The new vegan
Meera Sodha’s coconut rice with aubergines and pickled cucumber
One of the reasons I live in London, despite knowing that the grass is much greener beyond the M25, is that I can travel anywhere in the world through the city’s food. Within a 10-minute walk of home, I can be eating bouncy, hand-pulled noodles from the northern Chinese province of Xinjiang, smoky aubergines cooked over coals by Anatolian Turks, or Nigerian fried yam.
In many cases, I’ve not been to the country in question, but even so, a dish can evoke a sense of place and transport you there, no matter how many buses are whizzing past outside. Good food from an unknown place does a far better job than any tourist board ad ever could: it draws me in and makes me want to go.
This is what happened a few weeks ago when I had my first encounter with Malaysian food, an extraordinary fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indian food that weaves ingredients that are familiar to me into interesting new flavours. I had nasi lemak, where the rice, which I’d usually eat spiced or steamed, is cooked in coconut milk, making it plump and regal. Chillies and sour tamarind were spun into fiery hot and sour sambals to mix in, as little or as much as you liked. The curry alongside contained the holy trinity of taste – spice, sweet and salt – and came with peanuts and cucumber for crunch and cool.
Today’s recipe is the result of my wish to recreate those flavours at home. While
I can’t claim it has any authenticity, I hope it will transport you as it did me.
Coconut rice with aubergines and pickled cucumber
Ideally, you’d have two wide, lidded pans – one for the rice and one for the aubergines. Serves four.
For the pickle ½ cucumber
2 tbsp lemon juice
¾ tsp caster sugar
½ bird’s eye chilli, very finely chopped For the rice 350g jasmine rice 3300ml coconut milk (the rest of the tin goes into the aubergines) For the aubergines 3 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 red onion, peeled, halved and cut into thin half moons
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 1 ½ bird’s eye chillies, very finely chopped
1kg aubergines, cut into quarters and then into 1cm-thick slices 100ml coconut milk
1 tbsp tamarind paste
1 tbsp light soy sauce
½ tsp sugar
1 handful salted peanuts, crushed First make the pickle. Cut the cucumber in half lengthways, scoop out and discard the seeds (use a teaspoon), then chop the flesh into a fine dice. Put the cucumber in a bowl with the lemon juice, a quarterteaspoon of salt, the caster sugar and chilli, and mix to combine.
Put the rice in a sieve and wash under the cold tap until the water runs clear. Put in a pan with 300ml coconut milk, 220ml water and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, bring up to a boil, then cover the pan and turn down the heat to a whisper. Leave to cook for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave, lid on, to steam.
In a frying pan for which you have a lid, heat the oil on a high flame, then fry the onion, stirring, for about eight minutes until soft and golden. Add the garlic and chillies, cook for a couple of minutes more, then stir in the aubergines. Add three tablespoons of water, clap on the lid and leave to cook, stirring every now and then; if it starts looking too dry, add a tablespoon of water.
After about 15 minutes, when the aubergines are starting to brown and have reduced in volume, add the 100ml coconut milk, tamarind, soy sauce, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and the sugar. Cook until the liquid evaporates, then take off the heat.
To serve, pile the aubergines on top of the rice, scatter a little drained cucumber pickle on top and finish with a sprinkling of peanuts.