On the Trail of the Phoenix – Sambal Jantung Pisang
Geylang Serai is a place that reminds me much of my childhood. Apart from the Orchard Road shopping belt, the stretch around City Plaza and Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre was one of the earliest built-up shopping areas in the eastern part of Singapore, more affectionately known as “Yokoso” in the past. It is also the major stronghold for the Malay community in Singapore, likening Chinatown and Little India to the Chinese and Indians respectively. Long before Geylang Serai became the infamous weekend rendevous spot for Pinoy domestic helpers and their Bangladeshi boyfriends, this place was the hub of the Malay culture and heritage in Singapore. Apart from visits during the month-long pasar malams (night markets) during the pre-Hari Raya Ramadan (fasting) period to soak in the festivities, my mother, together with her sisters visited this place frequently throughout the year to shop and makan(feast), since Orchard Road was often deemed as being too “atas” (haute couture) and out-of-place for heartlanders like us. My cousins and I would simply tag along, usually an ice-cream or a paper cone of kachang putih at hand. So “Yokoso” became the port-of-call de facto for all our shopping needs, from fabrics for making curtains and cushion covers from Joo Chiat Complex, to clothes from “2nd Chance” at Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre and not forgetting shoes and Casio watches from shops at City Plaza. And no trip to Geylang Serai is complete without a visit to its wet market and food centre, where one can sample the essence of Malay as well as Indian Muslim culinary delights, from an assortment of kuih-muihs (sweet pastries) and light snacks, to more robust Sup Kambing and Tulang Merah. The wet market section was also fantastic, where one could find a wide variety of fresh ingredients from the usual produce of fruit, fish and meat, to the more exotic, like to garner a whole entourage of herbs for Nasi Ulam.
Truth be told, I haven’t been there for eons, despite passing by the area ever so frequently. I often wonder how the place is like now, or if my favorite Indian Rojak stall was still in business. But I’d never really felt compelled to go in. Strange I know, don’t ask me why. Alas as fate has a funny way of coming around, my ventures into Peranakan cooking has brought me back here again, to buy buah keluak, or source for the freshest petai beans still in their pods. And thus when I have a craving and was looking for ingredients to make Sambal Jantung Pisang, I knew the perfect place to start hunting.
“Jantung pisang” is the Malay name for the inflorence of the banana plant. But why not “bunga pisang” as most flowers are named? Well, “jantung” is Malay for the “heart”. So one look at the humongous bud-looking structure and its not difficult to figure how aptly and vividly it was named. Alas the “banana flower” is actually not a flower, but rather a symphony orchestra full of of little blossoms shrouded by the fleshy petal-like bracts set in a lovely deep mauve, like musicians tightly seated in neat rows. Done with “Botany 101”, so let’s move on shall we?
Back to Geylang Serai Wet Market, down the aisles of the fruit and vegetable section and within moments, I’d found what I was here for. Jantung pisang was on display in quite a number of stalls but surprisingly, I don’t see anyone buying them and I don’t blame them. This is hardly your typical ingredient used in everyday cooking. In fact, Sambal Jantung Pisang is a dish typically served only during the Tok Panjang feasts at Peranakan weddings. It is laborious to prepare given the number of ingredients used and the list of steps involved in the preparation. But this is only to be expected of traditional Peranakan cooking. In fact, it is said that the bibiks who served as the matriachs of the Peranakan households had deliberately devised and constantly revised the procedure and ingredient list of Peranakan dishes to make it progressively more and more “challenging” for their daughters and daughters-in-law to master. Many young nonyas spent hours at ends, alternating between pounding rempah and sewing kasut manek, in the kitchen perfecting the art of Straits Chinese cuisine to become what it is known today.
After walking around the fruit and vegetable section twice, I finally decided settle on the jantung pisangs offered by an old malay couple located at one corner of the wet market. Not that I am picky, but it is important to choose the appropriate jantung pisang for the dish. And of course, watching all the haggering over prices that went on with the makciks and stall owners was most pleasurable, not to mention picking up a bargaining skill or two to be put to use later. Checking out prices was also important as some stalls sold jantung pisang by weight while others in numbers. Not that it costs a lot of course, but its all part of the fun of shopping in a wet market!
And there I was choosing a jantung pisang when an elderly gentleman just next to me turned around and asked what I was buying it for. “To make kerabu of course, ” I replied, since Sambal Jantung Pisang is in essence a toss-in salad. “But can also be used to cook curry,” I added. It seemed to have aroused his curiosity and he started asking me the ingredients involved and how I go about doing it. So I went on and started to list “Oh, a lot of ingredients pakcik...timun, bawang merah, daun limau purut, bunga kantan, serai, belimbing…” when he suddenly interrupted me and asked where I got belimbing from. “Well, I pluck them” and this was when I could see a tinkle in his eyes. I knew I was being “cross-examined” by a Baba, and from the looks of it, one who could cook very well. With a smile, he asked how I prepare the dressing. “Santan, gula, sambal belachan…” and he interrupted again ” yes! must use good belachan to make the sambal!” And he began to share his family recipe for making this dish with me in the most animated manner. All this happened as I listened intently while the stall owner watched in amusement. He even suggested that this dish is very healthy, helping to lower blood cholestrol and his claims can be backed with medical research. But with the use of shrimp for the dish and coconut milk for the sambal dressing, I can’t help but have reservations. But seeing how zealous he was about everything about the dish, I held back my doubts. At the end, he exclaimed, “It is such a wonderful dish you know, tastes really lovely. A classic of our Peranakan culture. But its so “susah” to make! Its good to know that young babas like you are still carrying on with the tradition and making it!” I’m truly flattered by his words, but didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not a true-blue Peranakan. Alas we parted to our ways as I continued to choose silently the right jantung pisang for my dish, and the old Baba going back home to prepare lunch.
It was truly an enriching learning experience as with most conversations I’d had with elderly babas and bibiks I’d encountered including the one who generously shared her recipe for Sambal Jantunng Pisang with me. So here I share her recipe with you, with some improvisations from what the old Baba taught me.
Sambal Jantung Pisang (for 4 servings)
1 medium banana inflorescence (Jantung pisang)
1 medium cucumber (timun)
10-12 Averrhoa bilimbi (buah belimbing aka belimbing asam or belimbing buluh)
8 medium-sized prawns (udang)
1 torch ginger inflorence (bunga kantan)
1 stalk of lemon grass (serai)
2 calamansi limes (limau katsuri)
2 kaffir lime leaves (daun limau purut)
2 chilli padi
2 shallots (bawang merah)
100g thick coconut milk (santan)
1 tbsp sambal belachan (see below)
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 thumb-length piece of fermented shrimp paste aka belachan
5 red chilli
2 chilli padi
2 calamansi limes
Salt and sugar to taste
Carefully peel away the petal-like bracts from the banana inflorence and pluck out the small and elongated blossoms.
Pull out the tough pistil from the banana blossoms. They look like burnt matchsticks and are not pleasant to eat. If the petals are not open, gently rub the petals with the tips of thumb and finger to locate the pistil. Soak the blossoms in a bowl of cold water to prevent browning.
Bring a pot of water to boil and lower the flame to a gentle simmer and add a pinch of salt. Lower the banana blossoms into the water and allow it to cook until soften considerably. It should take about 8-10 min. Drain and set aside.
With a new pot of water, blanch prawns until they are cooked. Drain and set aside. When cooled sufficiently, remove the head and shell and slice the prawns into two, lengthwise.
Finely juilenne cucumber into thin strips.
Half buah belimbing lengthwise, remove fibrous core with seeds and finely juilenne into thin strips.
Finely juilienne torch ginger into thin rings and set aside
Remove the outer fibrous layers of a stalk of lemongrass until the whitish portions are exposed. Discard the outer layers. Finely juilienne lemon grass into thin rings and set aside.
Roll kaffir lime leaves into a “cigar” and finely juilienne into thin strips. Despite the fibrous vein near the middle of the leaf.
Deseed chilli padi and finely juilienne into thin strips.
To prepare sambal belachan,first dry toast belachan in a wok over a very low flame, turning constantly. Be sure to open all your windows in the house. This is traditionally done outside the house over a wire mesh on a earthern stove with charcoal flame but I don’t think anyone does this anymore.
When the belachan has dried considerably, test its readiness by breaking off a tip from the piece and rubbing with fingers. It should crumble nicely. And of course, the aroma is unmistakenable.
Pound/blend all the chillies into a coarse paste. Add belachan and continue to pound/blend until it becomes a fine paste. Add the juice from two calamansi, followed by salt and sugar to taste, adjusting it to your own preference, as some prefer it to have a tinge of sweetness while others prefer it to be savory. I like to add the fine zest from the calamansi as well but this is entirely one’s own preference.
In a large mixing bowl, place cooked banana blossoms, buah belimbing strips, cucumber strips.
Add half the amounts of the following ingredients: sliced torched ginger, sliced shallots, sliced chilli padi, sliced lemon grass, and give all the ingredients a good toss.
Dish the mixed vegetables onto a large plate and lay the prawn slices over the top.
Lower flame and add a tbsp of sambal belachan, stirring continuously until well incorporated.
Season with sugar and salt to one’s own liking. Add in more calamansi juice for sharper flavours.
Garnish with the remaining sliced torch ginger, lemongrass, chilli padi, shallots and finally all the sliced kaffir lime leaves.
Drizzle with calamansi juice.
Give the salad a good toss only before eating.
They can’t be too big as the blossoms held within would be too “old”, while those which are too small are harvested prematurely and would not do well for the dish. And of course, its important to “inspect” the blossoms by gentling peeling away the outmost bract. They should look resonably fresh, pale yellow and not brown. But not all stall owners would allow you to do that, so be sure to ask for permission first before doing so. As a general guideline, half-foot long “buds” with “tightly sealed” bracts which look fresh are the ones to go for.
Though its a somewhat laborious kerabu to prepare, the effort is really worth it. The most tedious process has to be plucking the hard pistil from the banana blossoms. I know folks who simply skip this step, much like how some people leave the roots of bean sprouts on. So its much of one’s preference. I was taught to remove it and decidedly abide by the old ways. The texture is quite different overall.
It can also be served in a “petal” of the banana inflorescence, as how some restaurants in Melaka still do .
To give a new twist, I’d set a side a small portion of the ingredients and plated it differently, a la moderne. Not a bad idea at all I thought.
This classic peranakan salad, in my opinion is a hidden gem in classic straits chinese cuisine. Unfortunately, not many Peranakan restaurants serve it nowadays, given the amount of work involved. Like Sambal Jantung Pisang, many classic peranakan dishes seem to suffer the same fate and become lost in the tide of time. Some have already gone with the bibiks from the yesteryears into their graves, and the recipes lost forever. Most folks have given up sophistication and instead chose simplicity, and it is not just Peranakan food, but the culture in its entirety. Its sheer relevance of existence seems to be in question, when the Peranakan culture and heritage becomes no more than just a tourism marketing gimmick, with very shallow roots. I hope this is just my mindless ranting…