Malaysian Spicy Tomato, Anytime of the Year [Video]

We know tomato as the quintessential warm-weather treat, literally bursting with flavor, minimally handled and enjoyed raw, only lightly adorned with a pinch of salt or a dash of balsamic vinegar to let its best qualities shine.

At other times of the year, especially in colder months like now, this recipe is how I like to eat semi-decent tomatoes still clinging to the heels of summer. Cooked with a rich mix of spices, it turns even subpar supermarket tomatoes into a scrumptious dish that will sustain any tomato craving all through fall and winter. In fact, hardier tomato varieties
that are more readily available year round like beefsteak and roma are best used to maintain a chewier texture. 

This way of cooking tomato is fashioned after one of my favorite ways of eating tomato in Malaysia known as "masak merah", meaning "cooked red" and usually applied to a meat of choice, like ayam (chicken) masak merah or ikan (fish) masak merah. Since reducing my consumption of meat, I now prefer to let the ingredient that colors the dish also be its main anchor. 

In this highly aromatic dish best served with rice, the acidity of the tomatoes is deliciously grounded by a spice paste made of shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and dried chilies fried together with whole spices like star anise, clove, cinnamon, and cardamom. When cooking something this extravagantly spiced, my senses get fired up and my mouth inevitably waters, readying my digestive system for its sharp warmth. 

Widely used in Southeast Asian spice pastes, fresh ginger, turmeric, and galangal provide much of the earthy goodness. Of the trio, ginger is the most commonly available while turmeric and galangal can be found at most Asian markets. If necessary, fresh turmeric can be substituted with ground turmeric in this recipe. 

Galangal may resemble ginger in some ways but make no mistake as it contributes a fragrant lemony pungency unlike that of ginger. It is tough and extremely fibrous, often sending the food processor into a rattle when making the paste, and care should be taken when handling it from peeling to cutting. 

Depending on where you are, galangal may be the hardest to obtain but I hope you will not let its rarity prevent you from making this dish, which in my opinion is just as delightful without it. 

This recipe starts with a spice paste the color of sunshine and ends with an appetizing dish filled with warmth, making it a worthy inclusion in anyone's cold weather diet and a welcome sight anytime of the year. 

Malaysian Spicy Tomato Video:

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Malaysian Spicy Tomato
A vegetarian version of the Malay dish Masak Merah, this recipe makes the best of off-season tomatoes with a blend of aromatic spices. Use fewer dried chilies for less heat. Best to use hardy tomato varieties like beefsteak and roma. Enjoy with rice. Serves 3 to 4. 

3 large shallots, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 lemongrass stalks, tender midsection only, chopped
1-inch ginger, peeled and chopped
1-inch turmeric, peeled and chopped (or substitute with 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric)
1-inch galangal, peeled and chopped (optional if difficult to find)
3 to 5 dried chilies, seeded and soaked in warm water for 15 minutes, then drained

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
3 cardamom pods
3 whole cloves
2 lbs (about 1kg) tomatoes (use firmer kinds like roma), roughly chopped into large cubes
1 tablespoon coconut sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Cilantro, chopped, for garnish

In a blender or food processor, add shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, galangal, and dried chilies 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. 

In a pan, heat up the oil over medium heat. Lightly fry cinnamon stick, star anise, cardamom pods, and cloves until the aromas are released. Be careful not to burn the whole spices. Then add the spice paste and cook, stirring often, until the oil and paste are emulsified, about 10 minutes.   

Stir in the chopped tomatoes to mix well with the spices. Cover and cook until they are soft but not fully disintegrated. Cooking time depends on the kind of tomato used. Season with coconut sugar and salt and garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve warm with jasmine rice or sticky rice