough of beetroots, be sure to drop by Just Beet It, a blog completely dedicated to the delightful vegetable.
Malaysian Beetroot Rendang
This is a vegetarian version of the Malaysian meat-based dry curry adapted from Savoring Southeast Asia by Joyce Jue, a useful reference and a permanent fixture in my kitchen. The beetroot gives the curry an appetizing red color, and its earthy sweetness contrasts well with the powerful richness of the spices and coconut milk. I added tempeh to give the dish more bite but I'd like you to know it's optional. Serves 3 to 4.
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
6 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 large shallots, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 lemongrass stalks, tender midsection only, chopped
1-inch ginger, peeled and chopped
1-inch galangal, peeled and chopped
3 dried red chilies, seeded and soaked in warm water for 15 minutes, then drained
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 lbs (700g or about 3 bunches) beetroots, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cinnamon stick
1 to 1 1/2 cups water
1 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon palm/ coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 lb (200g) tempeh, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup unsweetened desiccated coconut, lightly toasted until light brown
Begin by making the spice paste. In a small frying pan, dry toast the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder, add cloves, and pound or grind to a coarse powder. Then transfer to a bowl, stir in ground nutmeg and turmeric, and set aside.
In a blender or food processor, add shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, dried chilis and ground spices and blend until you get a smooth paste. If necessary, add water 1 tablespoon at a time to get the paste moving. A thick paste is what we want so don't add too much water. Get the ingredients to incorporate as much as possible but don't fret over chunky bits.
Heat up the oil in a deep set pot over medium heat. Add the spice paste and cook, stirring often, until the oil and paste are emulsified, about 10 minutes.
Add the beetroots and stir well to coat with the spice paste. Add the cinnamon stick and enough water to cover the beetroots. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat and cook until the beetroots are fork tender and the liquid is reduced by half, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Stir in coconut milk, apple cider vinegar, sugar and salt, and bring to a boil. Then reduce to medium heat, stir in tempeh and desiccated coconut, and cook until the mixture is quite dry and thick, another 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust the seasoning according to your preference. Serve warm with rice.