When Mark and I first got married, he was serving in the Brigade of Gurkhas, and our first posting was to Brunei, a small sultanate on the island of Borneo. Most of the island is occupied by the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, with the Malay states of Sarawak and Sabah along with Brunei making up the rest of the island. So the local food is predominantly Malaysian and Indonesian, with a lot of influence from the large Chinese population. (Disclaimer - I am totally rubbish at geography so please don't take these facts as being 100% accurate)
I was determined to start off married life by cooking fresh, wholesome meals and that meant looking for ways to cook the foods on sale in the markets rather than the limited range of imported goods sold in the NAAFI shop. The first obstacle to that was the unfamiliar smell of the markets - the first time I went into one, the smell of the fermenting salted greens caught the back of my throat and I had to rush out and be sick in the monsoon drain! But I soon got used to it - and learned which stalls to hold my breath while passing - and started to revel in treats like being able to have fresh coconut grated to order, or buy pineapples straight from the boats delivering them from up river.
But what to cook? I visited the local English-language bookshop, a small room in the offices of the newspaper, Borneo Bulletin, where I picked up a tiny book called "Art of Indonesian Cooking - the ABC's" by Agnes de Keijzer Brackman and almost 35 years later it is still one of my most-used and best-loved recipe books. (I've just noticed there is a copy available on Amazon, along with a couple of other books by her - I may be doing some shopping after I post this)
Later on, when living in Hong Kong, I became friendly with a lady called Nancy who, although American-Chinese, owned an Indonesian restaurant and employed only Indonesian cooks. She gave me lots of tips and advice that helped me to build on the recipes from my trusty book, and to adapt them to things I would be able to buy back in the UK.
So that is the background to my love of South East Asian food - now here is my own take on the classic salad, Gado-Gado. Normally this would include cubes of fried tofu and be garnished with prawn crackers instead of cashew nuts, but I left the tofu out as I was serving this with a creamy, coconutty chicken curry and felt there was already enough protein in the meal. And I ran out of prawn crackers!
For the dressing:
2 heaped tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1 tablepsoon Ketjap Manis (thick, sweet soy sauce - if you can't find this, use Chinese soy sauce and add a teaspoon of black treacle)
½ teaspoon Sambal Oelek or dried crushed red chilli flakes
juice of 1 lime
200 ml water
heat all ingredients together, stirring constantly. As it comes close to boiling, it will appear to curdle, but just keep stirring and after a few seconds of boiling it will come together to form a smooth paste. Set aside to cool. You can make this hotter or milder, to taste, or add brown sugar or treacle to sweeten it, thin it down with more water or thicken it with more peanut butter, or replace the water with coconut milk - it can be different every time you make it. Tamarind juice and - if you can face it- blachan are interesting additions. And it makes a great satay sauce or dip for crudités too.
For the salad:
2 eggs, hard boiled and sliced
2 carrots, cut into batons about twice the size of a matchstick
100g green beans, cut into 5cm segments
100g Chinese leaves, cut into pieces about 3cm wide
quarter of a cucumber, cut into batons the same size as the carrots
a large handful of watercress sprigs
toasted cashew nuts to garnish
Bring a pan of water to the boil and drop in the carrots. After 2 minutes, add the beans and after 2 more minutes the cabbage. Cook for a minute then add the beansprouts. Remove from heat as soon as it all comes back to the boil, and immediately rinse well in cold water to stop further cooking and keep the colours bright. Drain well and cool completely. Just before serving, mix in the cucumber and watercress, top with sliced eggs (and tofu if liked) and garnish with cashews or prawn crackers.