GREAT HOME COOKS : Malay Way: Agak-Agak

A stream of golden batter swirls in a delicate pattern onto a sizzling skillet. Seconds later, Norani Nasir peels a mesh-like pancake from the searing-hot pan. She is making a stack of roti jala to serve with her rich, saucy coconut milk-based chicken curry.

"It's one of our favorite dishes for high tea in Malaysia," she says.

These lacy-looking crepes-- roti , a Hindi word for bread, and jala , Malay for fishing net--typifies the cultural interweavings that make up Malaysia's cuisine. With its South Indian-influenced curries, its Chinese-inspired noodle dishes and its many culinary similarities to Indonesia, Thailand and even Vietnam, Malaysia clearly deserves its sobriquet "The Crossroads of Asia."

The cuisine is full of surprises--you even find occasional European touches such as the high tea Nasir mentioned, a heritage from the days of British rule.

All this diversity makes food shopping easy for Nasir, who recently moved to San Marino from Malaysia. She says that though the Los Angeles region has no strictly Malaysian markets, she finds the ingredients for the dishes her family loves at markets that cater to people from other Southeast Asian countries.

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As she swirls more roti batter into the pan, Nasir explains that her family is living here temporarily while her husband is on assignment as an adviser to Malaysian students in Los Angeles. Already, her reputation as a great cook has started to spread throughout the L. A.-area Malaysian community. And as head of the hospitality committee for Perwakilan, a Malaysian women's social club, she and other volunteer cooks organize banquets for community holiday parties and receptions for dignitaries, such as Malaysia's secretary of state.

Cooking wasn't always a passion for Nasir. "After high school, I reluctantly decided I had better learn to cook so I could get married," she confesses. In typical Malay style, she perfected each dish by the see-and-copy method. Learning to handle the batu lesong-- a granite mortar and pestle--was essential. After all, the ground spice pastes called rempahs are the absolute soul of Malay cooking.

"I was living with my auntie while my parents worked in Singapore and she let me follow her around the kitchen," Nasir says. In those days, cooking traditions were handed down from one generation to another without using printed recipes. Measuring cups and spoons were never standard kitchen equipment. Everyone cooked by agak-agak , a term that is best translated as "estimate and guess."

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At that time, Kota Tinggi, Nasir's home town, was a sleepy place. It's located in Johor, peninsular Malaysia's southernmost state, and the equatorial climate and easy-going, semi-agrarian lifestyle made for very pleasant living. Although stores sold staples and Indian shops made prepared mixtures of freshly ground spices for curries, most foods were bought at the old-fashioned pasar besar , or central market. This was a bazaar-like affair with stalls run by local entrepreneurs where hard bargains were driven with the fast-talking vendors over fish or piles of bananas and vegetables.

The market's pork stalls were always separate from the fish and poultry areas because Muslim Malays do not eat pork. The meat they use must also have been butchered in a religiously sanctioned way. (Now Nasir's husband gets their halal meat--the Islamic equivalent of kosher--at a halal butcher on Vermont).

As Nasir grew up, Kota Tinggi moved into modern times along with the rest of urban Malaysia. In the new "flood-free zone," people lived in modern houses instead of the classical Malay kampung homes built on stilts. Practical though the traditional houses were for keeping things cool--to say nothing of keeping them dry during the monsoons--some people preferred modern dwellings. "Our kitchen was equipped with gas, but some people still had charcoal stoves at home," Nasir remembers. Shopping became more modernized too. Shops stocked canned coconut milk and packets of mixed spices just as you find in Malaysia's supermarkets today.

Nasir grew up shuttling back and forth between Johor and Singapore, which is just a short drive by causeway across the Johor straits. If her cooking seems similar to Singaporean Malay food it's no surprise since the regions, though now politically separate, have been culturally linked for centuries. The dishes in both areas lack the blast-furnace chile heat of many other Malay cooking styles.

Ask about her favorite dishes and Nasir has a hard time choosing. Finally, she decides that roti jala and laksa are her family's favorites. The latter, a rice noodle soup dish, is the Malay equivalent of spaghetti in meat sauce--just about everyone eats it. Nasir has her own version and it is, of course, Johor-style, a rich coconut milk broth with a hint of chiles, a little sour tamarind and a garnish of fresh herbs and vegetables. It is very different from its more famous relative, Penang-style laksa based on a clear, chile-hot sour tamarind broth.

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When she moved to the United States, Nasir brought all sorts of non-perishable ingredients with her. But now that she's explored the Asian markets of the San Gabriel Valley she's beginning to find more ingredients like belacan and petis udang , two fermented shrimp preparations used as seasoning.

"I get almost everything at either Hawaii Market, Hong Kong Market or 99 Ranch. They usually have all kinds of vegetables like daun pisang (banana leaf), sawi (mustard greens) and brinjal (eggplant)."

Fresh herbs? "No problem," she says. There is daun selas , a minty-tasting Southeast Asian-style basil, and daun padanus , the broad fragrant leaves of the screw-pine (pandanus), which flavor desserts. Nasir reports she can even buy fresh petis , an odorous tree-grown bean that most non-Asians find hard to take.

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A glance around Nasir's kitchen reveals crock-pots, a microwave and other cookware that is becoming as popular in urban Malaysia as it is here. And lately, she's been known to work from written recipes exchanged with women from her Perwakilan club or from magazines. Even so, she hasn't given up on her old-fashioned mortar. Occasionally she uses it because it smooths out certain rempahs better than her blender ever could. And when she tries a recipe, the agak-agak method of her traditional cooking often comes in handy, for it really is an excellent way to perfect the taste of a dish.

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The easiest way to get the lacy effect that Nasir does for her roti jala is to use the tool the Malays usee, a special four-hole cup that releases several streams of batter at once into the hot oil. Unfortunately, the tool isn't easy to find in the Southland. You can get the same effect, however, by puncturing holes in the bottom of an aluminum foil muffin cup or a foam coffee cup. Don't make the holes too thin. They should be the size of standard knitting yarn.

Another option: It is said that some Malay cooks simply dip their hand into the batter and allow it to trail off their fingers into the pan.

The roti themselves are the main part of the meal. Malaysian-style chicken curry serves as a sort of dip to flavor the pancakes. Fold the finished roti into quarters like triangles to serve.

ROTI JALA

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

1 cup water

2 eggs

Oil

Sift 2 cups flour into mixing bowl with salt. Sift remaining 1 cup flour into separate bowl and set each bowl aside.

Blend milk, water and eggs in large bowl until smooth. Gradually beat in flour-salt mixture. Batter should cling to wooden spoon. Add additional sifted flour, if needed.

Heat 8- or 9-inch non-stick skillet and film lightly with oil. When pan is hot, scoop about 1/2 cup of batter into punctured cup and swirl in circles onto pan to form lacy pancake covering about 2/3 of surface. Allow pancake to set before peeling away from pan. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

263 calories; 435 mg sodium; 74 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 46 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.17 gram fiber.

MALAYSIAN-STYLE CHICKEN CURRY

5 cloves garlic

8 shallots, halved

1 (1-inch) piece ginger root, sliced

1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon Malaysian-style hot curry powder

1/4 cup oil

1 (3 1/2-pound) chicken cut onto 12 to 16 pieces

2 (13 1/2-ounce) cans coconut milk

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

Roti Jala

Puree garlic, shallots and ginger in blender or food processor or with mortar and pestle. Mix in curry powder.

Heat oil in large, deep skillet. Add garlic-curry mixture. Cook over medium heat about 4 minutes, until mixture is fragrant. Add chicken and fry, turning several times to coat all chicken with curry.

Pour in coconut milk. Over medium-low heat slowly bring mixture to simmer while lifting and pouring ladles full of coconut milk back onto itself in pot. This step is important to ensure even heating of milk and to avoid separation of coconut oil.

Cook chicken about 45 minutes or until chicken is tender. Add salt.

Serve each portion in wide soup bowl with several Roti Jala on side. Eat by dipping roti into sauce. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving, without Roti Jala, contains about:

377 calories; 1,268 mg sodium; 27 mg cholesterol; 53 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 2.77 grams fiber.

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