Devagi Sanmugam is quite a force to be reckoned with in the Singapore culinary scene. Dubbed the ‘Spice Queen’, Devagi has over 34 years of experience in the culinary scene and has written 21 cookbooks to date, like The South Indian Cookbook, Asian Herbs, Cooking with Asian Roots and Naturally Speaking – Indian Recipes and Home Remedies (which was the winner of the Best Health and Nutrition Book, Singapore at the World Gourmand Awards 2007).
She has also appeared on numerous television shows around the world (including hit British series Far Flung Floyd with celebrity chef Keith Floyd) and has conducted a litany of cooking classes across the globe.
In fact, Devagi’s resume is so glittery (and long) that you’ll find it almost impossible to believe that this down-to-earth, smiley lady could have accomplished so much. But she has – and continues to do so.
With the release of her 22nd cookbook, I Am A Rice Cooker!, Devagi has once again proven herself quite the versatile cook, with a compilation of recipes devoted to different Asian cooking techniques, like deep-frying, double-boiling, grilling, pickling, simmering, smoking and slow-cooking, among others.
Each technique offers lots of advice and tips as well as a corresponding series of recipes, designed to make it easier for readers to learn how to master all the different cooking methods in real life. An added bonus is that some recipes offer step-by-step pictorial guides to enhance the learning process.
“The reader can practise the technique through the recipe that was chosen for it,” says Devagi.
The super-sized book took Devagi nearly two years to complete and was a labour of love from the get-go. Devagi’s main aim with the book was to re-introduce classic Asian cooking techniques to the younger generation, who may not necessarily have grown up learning these skills at home.
“I realised that when I grew up in the 1960s, children would help their mothers in the kitchen and some would even cook from a young age. But these days, many mothers don’t cook and so children never get to learn by observing or even by eating a good home-cooked meal, so I felt that there was a need for a book on Asian cooking techniques so that those who want to improve their cooking skills can learn,” says Devagi.
Even the book’s size is aimed at helping maximise reader satisfaction and is something Devagi was really keen on after years of collecting feedback from students in her cooking classes.
“As a cooking instructor for many years, I listened to the grouses of students who had bought cookbooks written by other authors, and one of the major complaints is that the fonts are too small! You see, when someone is bringing the cookbook into the kitchen, the book has to be propped somewhere – large books prop well. Also, when you are cooking a recipe from the cookbook that is propped in the kitchen, the font must be big enough for you to read from your work table – hence the size of the book and font,” she says.
In the book, you’ll find all sorts of recipes for delicious Asian dishes like Kerala style fish curry, poached egg curry, Thai-style grilled beef salad, Vietnamese vegetarian rice porridge, Japanese chawanmushi – all the way down to simple recipes for things like kaya.
While there are a fair amount of Indian recipes in the book, Devagi admits that she didn’t want to just come up with another book on ethnic cuisine, which is why I Am A Rice Cooker! also has recipes for Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese dishes.
“Since it is Asian, I did not want to stick to only one recipe. For example, a technique like velveting is usually used in Chinese cooking and dum cooking technique is used by Indians mostly – so I thought it is better to have all sorts of Asian cuisines incorporated,” she says.
The recipes are generally very easy-to-follow and Devagi says anyone with even the most basic kitchen tools can attempt the recipes in the book.
Throughout the book, you’ll also notice photographs from Devagi’s travels scattered everywhere. Although the pictures sometimes seem incongruous when placed next to recipes that have nothing to do with them (e.g. a photograph of a vendor in Myanmar selling rice pancakes plonked right next to a recipe for tamarind prawns), Devagi says she wanted them there for a reason.
“The travel pictures are mostly food-related. One of the reasons for incorporating such pictures is to break the monotony of seeing only styled food pictures; secondly, the pictures were all taken in Asian countries; thirdly, I took those pictures and wanted to show off,” she quips cheekily.
I Am A Rice Cooker! has already nabbed the award for Cooking Schools Category, Singapore, at the Gourmand World Cookbooks Awards 2017, but Devagi is not content to rest on her laurels. She is already hard at work on her 23rd cookbook, titled My Mother’s Kitchen Pharmacy. The new book will focus on Indian superfoods with recipes and home remedies.
Devagi says writing each cookbook gives her a renewed sense of purpose, which is why time management is so essential to her.
“Time management is a part of my life. Even before I write a book – it is the purpose of the book that gives me the energy and time to complete it,” she says.
I Am A Rice Cooker! can be purchased through the website www.iamaricecooker.com at RM240.
COCONUT FISH (Thengai Meen)
300g shallots, peeled
80g ginger garlic paste
60g dried chilli paste
200g coconut cream
4 tbsp coconut oil or cooking oil
1/2 tsp cardamoms
1 tsp fennel seeds, coarsely pounded
200g shallots, peeled and sliced
2 sprigs curry leaves
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp black peppercorns, pounded coarsely
2 tsp salt
1 tsp grated jaggery
800g Spanish mackerel
60g dry-roasted coconut
60g coconut cream
Place the first 4 ingredients in a blender and process till smooth.
Heat the coconut oil in a wok and fry the cardamoms and fennel seeds until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add shallots and curry leaves and sauté till the shallots turn golden brown. Add blended ingredients, turmeric powder, pounded peppercorns, water, salt and jaggery. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally till a thick paste forms and the oil separates, about 10 minutes.
Arrange the fish on the paste, cover and cook over low heat till one side of the fish is cooked. Turn the fish over and cook. When the fish is done, transfer it to a dish, leaving the thick masala in the wok.
Add the dry-roasted coconut and 60g coconut cream immediately. Turn up the heat to medium. Once the masala boils, reduce the heat but keep the liquid boiling. Keep stirring and scrape the bottom to break down all the crusted masala. By now, the dry-roasted coconut will also stick to the bottom of the wok and more oil will surface.
Put the fish back into the wok and keep turning the fish until the masala is crusted on the fish and the oil separates and remains in the pan, about 10 minutes. Serve the fish with rice or bread.
50g cooking oil
80g dried anchovies
200g fresh red chillies
15g red birds’ eye chillies
15g garlic cloves
300g ripe tomatoes, sliced
2 tbsp shrimp paste, toasted
80g chicken stock, coconut milk or water
1 tbsp grated palm sugar
1 tsp salt
1kg chicken drumsticks
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp peeled shallots
10g red birds’ eye chillies
1 tbsp galangal slices
1 tsp turmeric powder
150g coconut cream
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 stalks lemongrass, white portion, smashed
To make sambal
Heat oil in a frying pan and fry the anchovies. When crispy, dish out onto paper towels.
In the same oil, sauté the chillies, shallots, garlic and tomatoes until the raw smell goes off. Transfer to the blender along with the fried anchovies, shrimp paste, stock, palm sugar and salt.
Blend coarsely. Cool before storing in an airtight container.
For the ayam Jakarta
Rub the chicken with the salt and lime juice and leave aside for 30 minutes. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Place in a deep pot.
Blend the shallots, chillies, galangal, turmeric powder, coconut cream, sugar and salt till smooth. Pour the blended mixture into the pot with the chicken pieces and add the lemongrass. Bring to the boil over medium heat, turning the chicken occasionally until the liquid evaporates, about 15 minutes. Cool the chicken thoroughly.
Heat some cooking oil over medium heat for deep-frying. Fry the chicken for about 5 minutes, or until it turns crispy brown. Remove and drain excess oil. Serve with sambal Jakarta.
CURD RICE (Tairu Saatham)
400g piping hot, cooked rice, long grain or medium grain
125g full cream milk
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp lemon juice
3/4 tsp salt
60g unripe mango, finely diced
120g seedless grapes, quartered
80g cucumber, seeded and diced finely
30g carrot, finely diced
2 tsp sliced red birds’ eye chillies
11/2 tbsp cooking oil
3/4 tsp split white urad dhal
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 dried chillies, cut into 3 cm pieces
2 sprigs curry leaves
1 tbsp ginger, finely minced
1 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves
To make the rice
Put the rice in a bowl. Using a potato masher, mash it lightly.
Heat the milk, water and salt in a pan over medium heat till lukewarm. Do not let it boil or simmer. If you find the milk to be too rich, add more water. Remove from heat and add to the mashed rice. Carry on mashing the rice until the grains are broken. Cool down thoroughly.
Whisk the yoghurt, lemon juice and salt together until smooth. Pour the yoghurt over the rice. Adjust the amount of yoghurt or water to your preferred consistency. Add more lemon juice if you like it more tangy. Fold in the diced mango, grapes, cucumber, carrot and chillies.
In a separate pan, heat the cooking oil and temper the urad dhal till golden brown, about 1 minute. Add the mustard seeds and dried chillies, and fry till the seeds stop spluttering. Add curry leaves and ginger and sauté till aromatic, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Transfer the tempered ingredients to the yoghurt rice and fold in well. Sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves before serving. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
TAPIOCA PUDDING IN BANANA LEAF (Kueh Lepat Ubi Kayu)
500g grated tapioca
120g grated palm sugar
30g caster sugar
120g freshly grated coconut
1/2 tsp salt
3-4 pandan leaves
3-4 banana leaves, scalded
6 ripe but firm bananas, sliced
12 tooth picks
Put the grated tapioca on a muslin cloth and squeeze out as much liquid from it as possible. Discard this liquid, which is mostly starch.
Put the grated tapioca into a mixing bowl. Add palm sugar, caster sugar, coconut and salt. Mix well.
Cut the pandan leaves into 14cm pieces. Wash and wipe dry.
Cut the banana leaves into 18cm X 18cm squares. Place a piece of banana leaf on a plate and put a pandan leaf in the centre of it.
Spoon about 60g of the tapioca mixture onto the centre and press to level it. Arrange 3 to 4 sliced bananas on the tapioca mixture and press down gently.
Wrap into a parcel and secure the ends with toothpicks. Repeat with the remaining mixture.
Bring some water to a boil in a steamer. Place the packets on a steamer rack. Steam for 30 minutes.
Remove the packets from the steamer and cool before serving.