Vegan Indonesian Opor Ayam

You could say that opor ayam is an Indonesian dish of braised chicken in the coconut curry sauce. (Ayam, say AYE-am = chicken.) When I’m trying to simplify the description, I tell people that it’s an Indonesian curry dish.

I was born and raised in the States, so I grew up eating opor ayam only at Indonesian gatherings, like weddings and potlucks. I’m sure I had it during one of my handful of visits to Indonesia, of course. My mom would occasionally make it, but I’m almost positive she always used a flavor packet instead of making it from scratch.

Fast forward to living in rural Montana. I have a few of these same flavor packets on hand, but my mind crinkles its nose when it reads through the ingredient list full of all sorts of unnatural things. Earlier this year, I had a real hankering to make some and ended up scouring the internet for a recipe that sounded right to me. There are many, many recipes out there for opor ayam but I finally came across one that I liked.

I always feel a bit ridiculous when I put the words “vegan” and “ayam (chicken)” in the same sentence. Just like with another Indonesian chicken dish that I satisfyingly “veganized”, I’m sure you’re wondering how I did the same to this one. Growing up, the opor ayam that I had always included potatoes — so, okay, that’s easy, let’s put in more potatoes. Also, curry dishes always go well with tofu since it soaks up flavor like it’s nobody’s business. (Score if you can get your hands on freshly fried tofu at an Asian market. I personally hate frying tofu so I hardly ever do.) If I have tempeh on hand (which is rare), I include it. To make it more hearty and a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish, I include canned chickpeas. (Bonus: now you have leftover aquafaba from which to make all sorts of vegan delicacies and savory foods!)

Like with a lot of Indonesian recipes, there are some key players that simply cannot be substituted: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, and galangal. If you’ve never had it before, you probably can get away with making opor without the galangal, although I can’t imagine the dish without it. There are a few other items that a traditional Indonesian would chastise me for leaving out (like candlenut, Indonesian bay leaf, oil) but the dish doesn’t suffer drastically without them, not to mention that you can’t easily find some of them here.

I have made all sorts of different people try this dish — from those who already love Asian dishes to those who had never heard of curry before — and all of them thought it was tasty. If you can get your hands on the ingredients, this is worth making!

Vegan Opor Ayam, an Indonesian curry

4 very large servings, easily 6 servings since it’s so hearty, adapted from Dana’s Kitchen

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1.5 inch galangal, (mostly) peeled and bruised
  • 1 inch ginger, peeled and bruised
  • 2-3 stalks of fresh lemongrass, bruised
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 medium-sized potatoes, diced into 3/4 to 1 inch cubes
  • 1 carrot, thinly sliced
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained (about 400 grams)
  • 2 cans (or about 28 ounces or 800 mL) of coconut milk
  • 1 cup of water
  • 3.5 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1 package (or about 400 grams) of tofu, drained and cubed
  • OPTIONAL: Bawang goreng (fried shallots)
  • OPTIONAL: Green onions or scallions, finely sliced

Bumbu/Spice Paste:

  • 1 whole onion, cut into chunks
  • 5 garlic cloves, smashed or roughly chopped
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon tumeric powder (or 1 inch fresh tumeric, peeled)
  • 2 teaspoons coriander powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin

DIRECTIONS:

Add all the bumbu/spice paste ingredients to a food processor with a splash of water. Process until it becomes a somewhat runny paste, adding more water as needed. Place the spice paste into a large soup pot and add the galangal, ginger, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves; stir fry on medium-high to high heat with small splashes of water as needed (for oil-free cooking) until the kaffir lime leaves change from their fresh and bright green to a “cooked” color, about 5 minutes.

Add the potatoes, carrot, chickpeas, coconut milk, water, salt, sugar, and pepper. Gently stir and raise the heat to reach a boil, then quickly bring it down to a simmer. Cover with a lid but leave it cracked so the liquid can reduce. Simmer until the potatoes are tender and cooked through, about 15 minutes. 5 minutes before this, add the cubed tofu; if not fried, gently turn it into the liquid so it can pick up the flavors.

At the point when the potatoes are cooked, the liquid shouldn’t be as runny as before. If it still is, take the lid completely off and let moderately simmer in 5 minute increments till you’re satisfied with the reduced liquid consistency. Taste for salt and add more if necessary.

Before serving, you may remove the galangal, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass, or you can leave them to continue seasoning the dish. Serve with cooked rice, topped with bawang goreng and/or green onions.

Recipe Notes:

  • The original recipe calls for 1 kilogram of chicken. This is easy enough to replace with chickpeas and tofu! If you don’t like the former or latter, then bulk up on the potatoes.
  • Whenever a recipe called for “bruising” something, I used to scratch my head wondering what to use, Yes, you can use the flat side of a chef’s knife, but I finally discovered the perfect kitchen item that I hardly use for it’s original purpose: the rolling pin. It’s true, I pretty much only use my rolling pin for bruising vegetables instead of rolling out doughs! Oh, it works so well.
  • There are many different ways to prepare lemongrass for cooking. In rare cases, you can chop it super fine (difficult to do) and incorporate it into the meal. Most of time, I’ve seen and used following three preparations after removing the dried portions of the lemongrass: (1) cut the base into diagonal chunks, (2) cut the entire lemongrass into 3 or 4 long columns then bruise, or, (3) if long enough, bruise the entire lemongrass and tie into a knot. I like to use the latter (it’s pretty!) but any of these work just fine.
  • Thankfully I can find fresh lemongrass when we go to “the big city” for our usual stocking up of supplies. If they’re really skinny, then 3 lemongrass stalks is best; if they’re more plump, then 2 of them is enough.
  • Right after adding the salt, sugar, and pepper, it won’t taste like the final product. It is necessary to let the flavors simmer and meld together. Even after letting it cook a while, I’ve accidentally tasted and salted more before letting the curry reduce further — next thing I knew, the final product was too salty. (Oops!) Make sure to only add the extra salt at the very end when you’re happy with the consistency of the liquid.
  • If you’re using water-packed tofu, it’ll pick up the flavors even better if you drain and gently squeeze the water out. If you haven’t done this before, it’s easy but takes a little forethought! Gently wrap the block of tofu in paper towels or an actual trustworthy towel, place between two flat surfaces (cutting board, wide plate, pot),  put something heavy on top (usually canned food for me), and let it sit for a few minutes at the least. (Side note: if you’re not using the tofu now, you can freeze it for later, whether for frying or not.)
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Vegan soto ayam, Indonesian comfort food

In a very generic sense, consider soto ayam (say: “SO-tow AYE-am”) an Indonesian chicken noodle soup. But better than the “American” version. And vegan. And no-added oil. And (shh) less complex to make than Vietnamese pho.

Of course, since my version has no chicken, you could call it soto mie (i.e. noodle soup; say: “SO-tow MEE-eh”) but with the flavors usually found in soto ayam. Okay, never mind, I’ll just call it vegan soto ayam.

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I grew up eating this soup from a packet and had a hankering for it a month or so ago. I have some of the same brand Indofood packets that I could use to make it again…but after reading the ingredients on the back (oil, shrimp paste, seasoning enhancers, etc), I decided I could figure it out myself and make my own version. Again, it might not be exactly the same as what an Indonesian in Indonesia may do, but I was very pleased at how much it reminded me of the versions I had during my childhood!

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In my no-added-oil and vegan version, the soup base (aka “bumbu“) is flavored by a fresh paste of ginger, galangal, onion, lots of garlic, with turmeric for color, and coriander and fresh black pepper. Then you sauté it with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and this amazing scent fills your kitchen, your household. After that, you can have it as a clear broth or, if you’re feeling indulgent, replace some of this with coconut milk. Instead of chicken, I actually use chickpeas (store brand chickpeas tend to have a lot of harder ones in it). While there are many different ways soto ayam is served that is based on region, I grew up eating this dish with sliced boiled eggs and krupuk (fried tapioca “crackers”). Instead I replaced these items with many other fresh condiments and, if you want to live on the edge, plain potato chips. (Trust me on the latter.) Lastly, add a little sour element with a squeeze of lime!

The hardest ingredients to get in a rural area are the galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass. If you can’t find the galangal, the ginger alone will work good enough (especially if you’ve never had this dish before — you probably won’t know the difference). The kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass are crucial, in my opinion!  Don’t ever think about leaving them out.

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Vegan Soto Ayam, Indonesian “Chicken” Noodle Soup

Serves 4 in very large bowls, otherwise 6 satisfying servings

INGREDIENTS:

Bumbu/Spice Paste:

  • 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and coarsely sectioned
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of galangal, peeled and coarsely sectioned (OR 1 teaspoon powder)
  • Half of a medium sized onion (see notes)
  • 5-10 garlic cloves (roughly 1/3 cup), peeled and roughly smashed
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander (or similar amount of seeds, crushed and ground)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Soup Base:

  • 1-2 lemongrass stalks, cut on the bias in 2-3″ long sections
  • 4-6 kaffir lime leaves
  • Oil as needed (optional)
  • 8-10 cups of water or vegetable broth
    • If feeling rich, you can replace up to half of this with canned coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice, add more to taste after this (rebalance it with more salt if needed)

Accompaniments: (* = key items, in my opinion)

  • Glass rice or bean noodles (aka vermicelli), cooked*
  • Chickpeas*
  • Bean sprouts (an ingredient I grew up eating this with but it’s difficult to find)
  • Bok choy, cleaned and sliced
  • Mushrooms, tofu, tempeh, seitan
  • Green, red, or Napa cabbage, thinly shredded* (at least one!)
  • Celery, thinly sliced*
  • Green onion, chopped*
  • Plain potato chips*
  • Lime wedges*
  • Bawang goreng (fried shallots)
  • Sriracha or Sambal Oelek (or similar asian chili sauce)

DIRECTIONS:

Add all the bumbu/spice paste ingredients to a food processor or blender and add a splash of water. Process until it becomes a somewhat runny paste, adding more water as needed.  Place the spice paste into the soup pot and add the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves (and optional oil); stir fry on medium-high to high heat with small splashes of water  as needed (for oil-free cooking) until the kaffir lime leaves change from their fresh and bright green to a “cooked” color.

Add the water/broth, sugar, and salt to the soup pot; let simmer for 10 minutes. Turn the heat to as low as possible and add the lime juice. Taste and add salt or more lime juice as needed. (Careful with the lime juice!) You can remove the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves (they’re not for eating) now or later after serving.

Place any chosen accompaniments in a bowl and add the hot soup broth to it. Top with further accompaniments as wanted. Don’t forget the hot sauce!

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Recipe Notes:

  • Try to get your hands on galangal (sometimes, called Thai ginger). If not fresh, I’m pretty sure you can get away with powder if you can find it. If you can’t find any version of it though, it’ll still be tasty.
  • I think more of the traditional recipes call for shallots and I’ve used red onions as a substitute in the past. Once I used too much of the red onion and (since I don’t strain the broth like others may do) it turned the broth color a little grey. If you can, use a white or yellow onion for esthetics’ sake.
  • I used to use one whole onion, but with the amount of garlic used, you’re more like to end up with, well, a lot of…flatulence. So! I change the recipe to only use half of an onion and it still works well.
  • If you get your hands on a little fresh turmeric root, do it! I did this once with approximately half a thumb size, about a 1″ cube.
  • I don’t recall having this soup with coconut milk but I’ve seen it and can’t imagine it’d be bad. I’ve simply always had it with the clear broth and love it that way!
  • In addition to the obvious glass noodles and chickpeas, I try to aim for at minimum four fresh additives every time. Most recently, we made it with: napa cabbage, red cabbage, bean sprouts, and green onions!
  • If you can’t find those glass-like noodles, any kind of thin rice noodle will work.