When life gives you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade, which is kind of stupid if you ask me. If I’m feeling blue, I look at blue food. It’s kind of the same concept, right? Instead of dwelling on life’s little annoyances, I culled nasi kerabu’s greatest visual hits.
I’ve never seen nasi kerabu (Malaysian herbed rice) in person, but I’m in love with the idea of dyeing rice colors even though I’m not sure that I understand the logic behind it. I just don’t think blue rice would fly with the typical American consumer, which is one more reason why I have to give props to Malay Peninsula cuisine. These are not people who are afraid of rainbow hues–just look at the pans of agar-agar that masak-masak (yes, double words are another regional trademark) photographed at a Ramadan bazaar. The blue rice above, came from another such bazaar. All we get at street fairs in NYC are grilled Italian sausages and mozzarepas.
Actually, I think a lot of modern cooks use food coloring rather than the traditional bunga telang/pea flower to achieve this look. (I know a lot of the intense purples in Filipino ube-based snacks aren’t naturally derived. Wow, this Pillsbury ube hotcake mix is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.) And not all nasi kerabu is even blue; most recipes I see don’t call for tinting at all.
When researching a trip to Malaysia in 2005, I relied a bit on Lonely Planet World Food Malaysia and Singapore (which I now know was photographed by the always on trend Chubby Hubby) and kept coming back to a photo of Kelantanese woman placing bean sprouts on top of a plate of blue rice. It reminded me of a childhood impulse to keep returning to engrossing illustrations in picture encyclopedias. Unfortunately, my ‘80s Childcraft set is in storage across country (or at least I hope it still is—it freaks me out to think that I still have at least ten boxes somewhere in Portland with records, books, kitchenware and possibly a few clothing items which are probably so ‘90s that I could now re-wear them and be in fashion. Er, I might’ve gotten rid of the Childcraft books now that I think about it) so I can’t look up the exact photo I’m thinking of.
I’m fairly certain it was the “Look and Learn” volume on science that contained an image of a tableau of food that was supposed to be unappetizing because the colors were all wrong. I think there was a green orange, black cookies, white butter, a pitcher of milk that wasn’t white, and a few more items. There had to have been something atypically blue but I can’t say for sure. I thought the food looked cool rather than disgusting. Childcraft is the reason I know about anything I know today and why my knowledge level is that of a nine year old.
I have a few recipes for nasi kerabu in cookbooks, though in print and on the internet there are many more for nasi ulam, which is kind of the same thing; they’re both herbed rice salads but nasi kerabu is the one that’s usually blue. So many of the dishes in my cookbooks that sound unusual and worth tackling are next to impossible because we just don’t have access to the same ingredients. For this dish you need bunga kantan, daun kesom, cekur leaves, kaduk leaves, turmeric leaves and more depending on the version. I have basil, mint and frozen pandan and kaffir lime leaves covered but that’s it.
When and if I get back to Malaysia (I had originally planned on Langkawi and elsewhere for vacation 2008, and am still trying to figure out how China became the destination instead, not that I’m complaining about going to China) I’ll have to seek this dish out.
More on nasi kerabu from Cyber Kuali