Malaysian curry, Chef Oh style

Chef Oh’s Seafood Curry. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

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Chef Oh’s Seafood Curry. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

With a soft serve ice cream machine, a deep fryer, and a refrigerated counter full of fresh seafood, John’s Fish Market in Vineyard Haven, MA, could be mistaken for many an East Coast fish market.

You sit at the picnic tables and eat baskets of fried fish, oysters, scallops and belly clams. Lobster rolls and smoked bluefish, fresh local flounder, lemon sole, striped bass, tuna and fluke.

But the addition Chef Kevin Oh, of Perak, Malaysia, sets John’s apart from the competition. Chef Oh is equally difficult to understand, despite having immigrated 31 years ago. Yet even without perfect fluency, his integration into the local fabric is complete. He and Glenn Pachico, the third-generation owner, are in perfect synch.

“We have the same thing in mind,” Glenn says. “Making people smile with good food.” He’s made it so I don’t want to eat American food anymore,” admits his wife Sheila.

Looking East has long been a tradition in the Pachico family tradition. While dragging a net in 4-600 feet of water on the edge of the “canyon wall,” as he calls the Continental Shelf, in the late ‘50’s, Glenn’s dad John Jr (son of John Sr,) hauled up a 36 pound lobster. “Its crusher claw fed 15 people,” Glenn recalls. The relatively petite five pound pincher claw from that mammoth crustacean remains on a shelf in a utility room in the back of the building, a room that also houses a freezer, an office, several lobster tanks, and Chef Oh’s kitchen.

Chef Oh creates a new menu each summer, combining his Far East flair with fresh, East Coast seafood. This summer’s menu includes halibut from the Gulf of Maine prepared with ginger and scallion, as well as local swordfish with Malaysian molee sauce, and the sweetest, most savory scallops in the sea, gently cooked with cream and spinach.

These were bay scallops, harvested in cold water and frozen before they had the opportunity to warm up.

They can’t find them in the ponds anymore, Glenn says. By ponds, he means the tidal inlets around the island, which are pure saltwater. Rising water temperatures are creating algae blooms which take away the oxygen from the scallop larvae drift among the plankton, and snuffing them out. So the bay scallops have been heading out to sea.

Last November, in an offshore location that must remain undisclosed, they hit the jackpot on oversized bay scallops. I had been eating them for days, usually raw, in their deep umami glory, but sometimes with lemon and hot sauce, and of course sometimes with mayonnaise. But my favorite way to eat those scallops might be in Chef Oh’s Malaysian Spicy Seafood Curry.

If only I knew how to make it at home, and write about it for this column, I mused. He doesn’t usually give away his secrets, Glenn told me. I nodded, solemnly. “I don’t blame him,” I mustered.

“I’ll swawfen him up,” Glenn offered. “He’s been making me laugh for 24 years,” he added. “He’s even taught me things about fishing, including some new knots. He’ll tawk.”

Two days later, I sat in the office space behind the fish counter, between a half-eaten piece of fried fish and Chef Oh. He’d agreed to share the recipe with me, and gave me his blessing to share it with you.

Some of his ingredients are in dried form, despite being available fresh, such as lemongrass and galangal, which he prefers to use in powdered form. Another tricky ingredient to find is basil mint. I’ve made a note-to-self to order seeds to become self-sufficient. In the meantime, the combination of basil and mint, go figure, works just fine.

You will need dried red chile pods or powder. I’ve been using Aleppo Pepper flakes, which are heavenly, but if you aren’t so lucky, Thai chili pepper would be the next best thing, seeds removed, as hot as you need.

Chef Oh’s Curry Paste

One good stick of lemongrass will make enough curry for two, so I’ll base the quantities on that. Remove the outer dry leaves and thin-slice. Or use lemongrass powder.

5 fresh kaffir lime leaves. Chef Oh’s come from his daughter’s tree in San Diego.

1 medium shallot, minced.

2 heads of garlic, sliced.

1 cubic inch fresh turmeric, peeled and sliced.

2 cubic inches fresh ginger, peeled and sliced.

(Prep a little extra of everything, in case you want to adjust the flavor)

Hot pepper (to taste)

1 teaspoon shrimp paste (optional)

Add all ingredients, minus the galangal, to a Cuisinart-style food processor or high-speed blender. Work until it’s paste. Or use a mortar and pestle for serious mojo points. Add a little oil if necessary to keep things flowing. Adjust flavors as you see fit.

This paste can be used to make coconut curry. Chef Oh explained how to make seafood curry, as follows.

Chef Oh’s Seafood Curry

Aforementioned Chef Oh’s Curry Paste

1 can full fat coconut milk or cream

Fish sauce

1 cubic inch fresh galangal, peeled, sliced, and set aside

Salt, pepper

Lemon or lime, or lemon and lime.

Basil mint, or basil and mint.

Olive or other oil, or butter, or coconut oil

Seafood (preferably scallops harvested in cold water and processed and frozen immediately)

Seasonal veggies like peas, garlic scapes, salad turnips or whatever seems clever

Thaw scallops overnight, and marinate them in lemon/lime. Add oil to a pan on medium heat. Fry the curry paste, working it around and browning it a little. Add the coconut and veggies, and heat to a simmer. Add the sliced galangal, and the salad turnip slices if using, and any other fast-cooking veggies. Look to add water if it’s at all too thick; the curry should be on the thin side, for the moment.

When it tastes right, add the seafood (but not the lemon juice), and reduce heat to low.

It is very important, Chef Oh emphasized, to cook the seafood slowly, so it cooks gently and is soft and delicate. Garnish with basil mint, or basil and mint, and serve.

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