Grant Achatz samples the finished Kluwak Tom & Jerry
Grant Achatz samples the finished Kluwak Tom & Jerry Credit: Jennifer Higgins

To kick off this new feature, we challenged Grant Achatz of Alinea—recent recipient of three Michelin stars—to come up with a recipe using the southeast Asian seeds called kluwak kupas. Achatz got to choose the next chef and the next ingredient, that chef will issue the next challenge, and so on.

How do you throw Grant Achatz a curveball? The Alinea chef already favors ingredients and techniques that seem better suited to the lab than the kitchen. Two of his employees are devoted almost full-time to food R&D, and Achatz says he often “sends them on missions.” The guy has already made a dessert with hay, for chrissakes.

We settled on kluwak kupas—the seeds of the kepayang tree, also known as keluak nuts, buah kelauk nuts, and kluwak nuts—and cleared the shelf of them at Golden Pacific Market (5353 N. Broadway, 773-334-6688). Large and irregularly shaped, they sort of resemble Brazil nuts, with a hard shell and a softer nutmeat. Pungently caroby smelling, they’re traditionally used in southeast Asian cooking, especially the Peranakan spiced chicken dish ayam buah keluak. Oh, and they’re poisonous unless they’ve been soaked or boiled. (All kluwak nuts sold in the U.S. for culinary use have been processed so they’re safe to eat; most, including the ones we bought, are already shelled as well.)

As it turned out, neither Achatz nor his collaborator on the project, Craig Schoettler—an Alinea chef who’ll be in charge of the cocktail lounge Aviary when it opens—had heard of kluwak kupas before. “Where did you find this nut?” Achatz demanded. “This had to be a Sula thing—damn Sula.” (It was indeed Reader food columnist Mike Sula who suggested it.)

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

“I didn’t know what the heck they were,” Achatz said. “I thought it was fermented garlic when I looked at the bag. So we stuck our nose in them and said, well, chocolate. Right? So without even googling a thing, without looking it up at all, we just started riffing on the smell of the ingredients and the seasonality.

“Here we are, it’s the holiday season, and right now our heads have been on cocktails. So we were like, let’s make a very warming, holiday-style cocktail with this crazy Polynesian nut. But then we started googling it, and found out—it can be poisonous. So we thought, even better, let’s put booze in it. If you’re going to die, you might as well go out with a little bit of a buzz.”

Achatz doesn’t recommend eating the nuts on their own: “It wasn’t so great,” he said. “But when you steep it in a fat-based liquid, whether it be coconut, or milk, or cream, it really gets nice.”

He and Schoettler were happy with the finished product. “It’s a little funky,” Achatz said. “But it’s very festive, very warming.”

Who’s Next:

Curtis Duffy of Avenues, using Chinese black beans. Achatz chose them because he wasn’t very familiar with the beans before his team started experimenting with them a few months ago.

“I don’t know if he’s ever heard of them—I’m sure he has—but we’ll see what he comes up with. I just figured that might be one that might throw him for a little bit of a loop.”

Duffy’s response when he got his marching orders: “Bastard.”

Credit: Julia Thiel

Kluwak Tom & Jerry

450 g whole milk

250 g heavy cream

200 g Bliss maple syrup

2.5 g salt

400 g chopped kluwak kupas (pulsed in a food processor)

Boil milk, cream, maple syrup, and salt over medium heat, then pour over the nuts. Steep for 20 minutes, then strain.

Place in an iSi canister (a professional cream whipper):

37 g heavy cream

30 g sugar

2 g salt

2 eggs

and shake. Charge three times with nitrous oxide cartridges, shaking in between, to make a foam.

If you don’t have an iSi canister, you can whip the egg whites (to medium-stiff peaks) and eggs yolks (till white and frothy) separately. Omit heavy cream. Divide the sugar evenly between the yolks and whites while whipping, then fold the two parts together.

1 medium banana

500 g whole milk

1.2 g salt

40 g sugar

Acid medley: .5 g citric, .75 g malic, .25 g ascorbic

Roast banana unpeeled—poke a few holes in the skin with a fork—in 350-degree oven for 20 minutes; cool and peel.

Put all the ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil. Pour into a blender and blend, then strain through a chinois or a fine-meshed sieve. Froth using an immersion blender.

Mix a 1:1:1 ratio of:

Buffalo Trace bourbon

Rittenhouse 100 proof rye

Appleton 12-year rum

To preheated coffee mugs, add the egg foam (enough to fill a little less than half of the mug), then pour in 160 g of the kluwak milk and 1 oz of the alcohol mixture.

Top with banana froth and grated cinnamon.