What does ABC mean to you?
Something fundamental, yes? A starting point. A building block.
In the world of food, ABC reminds me of two things.
First, an ABC I don't keep in the pantry: When Ted and Cousin Martin and I traveled through Malaysia, we tasted a dessert called ABC, air batu campur -- literally, "water stone mix" -- a mound of shave ice topped, improbably, with red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly and a drizzle of evaporated milk. Also called ais kacang, it looked like a kind of psychedelic sno-cone.
Second, an ABC I always have in my pantry: kecap manis, a wonderful, sweet soy sauce sold under the ABC brand and, in our house, known as "that ABC stuff in the cupboard."
Kecap -- also spelled ketjap -- manis (pronounced KEH-chup mah-NEESE), is a thick, syrupy, soy sauce fundamental to the cuisine of Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Singapore. Made of palm sugar, salt, soy beans, garlic and star anise, kecap manis has the consistency of molasses or honey, and an addictive salty-sweet taste.
Used as a dipping sauce, on its own or mixed with sambal oelek and lime, kecap manis also adds flavoring to stews, soups and marinades. Stored in a dry cupboard or in the refrigerator, it will keep almost indefinitely, though it should be replaced after two years.
In addition to ABC brand, you might find Cap Bango, with an illustration of a pelican on the label. Both brands are imported from Indonesia. Cap Bango has a bit of a smoky-sweet overtone. It's harder to find in my local Asian markets, whereas ABC is almost always available.
If you can't find kecap manis, you can make your own. Simmer soy sauce and palm sugar or brown sugar together until the mixture turns to syrup. Or mix one part molasses with two parts soy sauce. Here's another recipe that adds the flavor of lemongrass, garlic and star anise.
Kecap manis would taste great on cottage cheese, but unlike American tomato ketchup (which shares the same word derivation, from the Cantonese koechiap, meaning "sauce"), it could never pass for a vegetable.
Nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice)
The Dutch East India Company plied the spice trade in Indonesia for 200 years, and traders returning to Holland brought with them a taste for livelier food. Today Indonesian groceries are available in every Dutch market. A mainstay of the Indonesian rijsttafel -- a buffet of many small dishes served with rice -- nasi goreng is also a typical breakfast dish that makes good use of leftover rice and bits of meat, chicken or fish. Serves 4-6.
1-1/2 cups basmati rice (or 3 cups leftover cooked rice)
3 cups water
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp canola oil
1/4 tsp galangal
1-1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
2 bunches scallions, minced
1 large carrot, minced
3 stalks celery, minced
2 cups minced chinese cabbage or bok choy
3/4 lb cooked chicken breast (or other leftover meat), diced
1/2 lb mung bean sprouts
4 Tbsp kecap manis
1 tsp sambal oelek (or other hot sauce, or cayenne pepper), or more to taste
Cook rice with 3 cups water, and set aside to cool completely (or cook rice ahead and refrigerate for at least 1 hour). Add the oil to a wok or frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, and stir for 30 seconds. Then add galangal, coriander and cumin, and stir to make a paste. Taste, and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Stir in the scallions, and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Add carrots, celery and chinese cabbage or bok choy, and continue stir frying for 2-3 minutes more. Add the rice, a bit at a time, and stir to coat the rice with the seasonings. Add chicken and bean sprouts, and continue to stir. Add kecap manis, mix well, and then add the sambal oelek. Taste, and add sea salt to taste. Serve hot.
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