If that title led you to expect a sticky-sweet reminiscence of snowy Stateside holiday seasons past, a bit of wistful Christmas nostalgia from an American passing Christmas in a decidedly un-Christmasy land, well -- I'm sorry, but you've come to the wrong place. Living where we do for as long as we have has pretty much cured us of any thought of conjuring a holiday equivalent to what we'd be observing if we were in the States.
We last attempted to 'do' Christmas in Asia in 1996, when we lived in Shanghai. We erected a fake tree in a corner of our living room and paid an ungodly sum for a turkey. The weather, at least, should have cooperated, but the day dawned hazy (not unusual -- the Shanghai skyline never once enjoyed the backdrop of a clear blue sky when we lived there) and dishearteningly warm.
Dave had taken the day off work but the rest of the city was its usual weekday busy-bee self; it wasn't Christmas carols but the sounds of honking and horking that drifted up to our apartment from the street below. It didn't feel like any sort of holiday, let alone the second-biggest holiday of the year (for me, anyway ... Thanksgiving has always felt more important than Christmas).
After rising late and exchanging gifts we wandered the Bund for a while before ending up at one of the city's two new malls, where we celebrated the holiday with the purchase of an air purifier for our bedroom -- not to cleanse the air, but to drown out the 24-hours-a-day racket from the construction site behind our building.
That evening I made my mother's turkey dressing (which is absolutely the world's best, I'm sure -- and why shouldn't it be, when the ingredient list includes two whole sticks of butter?), jammed some in the bird and put the rest in a covered casserole, fired up the oven, and set the timer. But our cooker -- which we hadn't used much up to that point -- hadn't been properly vented when it was installed, and we discovered that the only way to keep the gas flame going was to prop the door open with the handle of a wooden spoon.
Not the most efficient way to bake a 12-pound piece of protein, as I discovered six hours later when I pulled the turkey -- golden in some spots, pale in others, dry at the breast but disturbingly pink at the bone -- out. Mom's stuffing was barely tepid (thank goodness for the casserole -- we reheated it for lunch the next day).
And so we gave up -- on the bird and on pretending to have a real Christmas in places that just aren't real Christmas-y.
But that doesn't mean we close our eyes to the season altogether.
For us the whole gift-ing aspect of Christmas lost its glow years ago. Dave and I both detest shopping, you see, even if (especially if?) it's for each other. And one of us really, really detests wrapping gifts. So we put the money we'd spend on stuff that neither of us needs into two things we enjoy together: travel and/or food.
This year, but for a brief sojourn in George Town, we'll be at home, so over the next week and a half I'll be cooking a few extravagant meals as a nod to the Season and its Excesses. Our 'extravagant' meals will incorporate ingredients more dear than is the norm -- no caviar in this house folks, but perhaps some fresh mussels or a nice cut of American beef -- and rather more rich and bad-for-you than is our habit.
Kicking off this year's Ten (on-and-off) Days of Gluttony: Philippine ulang sa gata, huge prawns cooked in coconut milk.
Two years ago we spent Christmas in Pampanga province, the Philippines, in the old family home of a Filipino friend. By my request, this is what we ate for lunch on Christmas Eve day. It's a dish that for me epitomizes an oft-overlooked characteristic of many Philippine dishes: beautiful ingredients, with minimal embellishments, that star in simple preparations.
For her ulang sa gata Lucia, our host's uber-talented cook, stews freshwater prawns averaging about 6 inches (15 centimeters) in length in lightly seasoned coconut milk until the liquid is reduced to almost nothing but a shallow pool of coconut-scented oil ruddy from the fat in the heads of the shellfish.
As the prawns cook the coconut milk seeps underneath their shells, flavoring the meat. The real reward comes when you separate the prawn's head from its body: out spill delicate coconut milk-and-prawn-fat curds.
And if that's not unctuous enough to qualify as 'of the Season' I don't know what is.
Ulang sa Gata (Philippine Prawns Cooked in Coconut Milk)
This dish is dead simple, requiring not that many ingredients and little technique. But what you must have to make it work is fresh coconut milk (easily made with fresh OR FROZEN grated coconut, the latter available in many Thai groceries) -- or at least a very high-quality coconut cream, such as the one Andrea Nguyen writes about here -- and big, fatty shell-on prawns. Because the shellfish are cooked well past the 'barely-there' point frozen prawns would work; many Asian markets carry prawns like those in the photo above in the freezer case. Female crabs would substitute well or -- if you really want to take this dish over the top -- use a lobster or two instead of prawns (not that you may need more coconut milk).
White rice -- to sop up those prawny coconut curds -- is really all the accompaniment you need, but if you'd like to add a vegetable and want to keep with the Philippine theme try pinakbet, stewed mixed vegetables with bagoong or shrimp paste (substitute Thai shrimp paste if you can't obtain bagoong). Or perhaps follow with an orange, red onion, and butter lettuce salad -- something light and citrusy to chase the richness of the dish.
Note: do NOT stir the dish after the prawns are added, so that the red oil from the fat in the shellfish can rise to the surface of the liquid; this tells you the prawns are done. Chilies are left whole so that they don't add heat to the dish as they cook -- diners seeking spiciness can cut the chilies on their plate and eat with the prawn and rice.
How many this dish serves really depends on the size of the generosity of the host and the size of the prawns. Prepare to get dirty -- for these prawns hands are the utensil of choice.
About 2.6 lbs (approx 1.2 kilos) large shell-on prawns -- say 6 or 7 big ones
10 cloves garlic
1 red shallot, thinly sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
5-6 mild long green chilies (cayenne), washed but stems -- or at least caps -- left on
1 3/4 cup thick coconut milk or coconut milk mixed with coconut cream
freshly ground black pepper
scant 1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp patis (Philippine fish sauce - substitute Thai or Vietnamese - a lighter sauce is preferred), or more to taste
1/2 Tbsp white sugar
1 Tbsp white vinegar
- Pound the garlic cloves to rough shreds in a mortar, or very roughly slice.
- Heat oil in medium-sized heavy pot (eg. Le Creuset) over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and stir constantly until it starts to brown and crisp, about 2-3 mins.
- Add onions and shallot, stir once or twice, then add coconut milk.
- Add fish sauce, two very generous pinches of black pepper, sugar, and vinegar. DO NOT STIR.
- Bring the coconut milk to a boil. Taste for seasoning and add a splash more fish sauce if necessary.
- When the entire surface of the coconut milk is covered with bubbles lay the prawns into the pot side-by-side, and then in a second layer if necessary. Lay the chilies on top. Don't worry if the prawns are not completely submerged in coconut milk, as long as the milk is touching the top layer of prawns. DO NOT STIR THE PRAWNS under.
- Bring the liquid to a brisk simmer and cover the pan. After about 8 minutes remove the cover and baste the shrimp with the coconut milk, but do not stir.
- Continue to simmer the shrimp with the cover off, basting occasionally as the liquid reduces. When a reddish oil appears on the surface of the coconut milk the prawns are done. There should be a little thickened liquid in the bottom of the pot.
- Serve the prawns -- and chilies, if desired -- with rice.