Food author Faith Heller Willinger has had the great fortune of calling Florence home for the last thirty years. (If only we were all so fortunate!) In her latest release, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, she has created a gorgeous hybrid food lover’s tome which is part cookbook, part travel guide and part old-school Facebook. She shares her love for Italy and the friends she’s met there (each anecdote is illustrated with a watercolour portrait painted by her sister); offers restaurant, accommodation, and all manner of other gastronomy-related recommendations (replete with addresses, phone numbers, website URLs and email addresses); then slips in a recipe or two from (or inspired by) each friend. Mind you, we’re talking about Arrigo Cipriani’s shrimp sandwiches, the Illy family’s shakerato espresso, and Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri’s (the brother and sister team behind Amadei) Tuscan chocolate sauce here. It’s wonderful getting to know the people behind the great restaurants, hotels, vineyards and brands we’ve already grown to respect. Faith’s elegant prose makes it a joy to read. And we are certainly grateful for her sharing her Rolodex with us. So, when Cathy over at A Blithe Palate and her co-host Ivonne invited us to participate in their blog event inspired by Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, we were happy to oblige
Participants (from what I understand) are given the option of writing about a recipe that has been inspired or given to them by someone or that they would like to share with someone special. I’ve chosen the former. Not too long ago, a chef-friend of mine and S’s made a dish that had me hooked from the first bite. Actually, I was pretty excited from the name alone, “laksa fisherman’s pie”. I love a good laksa lemak (meaning the Johor or Singaporean style of laksa which has been made with coconut milk). I’m also quite a big fan of a good fish pie. Put the two together and call me a happy camper.
S and I had the pleasure of working with Chef “IL” when we helped him design a menu for his new gastrobar. We were especially impressed that this charming, young self-trained chef was extremely versatile, able to cook some really yummy dishes from a variety of cuisines, from Malay to Mexican. We also liked how open he was to both new ideas and criticism. While we co-created several delish dishes, the laksa fisherman’s pie was purely IL’s idea. And it was amazing. It was also a pretty simple dish — not so much in terms of execution but in terms of conceptualization. Essentially, it’s puff pastry over a medley of seafood and other ingredients, served in a rich laksa broth.
Unfortunately, because of a couple of unforeseen events, IL’s not currently serving the laksa fisherman’s pie at the bar whose kitchens he’s running. Unable to get my new favourite pie whenever I want, I’ve been suffering from some pretty serious withdrawal symptoms.
In honour of IL, and because I really, really needed a laksa fisherman’s pie fix, S and I decided to try making our own version. My darling wife insisted that we make the laksa from scratch. She wanted to prove to me just how much better a home-made laksa was than the obviously mass-produced Katong laksas now sold all over the island (which I have to admit I am rather fond of). Neither of us had ever made our own laksa rempah from scratch before. After looking at over a half dozen recipes, we decided to adapt J’s, of Kuidaore fame. While time-consuming, it was highly rewarding. Not only was the process of making the rempah with an old-fashioned mortar and pestle really cool, the eventual laksa tasted better than any I’ve had in a really long time.
Laksa, like many local dishes, is very individual, i.e. everyone has their own personal preferences. When S and I made our rounds around Tekka Market, hunting down ingredients for our pie, we spoke with many of our favourite suppliers. When they asked us what we were buying supplies for and we told them we were attempting to make our own laksa, each one offered their own helpful hints and advice on what ingredients to use. It was interesting that while many of the offered recipes were similar, some had some rather unique additions and ingredients.
As mentioned, making a fisherman’s pie the way we did (using the below recipe) takes quite a bit of time. But it is worth it. This is a rich, hearty, and savory feast that anyone with a penchant for Southeast Asian flavours and seafood should enjoy. We plan on making this for many friends and of course serving it to IL someday soon. Hopefully, he’ll like our version as much as we love his.
Laksa Fisherman’s Pie
makes 8 pies
750g large tiger prawns
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1.5 liters water or stock
20 shallots, peeled and minced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
10 dried red chillies, deseeded, soaked till soft, drained and minced
10 candlenuts, chopped
3 lemongrass stalks, tender inner stems only, minced
Fresh turmeric, 2 inch piece, peeled and minced
Galangal, 2 inch piece, peeled and minced
1/2 gingerflower, outer petals removed and finely minced
1 tablespoon belachan (shrimp paste)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
6 tablespoons corn oil
4 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked till soft and drained
800ml coconut milk, preferably fresh
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons gula melaka (palm sugar)
raw prawns, shelled and de-veined (left from making prawn stock)
400g cod, cut into bite-size pieces
8 scallops, halved or quartered
Large handful of beansprouts
2 fried fishcakes, sliced thickly
2 taupok (deep-fried tofu puffs) squares, sliced thickly
4 small eggs
Handful of finely shredded laksa leaves (daun kesom)
Approximately 2 sheets pre-rolled store bought puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
For the prawn stock: Peel and de-vein the prawns. Set aside the peeled prawns. You’ll only use the shells and heads for the stock. Heat the oil over a medium flame in a large pot. Fry the prawn heads and shells until they turn orange. Add the water (we actually used chicken stock that had been used to braise pork belly) and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer gently for 1 hour. Strain the stock and set it aside.
For the rempah: Wrap the shrimp paste in a small square of aluminium foil and toast it over a small flame in a dry pan until aromatic. This should take 2-3 minutes. Unwrap and set aside. Toast the coriander seeds over a small flame in a dry pan until aromatic. This takes about 60 seconds. Grind the seeds into a fine powder. Using your mortar and pestle, start to make your paste. Incorporate the rempah ingredients, starting with the shallots and following the order that they are in above. Ensure that each ingredient is thoroughly assimilated before adding the next. The shrimp paste and coriander powder should be the last two ingredients added to the paste.
For the laksa sauce: Grind the softened dried shrimp to a fine powdery consistency (we found some lovely tiger prawn dried shrimp at Tekka Market). Set aside. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium flame. The oil should ripple slightly. The rempah needs to sizzle upon contact with the hot oil. Add the rempah and fry for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. The paste needs to darken considerably. Add the ground dried shrimp and stir for 1 minute. Add the prawn stock, coconut milk and salt. Crumble the palm sugar into the sauce. Bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered for a few minutes. Add more salt or sugar to taste. Turn off heat, cover, and set aside.
For the pie fillers: If you have the ingredients handy, top the peeled prawns with a few sprigs of fresh coriander, some young ginger juliennes and a splash of Chinese cooking wine (optional). Steam the prawns until they turn pink (just a few minutes).
Cook the cod in browned butter (beurre noisette) and sear the scallops in sesame oil. Blanch the beansprouts, fish cake and taupok in boiling water.
Hard-boil the eggs, peel them and quarter or halve them.
To finish: It would’ve been nice to make our own puff pastry, but we didn’t have the luxury of time. Follow the instructions on the puff pastry packaging. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celsius.
Fill each heat-proof bowl with equal portions of pie-filler and garnish with laksa leaf. Top with laksa sauce. Top each bowl with enough puff pastry to cover it completely and brush the top with some of the beaten egg. Insert the bowls into the oven and bake until the puff pastry is golden brown (approximately 20 minutes). Serve immediately.