Seasonal Pantry: Warm up with a soup from Malaysia

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A few days ago, as I watched an episode of “Our Planet,” the most recent nature series narrated by Sir David Attenborough, I was transported back to Malaysia, specifically to the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

Early in the morning on the day I was to return home, my guide Ramlee, who had become a good friend, picked me up at my hotel and we headed out of town. “Hurry,” he said, “hurry, we don’t have much time.” After a drive of about 30 minutes, we pulled into a small parking lot and Ramlee ran to my side of the car to open the door. He grabbed my hand and began pulling me along a winding path that zigzagged through cages, other structures, and jungle foliage.

Soon, we came to a large clearing that had, on the side farthest from us, a wooden platform about 10 feet high. A man was piling bananas, papaya, and other fruit onto the platform when Ramlee suddenly shouted “ Look, Look!” I gazed in the direction of his pointed finger and saw, in the far distance, something moving towards us, swinging from the trees that stood high above the thick canopy of the rain forest.

Orangutans. Wild Orangutans.

As they came closer, I could see that one was much larger than the other. After about 15 minutes, they made it to the platform and began their morning feast.

Ramlee warned me not to get too close, as, he explained, the bigger of the two, a male, liked to steal sunglasses off people’s heads. He spoke of finding piles of them here and there in the forest, which he considered his home.

We walked back to the car slowly, taking time to stop at the cages which held orangutans and other animals who were receiving medical care before being released back into the wild. Every morning at 8 a.m., he told me, staff put out fruit for the area’s wild orangutan, who are suffering a severe loss of habitat.

In Our Planet’s episode on the world’s jungles, Attenborough explains that we are losing about 100 orangutans a week, a loss that will lead to their extinction in our lifetimes if something is not done. Each episode of the series concludes with a simple call to action, an invitation to visit ourplanet.com, where you find a range of activities that will help. Do it for yourself, for your children, and for their children. Do it for the orangutans.

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On my first night in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, I came across a booth alongside the river that served this fragrant soup in big clay bowls. It remains one of the best things I have ever tasted, and it is not difficult to make at home.

Ginger Beef Noodle Soup

Serves 4 to 6

1 quart spicy beef stock (recipe follows), hot

3 tablespoons clarified butter or coconut oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 13-inch piece fresh ginger, grated

2 beef shanks, each about 2 inches thick

— Kosher salt

2 stalks lemongrass, bulb parts only, crushed and very thinly sliced

1 teaspoon whole white peppercorns

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

10 ounces rice noodles of choice

½ cup fresh cilantro leaves

1-2 limes, cut into wedges

Make the stock at least one day before preparing the soup and heat it when you are ready to finish the soup.

To make the soup, melt the clarified butter in a wide soup pot set over medium-low heat, add the diced onion, and saute until it begins to caramelize, about 25 minutes. Add the garlic and grated ginger, and sauté for 2 minutes more. Add the reserved 2 beef shanks and brown on all sides.

When the shanks are browned, season with salt and add the stock to the pan, along with 2 cups of water, the lemongrass, the white and black peppercorns, and red pepper flakes.

Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to low, and simmer, partially covered, until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours.

Prepare the rice noodles, according to package directions, and drain.

Remove the cooked shanks from the pot, chop the meat coarsely, and return it to the pot. Taste the broth, and correct the seasoning. Divide the noodles among individual soup bowls, ladle the soup over the noodles, garnish each portion with some cilantro leaves and a squeeze of lime, and enjoy right away.

Spicy Beef Stock

Makes 1 quart

3 pounds beef shanks, cut 2 inches thick through the bone

1 carrot, cut into 3 or 4 pieces

1 tomato, cut in half

1 yellow onion, cut in quarters

— Kosher salt

3 stalks lemongrass

6 large slices ginger

3 kaffir lime leaves

2 star anise

To make the stock, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the beef shanks, the carrot, the tomato, and the quartered onion into a large roasting pan, season fairly generously with salt and roast for 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven and transfer to a large soup pot, add 12 cups of water, the lemongrass, the sliced ginger, the kaffir lime leaves, and the star anise, bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to low, and simmer, partially covered, for about 4 to 6 hours, until the meat completely falls off the bone and the liquid is reduced by two thirds.

Skim off any foam that collects on top of the liquid.

Let cool, strain, and refrigerate overnight. Before using the stock, remove and discard the layer of fat that forms on top. Use within 3 to 4 days or freeze for up to six months.

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Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Salt & Pepper,” which includes stories of her visits to Borneo. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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