This delicious gulai labu is the combination of two brains – a friend, and my mum’s!
How did that happen?
Well, it all started when Madam R gifted us her gulai labu to eat for dinner a few days before Eid. Food gifting has become common during the COVID19 pandemic era, as a way of showing care to loved ones we can’t see in person.
It was not my first time eating gulai labu but definitely the most memorable one. The whole combo of sweet, creamy and umami was so delicious that I asked her if she had the recipe.
She didn’t have a formally written recipe, like most home cooks. In Malaysia, and most parts of Asia, I imagine, people usually cook by eyeballing it.
But Madam R did give me one valuable tip. The reason why her gulai was so “rounded” in its taste was because she added added salted fish.
Salted fish is the key to achieving complex flavours without heaviness.
Salted fish doesn’t just add saltiness, which can be one-dimensional, but umami, the mythical Asian quality that gives dishes their complex savouriness.
The problem was .. I didn’t have any salted fish on hand. This being MCO and all, I wasn’t at all keen to go out just to buy one ingredient. What could I replace it with that would deliver the same hit of complex saltiness?
Rummaging through my larder, my eyes fell on my mum’s favourite flavouring condiment – hae bee or dried prawns. Aha!!! Hae bee is my mum’s go-to ingredient to amplify the umami-ness of her cooking too.
All I needed now was some rough instructions to guide me.
Some internet digging later, I stumbled upon several gulai labu recipes and after doing some comparisons, decided to give it a go. I also added cabbage to give it some bulk. I would recommend mild tasting vegetables instead of strong or slightly astringent ones like bok choy. While cooking, I thought to myself that this is such a forgiving dish that really, anyone can make it.
Salted fish vs hae bee, which is better?
Aha! I was getting to this. I’ve tried the curry with both and there is a difference. If you use salted fish, you would achieve a more savoury flavour. Using hae bee infuses the dish with a sweeter accent. Bottom line, it’s all up to your personal preference, really.
As I write this, we’re about 1 1/2 years into this COVID19 pandemic – crazy but true. This is a time for making comfort food, and there are few foods more comforting than this easy, delicious dish.
Gulai Labu (Pumpkin Curry)
- 200g pumpkin, cut into chunks and skinned
- 1 stalk lemon grass
- 1 tbs dried prawns [or salted fish] (See Recipe Notes)
- santan to taste (start with a few tbs)
- 1-2 cups water (adjust according to your preference for thickness)
- 1 red chilli, sliced
- 4-5 shallots, pounded
- 1 tsp turmeric powder (See Recipe Notes 1)
- Heat up oil and saute dried prawns until fragrant, but not burnt. This extra step intensifies the umami flavour.
- Add pumpkin, shallots, turmeric powder, santan and water. Cook over low heat until pumpkin has softened to your liking.
- Add more santan/water if you prefer it thicker/thinner.
- Add lemongrass and red chilli and boil a minute longer.
- Check for seasoning and add salt to taste. Serve.
- Given a choice, I would rather use fresh turmeric root but as these are lockdown times, I'm very grateful for conveniences like turmeric powder!
- You can also add prawns to increase the "sweetness" of the dish and other veges to make up more bulk. This is a very forgiving dish!
- If you are using salted fish, make sure you soak it in room temperature or cold water for a few hours at least. Salted fish is EXTREMELY salty, so don't even think of dropping it straight into the gulai while cooking as it will make your dish too salty.