Malaysian-Style Turmeric Salmon with Crispy Skin: Restaurant Cooking at Home

By Charleen - June 20, 2020

Nearly three years ago, I went on a culinary pilgrimage to see Grace Young demo one of her recipes in Brooklyn. We met up at Aux Epices, an amazing Malaysian-French bistro run by Chef Mei Chau. Among the highlights was this delectable salmon perched on a plinth of rice surrounded by a rich deep yellow sauce. Now, Mei Chau has graciously shared the recipe for this signature dish in a fantastic Zoom cooking lession, co-hosted by Grace Young and the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)

Malaysian-Style Turmeric Salmon at Aux Epices restaurant in the NY Chinatown

A few years ago, I discovered Malaysian food at a tiny slip of a restaurant, full of happy sounds as diners enjoyed each other’s company in the presence of rich, complex and tantalizing flavors. Aux Epices, the name of the restaurant, literally means "of the spices." Chef Mei Chau is Chinese-Malaysian in heritage, and she originally moved to America to pursue art training. Together with her photographer husband Marc Kaczmarek, she created a warm and inviting Malaysian-French bistro, where she works a rich palette of color, smells and taste inspired by the fresh ingredients from Chinatown markets outside her door. 

My husband, a friend and I were on a pilgrimage to learn more about Chinese cooking. As part of the Facebook group Wok Wednesdays, we were learning how to cook using the most versatile, yet humbly inexpensive, cookware invented over the past 2000 years. Guided by the stir-fry guru and wok evangelist, Grace Young, we were learning how to make countless, delicious, better-than-restaurant-quality dishes at home. To justify the long drive to New York City, we would attend a special exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) entitled Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America in addition to the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) exhibits in Brooklyn on Chinese restaurants and the Wok in America. MOFAD was sponsoring a stir-fry demo for Chinese Trinidadian Shrimp with Rum, and we could not pass up the chance to meet Grace in person!

Chef Mei had contributed several Malaysian seafood dishes to Grace's most recent book, Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge. So we decided to meet up with Wok Wednesday friends for lunch at Aux Epices. Where else can you get delicious Asian food plus French tarts for dessert?
Other dishes we enjoyed at Aux Epices. Chinese Broccoli stir-fried with fresh garlic and soy sauce drizzle; Rendang Lamb with roasted coconut, blue ginger, curry spices; Kuala Lumpur-style Seafood Laksa with shrimp, mussels, salmon, calamari, tofu, eggplant, bean sprouts and Udon noodles in a yellow coconut curry broth; French Pear Tart. Not shown: Green Mango Jicama salad, Malacca Laksa in red curry sauce,  French apple tart.

Eating Malaysian is like having all of your favorite Asian cuisines rolled up into one. Whether it is Indian curries, Chinese vegetables or noodles, or hot Indonesian sambals that you desire, you can have all that and more with additional influences from the Middle East and several European countries including Portugal (source of the egg custard tarts enjoyed in Hong Kong). 

Like all businesses in Manhattan's Chinatown, Aux Epices has been struggling since January 2020 due to coronavirus fears. MOCA, which has itself not yet recovered from a devastating fire affecting archived materials that collectively tell the story of more than 150 years of Chinese immigration in the US, is hosting a variety of digital exhibits and Zoom based activities. As part of the new MOCA Cooks series, Chef Mei graciously shared her signature Turmeric Salmon recipe. This engaging session touched upon Malaysian methods for preserving foods, a cook-along with lots of practical tips, Mei's work feeding elderly residents and essential workers, and Grace's mini-documentary interviews that comprise the Coronavirus Chinatown Stories project.

The flavors, colors and textures in this dish are truly amazing. After a rocky audiovisual start, Chef Mei shared her tips for making this dish so clearly that my husband (who bakes, but does not normally cook), was able to create a truly wonderful birthday dinner for me! 
Malaysian-Style Turmeric Salmon with Crispy Skin.

The Sauce (Rempah kuning)

The first step to making this dish is to make the Malaysian spice paste that forms the basis for the delicious rich yellow sauce. The major ingredients in this paste are fresh turmeric root, fresh ginger root and lemon grass, with an onion and some red peppers. A properly cooked rempah -- or spice paste -- not only balances several strong flavors into perfect harmony, but also is dehydrated to the state that it can be stored without refrigeration. Of course, Mei and Grace recommend storing it in the refrigerator, where it can last for a long time, ready to be used as a starting point for some fabulous dishes.
MOCA personnel and two highly inspirational women!!!

I was fortunate to have sliced, frozen turmeric root in my freezer. I had won some ginger and tumeric plants in a Wok Wednesdays contest, but did not know what to do with the turmeric. Unlike ginger, which I enjoy eating raw, pickled or cooked, I found I did not like the taste of tumeric on its own.  So, I sliced it up, pickling half of it and freezing the other half until such time that I could find a recipe that used fresh, rather than powdered, turmeric.  I am so happy that I did not throw it out, but now I wish I had tried eating the leaves or using the leaves to wrap grilled, baked or steamed foods. 

Mei starts off by showing how to handle lemon grass. I could not find lemon grass, so I substituted 2 tsp fresh lemon zest plus two kaffir lime leaves to add a bit of grassiness. 
Chef Mei explaining that one large lemongrass is equivalent to 2-3 small ones.

Mei spends about half an hour cooking down this paste to the proper consistency -- like loose mashed potatoes. Importantly, the key to knowing when the paste is done is to cook it until you can see oil separating from the paste in the bubbles and at the edges.  This must be what Indian recipes mean when the instructions say to cook a tomatoey curry mixture "until the oil comes out." I never quite understood it before, but Mei demonstrated this in her lesson perfectly. Be sure to use the full amount of oil. Like in pesto, the oil plays an important role in preserving the freshness of the mixture, absorbing lots of flavor and, it turns out, preventing the turmeric from staining everything!
Top: Ingredients. Bottom: When the sauce darkens and the oil comes out around bubbles and at the edges, the spice paste is sufficiently cooked. Keep all of the flavorful oil!

The sauce for the salmon is quite simply 1/3 tumeric-ginger paste, 1/3 coconut milk (Mei recommends Aroy-D in the black cans that are about 60% coconut puree), and 1/3 water or broth. Once you have the rempah (and rice) made, the dish itself comes together really quickly while the salmon cooks. 

Other Wok Wednesdays members report using the paste to marinade chicken kebabs, tossed into a shrimp and bell pepper stir-fry, and as a sauce to accompany grilled chicken thighs. 

The Crispy Skin Salmon

If you are using frozen salmon filets, be sure to thaw the salmon thoroughly. When rinsing them off, make sure they are flexible without a frozen core. Grace recommends allowing them to warm up from the refrigerator for at least 20 min. During this time, I advise wrapping the salmon in dry dish towels to make sure the skin gets nice and dry.  This is crucial for the crispy skin that some believe to be the best part of pan-fried salmon (like Peking duck, it can be all about the skin).

Like Mei's mother and Grace's mother, my mother sometimes salted the heated pan before adding the oil and then the food. I never knew why, but Mei says it helps keep the salmon from sticking. In any case, from a practical standpoint, it made it easy to salt both sides of the salmon without getting your hands dirty. 

As with the lesson learned from my father in making our family recipe for Suzhou style Double-Gold chow mein noodle cakes, it is very important to leave the salmon undisturbed for the first three minutes or so after you carefully lay it down in the hot pan. This allows the skin to crisp up, and when it is ready, it will release from the pan. Trying to move it too early results in the tasty browned part separating from the fish and remaining stuck to the pan.  
Once the skin is crisped, the salmon releases from the pan and flips easily.

During those three minutes, you can mix the sauce ingredients (1 fl. oz each of paste, coconut milk and water for each serving) and let that warm on the stove. For a bit of green to go with the dish, you can garnish with cilantro sprigs.  I found it convenient to microwave-steam some broccoli for 3 minutes. Or you can use microgreens, stir-fry some bok choy, or grill some asparagus to accompany the dish. 
Velvety rich sauce, tender salmon, crisp skin, green broccoli and fresh cilantro for a perfect feast!

There was some debate as to whether the salmon should be plated with the skin-side up or the flesh-side up. Mei ended up doing one each way. I strongly urge plating with the skin-side up so you have more time to enjoy the crispy skin! 
My daughter cooking the last three salmon filets in the freezer.

This dish was so delicious and easy, that a few days later, my teenage daughter successfully made the salmon and sauce for dinner, serving it with leftover rice and broccoli!
My daughter's version of the dish.

And about a week later, I used the paste thinned with a little noodle cooking water to make an impromptu Father's Day lunch, using odds and ends in the freezer. It took only 27 minutes from "Maybe we should eat something before going on our big hike..." to three full plates of delicious food. 
Malaysian turmeric shrimp with wok-charred broccoli, charred corn off the cob and pickled ginger, served over udon. 


Tips:  

🐾 For those of you that missed Grace and Mei's MOCA Cooks class, the video can be accessed on the MOCA FB page, or by searching through the recent MOCA videos on Vimeo.  

Here is the link to the recipe for Aux Epices Malaysian-Style Turmeric Salmon.

I suggest watching the video so you can hear what she says about the sauce consistency. The audio starts off rough, but it gets better!


🐾 To learn more about Chef Mei Chau, check out her first podcast with Rozanne Gold for "One Woman Kitchen."


🐾 Please consider supporting the Museum of Chinese in America, NYC! 

MOCA has stepped up to address the coronavirus with increased digital content, oral histories and programming such as this cooking lesson. This content is: "Always free of charge because history matters."

In January 2020, MOCA suffered from a devastating fire in the building that housed its archives. As an Asian-American, I did not know there were any museums documenting our history and contributions to American life. It was truly astounding to learn that lawsuits brought by American-born Chinese played an important role in the formulation of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed all citizens born or naturalized in the United States "equal protection of the laws." 

If you liked this cooking lesson and recipe, another MOCA Cooks Zoom video features a dumpling-making party with Chef Kian Lam Kho


Sadly, I learned that Aux Epices, which like all Chinatown businesses has been struggling since January 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, had to close permanently less than a week after Chef Mei graciously shared this recipe. 


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