Sambal Jantong Pisang is an interesting dish, and one which is uniquely Peranakan. I love it for its kerabu-like freshness and crunchy textures, intermingled with the richness and spiciness of the coconut milk dressing. It used to be commonly served as a dish on the Tok Panjang banquet on traditional weddings, for its tedious making process seems most befitting of the grandeur and scale of this solemn once-in-a-lifetime event. More importantly as I was told by an old Baba, the dish is particularly meaningful for the occasion as bananas are symbolic for one to be bountiful blessed with many children, the wish for the newly weds to bear so, hopefully as many as the elongated flowers one would find in each unopened banana bud, layer after layer, generation after generation.
Nasi Dagang, i.e. Trader’s Rice is a very common breakfast fanfare enjoyed by the masses along the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It uses a mixture of white rice (beras wangi) which is first soaked and subsequently steamed with glutinous rice (pulut) with coconut milk added for its wonderful aroma and flavour. This likens another popular breakfast dish, Nasi Lemak over here in Singapore. However, instead of pandan leaves, sliced shallots (bawang merah) and fenugreek (halba) are added. This concoction seems to be the preferred combination for many dishes, as we’d seen in Pulut Lepa and Ketupat Sotong. As we have seen in several dishes from Terengganu, fish is a staple amongst the folks from this region, and Nasi Dagang is no exception. It is eaten with Gulai Ikan Tongkol, a spicy fish red curry cooked with tuna and a hoard of spices as well as buah belimbing, one of my favorite ingredients I love to use in Straits cooking. And this month’s Malaysian Food Fest seem like a timely affair to visit and pay tribute to this time-honoured dish.
When I first started learning to cook nonya dishes, I remember being immediately overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of some recipes. Tedious steps to follow, long and painstaking preparation, tiring rempah pounding, long list of ingredients to garner… are just some of the reasons which deterred many from trying to cook the dishes for themselves. Yes, peranakan cooking can be very patience-testing, obviously one of the many virtues I lack. But the results are often very rewarding, as its through these multi-step culinary “ordeals” that all those intricate nuances of flavours and textures were teased out, to which is what many of us enjoy about peranakan cooking.
Having said that, not all peranakan dishes are difficult to cook or troublesome to put together. Kerabu Belimbing Timum Nanas is one such recipe which is almost effortless to prepare and requires very little time to do so. It is served as a “palate refreshener”, marking contrast against the other robust and full-bodied flavour dishes, to make the latter lighter for the stomach, so that the whole meal would not be just about heft. Being spicy and tart at the same time, it is perfect “conditoner” to whet everyone’s appetites!
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.