Friday November 5, 2004

Painter's passport to Asia is in his kitchen


The herb daun kesum is crucial to the flavor of this Southeast Asian treat. LINDA BLADHOLM/FOR THE HERALD
When Polish-born painter Tomasz Rut invites friends to his Hollywood home, the theme is distinctly Asian, from the food to the decor. On a recent Sunday evening, hand-rolled sushi with plum-flavored sake whetted guests appetites while Rut made laksa, a spicy Southeast Asian noodle soup.
Laksa is a specialty of the Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese community in Singapore and Malaysia. Peranakan literally means ''descendants'' in Malay, referring to the Chinese merchants who settled along the Straits of Malacca and married local Malay women. The men are called Babas and the women Nonyas.
The marriage of Chinese and Malaysian ingredients produced Nonya cuisine, a complex intermingling of typical Chinese ingredients with Malay herbs, spices and fragrant roots. Laksa is one of the most delicious examples, revered partly because it is considered painstaking to make. Laksa is the name for both the noodles and an herb used to flavor the spicy broth -- either rich coconut milk to make laksa lemak or a sour, tamarind-based version called asam laksa.
Laksa is derived from the ancient Persian term for noodle, lakhsha (meaning slippery), brought to Malaysia by Arab traders in the 13th century. In Southeast Asia, the herb, daun kesum, is commonly called laksa leaf because it is crucial to the flavor of the dish. It is found fresh in large Asian markets and smells like gingery cilantro with a hint of peppery mint.
'Food is a means of edxploring the universe without necessarily traveling there,' says Tomasz Rut. LINDA BLADHOLM/FOR THE HERALD

Laksa is rarely found outside Peranakan homes, making it unusual that a Polish-born artist in South Florida has mastered it, growing many of the herbs and roots in his garden and grinding the spice paste himself. It is even more surprising that he has never visited Asia and learned to cook laksa and other Asian dishes from cookbooks.
''Food is a means of exploring the universe without necessarily traveling there,'' he says.
Rut (pronounced root) grew up in Warsaw, where his artist mother encouraged his painting. He studied art in Poland and New York, coming to Florida in 1988 to work on mural-restoration projects. Today his illusionary paintings have won him a following, and guests covet an invitation to one of his laksa parties.
He starts by grinding chilies, galangal, lemon grass and fresh turmeric root with shallots and shrimp paste in a blender. Next he reduces the broth left over from poaching chicken breasts, clams, curls of squid and jumbo shrimp. He fries the spice paste in a little oil to temper the rawness, adds the stock and coconut milk, simmers it and serves the aromatic yellow liquid over thin rice noodles, topping them with the strips of chicken and the seafood.
Rut garnishes the dish with blanched bean sprouts, shredded strips of omelet, cucumber and fresh ginger (in place of impossible-to-find wild ginger buds) and sprigs of laksa leaf with optional lashings of sambal olek (vinegary chili sauce). Served by candlelight in large aqua soup dishes at a long communal table, laksa is a one-dish tour de force, like the artist himself. Selamat makan! (Happy eating!)

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"