Thursday, July 16, 2009

Curry Rempah

Curries feature prominently in Southeast Asian cooking. The heart of every curry dish is the rempah (mixed spices, which can be wet or dry). The good thing about making your own rempah is that you can tailor make it to suit your taste. The downside is, it's backbreaking work.

Today, I realised I was running out of my precious rempah. I say "precious" because it is my lifesaver whenever I want curry-on-demand. Well, I spent almost 3 hours making it today. Lest you think diligence is my middle name, let you assure you that the reverse is true! The only reason why I dutifully expend so much energy smashing seeds, rhizomes and bulbs into smithereens is because I don't want to be caught without rempah the next time my curry craving hits. And THAT is a terrifying thought!

So off to work I went. For a few of the ingredients - like shallots and garlic - I threw into the food processor. The large part of the rest, I chose to tumbuk* the traditional way, using a stone pestle and mortar.
*Malay word for "pound".

Now, you might wonder: why not just throw everything into the food processor and let it blitz? The reason is because pounding allows you to control the texture of each item better. Furthermore, ingredients such as chilli seeds, are extremely hard to grind. And since there are quite a few ingredients involved, all of varying hardness, I have found through experience that pounding the hardy ingredients delivers the best results. I know many Nyonyas will be nodding their heads vehemently in approval! LOL.

Since it requires a lot of time and effort, I always make a heap to last me for a while. As long as you fry the rempah thoroughly, it will keep well in the freezer for months.

Below are the ingredients which go into my homemade rempah. You need to add oil as you pound and/or blend in the food processor. Tip: prepare each ingredient individually. This way, you can control the texture and consistency before you move on to the next. Only when all the ingredients are prepared according to your preference do you dump everything into the wok for frying.

Add about one rice bowl of oil in a wok (yes, that much). Fry for about 45 mins to 1 hour. You can add salt if you want. You need to keep frying constantly over low heat. Stop only when the oil floats to the top.

It's almost impossible to give exact measurements for the ingredients, so I figured pictures say it all. Is your recipe similar to mine? Or are there other spices/herbs which you feel I MUST include? I would be really happy to hear from you!

Candlenuts: make the rempah nutty and thick. I heart candlenuts! If you don't have this, you can substitute it with macademia nuts. Pounded this.

Shallots: provide a sweetness to the rempah. Sent to the food processor.

Turmeric: gives the rempah its gorgeous saffron colour. It stains easily, so be careful! Cut and sent to the food processor and then pounded for a finer finish.

Young Ginger. Cut and sent to the food processor.

Galangal (aka Blue Ginger / Lengkuas). It was tiring cutting this. Cut and sent to the food processor, and then pounded for a finer finish.

Big Red Chillies (de-seeded). Cut and sent to the food processor and then pounded for a finer finish. I also added a small handful of lethal Chilli Padi (Bird's Eye Chilli), with its seeds and all. Pounded the Chilli Padi because of its seeds.

Lemongrass. The key to giving the rempah that citrusy scent and taste. If you have kaffir lime leaves, you can add that in too. Cut and sent to the food processor and then pounded for a finer finish.

Altogether now! Oops, forgot to include garlic in this group shot!

Ugly, stained hand! That's why I don't do manicures. They are wasted on me.

The reward - nutty, gritty rempah! I like a little bite and texture in my rempah :) With this, I cooked:

Fish Curry with Lady's Fingers, brinjal, long beans and carrots!

I am one tired but happy girl :)


  1. I have never heard of rempah..and candlenuts..what artwork! It must feel great to make a batch..and have it..Your finished dish is a treasure since you even made the rempah..You made me laugh..manicures are wasted on me too!!!All the flavors of the rempah appeal to me.

  2. Wow, I totally applaud all the effort! I don't think I'll ever reach this stage; still struggling to learn how to cook :P The curry looks good btw. I love eating bread with piping hot fish head curry. yuMMy!

  3. The curry paste you made is very beautiful!!!

  4. Great look rempah. Now that you have the foundation, can you image the number of recipes you can whip up ... wow!

  5. omg u made your own paste from scratch, how pro ^^ Home-made just look so wonderful and delicious!

  6. wow... this looks very delicious! I like using gresh turmeric, but it stains my hands too :(

  7. I love such spicy pastes that literally give life to any dish. I'm Indian and we have our own combinations, but this one here looks perfect!

  8. La Table de Nana: Oh Monique, if only I could share some with you. It would be my honour.

    ovenhaven: Please give yourself some credit :) Your last attempt at cooking turned out beautifully!

    KennyT: Hey, thanks! And congrats again on your new chinese blog ;)

    Jo: Thank you :) and you are right, the possibilities are plenty. I make sayur lodeh, chicken curry, fish curry and rendang ... all from this base.

    noobcook: Thank you :) I drag my feet and grumble when I have to make it, but after I get to eat it, I am always glad I "persevered". LOL.

    mycookinghut: Thank you :) I am always a walking mess after I finish making rempah.

    Miakoda: Welcome to my blog. Thank you for your kind words. Oh, please do share your recipes if you can! I love dahl curry!

  9. Those are the hands of an Artist, my dear!

  10. "Dazzling golden rempah" oh boy!

  11. I'm like that with mole. I make a giant batch and freeze some for later!
    Those candlenuts look so interesting I don't believe I've ever had one :(
    Great curry, so unique!

  12. Leon: You make me blush.

    JL: Thanks :)

    Marta: Thanks! Candlenuts are quite similar to macademias :)

  13. Thanks for the lesson! I have never seen turmeric in its non-grounded form. Also, how do you know when ginger is young? I am putting you on my blog list. What a lovely person you are!

  14. NInette: I'm glad you found this post "educational", LOL! My pleasure. You flatter me ;P

    Difference between young and old ginger just by looking at it: Young ginger looks "juicy", smooth, lighter in shade and usually damp to the touch. Old ginger is dry, darker, wrinkly, and has a tougher skin. Taste-wise, young ginger is milder and does not have that astringent "bite" that old ones do.

  15. Looks lovely and absolutely delicious!! im ashamed of myself...

  16. Zurin: Don't say that! I feel malu ...

  17. Hi, I kowtow to you. I started making my own rempah when I started making Nonya dishes earlier this year. However, I will never get through the pounding. It takes too long... What I did do,(and I was obsessed about it) was to roam Little India in search for a particular Indian-made food prcoessor that Indian housewives use to make their paste. The result is quite good, you get a paste instead of a combination of chopped spices :-)

  18. This looks absolutely yummmy, I am definitely giving this ago. Can I ask a question about lemongrass coz I have never used it in the rawform. Can you use the whole stalk or only part of it? Thanks.

  19. Lisa, actually the entire stalk can be used. You need to remove the tough outer leaves first. Typically, I use the bottom half of the stalk. Bruise the stalk first. Don't discard the unused portions though. They can be used to flavour soups or used for other dishes. HTH.

  20. I am enjoying reading your blog. The rempah you made looks so yummy. I make my own as well with no exact measurements. I followed the auntie way of measuring my ingredients with a Chinese soup bowl.

    The ingredients in my rempah is very much the same as yours except that I have garlic and some large red onions.

    I must try your version as it looks so nutty with the amount of candle nut you put. Thanks for sharing your recipes.

  21. Hi Anon, thank you for visiting! I also prefer using eyeball and guesstimate measurements. And yes, my rempah is very nutty ... I am nuts about nuts! ;)

  22. Ouch, now you make me craves of Indonesian foods. This is the main spices (maybe bumbu is a better word) that is is usually used in my home to make it. Now I am in US, it is so hard to get the ingredients, no to mention the time to make it. Usually I can make pindang, pindang serani, potato chips (it's true! and it taste so good too), egg with chilli (telor masak cabe), and so many more. Thanks for your post

  23. Hi Ju,

    I was wondering - my recipe book says to use cashews, not candlenuts - would this be authentic and acceptable?

    Thanks :)

  24. Sasha: Hmmm, in southeast asia, candlenuts (buah keras) are very commonly used. I know that they can be subbed with macademias, which cost a lot more but are very similar in taste and oil content. As for cashews, I have never tried them, so I can't comment. But I reckon there's no real harm, given that they are oily and fatty too. HTH.

  25. i did it in about an hour and a half. with blender and the mortar and pestle work as directed. tastes good. mine is a little mild so more chilli if you like it hot. worked well in a prawn soup with shaved lemon rind, salad greens and corriander and was great in the achar achar. thanks very much.

  26. Just wanted to specially say a word of thanks for the amazing recipes you have posted online. Just did my first batch of rempah and followed your recipe exactly, its amazing! =)

  27. Oh, my that looks FABULOUS. Wish I could get fresh galangal like yours. I only find it dried in the US. Turmeric too.... found it fresh exactly once, years ago in the San Francisco farmers market. sigh. Dried ingredients don't pound/taste the same.

  28. Hi. Your step by step recipe is so clear n easy to follow... thank you for putting in so much effort. Is a great one for me who doesn't know how to cook rempah. You have a very big heart to share this recipe. Thank you!

  29. Your rempah looks really good! May I know where to buy fresh turmeric in Singapore. I only see the powdered ones in the spice section. Also, where can I buy candlenuts? Thanks so much for sharing ... :)