Last weekend, Singapore celebrated her Golden Jubilee, 50 years of glorious nation building which saw her rose from a third world nation, separated from Malaysia and forcefully pushed onto her road of independence which she had not wished for, to become one of the major key players in the regional political and economic development. In fear that the Chinese-majority population in Singapore would threaten the rule and dilute the prowess of the Malay-dominant UMNO which controls the Federation of Malaya then, Tunku Abdul Rahman “talak” Singapore, ousting her from the Federation which she had joined less than two years back. Left largely on her own, the initial years were full of staggers and struggles, but through the sheer hardwork and determination of our parents, Singapore’s first taste of success is by no means an easy feat. While the dramatic transformation our island state undertaken had been repeatedly retold in media all over the world, like a fairytale, this Golden Jubilee marks only but the closure of the first chapter of her ongoing story, far from the climatic conclusion many seem to be perceiving and enjoying. Lying ahead are more challenges to follow, many of which are intangible and unpredictable. As the paradigm shift over the last 20 years or so deemed that our fate should become invariably intertwined with the increasingly turbulent global climate, it seems like our future no longer lies solely in our own hands. From the frustrating and stifling realities like escalating costs of living, increasing population densities beyond comfort limits, all-too-frequent MRT breakdowns, to other “softer dimensions” like the disintegration of our social fabric, attrition of our cultural bearings and extinction of our local heritage. The latter aspects seem lesser noticeable but far more important than how they are usually being played out for without our bearings and roots, we are nothing. On the whole, Singapore is a nation that grew so rapidly overnight, that she had hardly any time to reflect and ponder over what was sacrificed, eroded and forever lost. Too caught up with being and staying competitive, her people were tugged into the rat race, constantly instilled with invisible fears of the repercussions and possible aftermath for being left behind or simply not being Number One. In our concerted efforts as a nation to become richer in tangible gains like economic growth, integrated infrastructure, standards of living, global ranking, we had also become poorer, as we silently mourn for our loss, some deplorable beyond being reparable. Friends who visit Singapore seem to be always telling me how fast our country grows, some areas changed and developed beyond recognition in a matter of just a couple of years. Like a child who is all too eager to want to grow up and step into adulthood to prove her worth, much of her time is spent to better herself, with little left to enjoy her childhood and growing up years, let alone to smell the flowers along the way. As we admire the towering skyscrapers that grew like magical beanstalks, we also lament the demolishing of the old architecture built brick upon brick by our forebears. As we broaden our expressways to ease increasingly tense traffic conditions, we scramble to save our old cemeteries from being raised to the ground to make way for establishments in the name of modernisation and modernity. In short we live in an age of dilemma, torn between the want to constantly “majulah” and the need to stay in touch with our past. We see that happening all over Singapore, and even more so in our beloved Katong.
Weather has been really cranky of late and many around me seems to be down with something. I was suppose to show my “moral support” for a friend Catherine whose hubby and kiddos had fallen sick by cooking porridge for yesterday’s meals but as I was at a local supermarket getting some ”porridge supplies” like century egg, the uber fresh stingray steak at the seafood section was calling out at me!!! I knew I had to bring them home and seems like fate has it that I should have some bunga kantan and daun kesum bought just over the weekend, still hibernating in the fridge. Ikan Pari Asam Pedas it seems destined to be!
I practically grew up eating laksa lemak, amidst other local delights and I’m quite sure there are well many others like me. The laksa which I remembered first eating was not any of those “branded” names along Katong . In fact, I had my first “Katong laksa” when I was much older in my 20s, and it is not even at Katong but the now defunct Jackson Kopitiam in Macpherson area. The very first bowl of laksa I had when I was really young was from an unassuming looking neighbourhood stall near my old place. This was way before the times when people were aware of Hepatitis B and way before it became fashionable to buy coconut milk in terapaks off supermarket shelves. In other words, it was the time when cockles were really large, fresh and bloody, and one could almost be certain that fresh coconut milk was used to ensure all the “lemak” awesomeness! This is the type of laksa which I grew up eating. How about you?
Most of us know that Penang, Melaka and Singapore are the three strongholds of Peranakan culture in this region. This not only stems from the long withstanding establishment of the Straits Chinese communities in there three places but more importantly in recent years, the fervent promotion of Peranakan culture by the tourism-related authorities in Singapore and Malaysia. However, the existence of Peranakan culture outside these three places is much much lesser known let alone their culinary heritage. So when I first read about Telur Kesum, a Kelantanese Peranakan dish, it got me very curious.
I’m usually not a big fan of fusion food. Call me archaic but I prefer to keep the flavours of the dishes I prepare “clean” and true to their roots and origins. French is kept as French as possible while Chinese remains distinctively Chinese. Save for a few exceptions in pastry making, crossovers ain’t exactly my thing. That said, the devil’s advocate in me would sprout the occasional what ifs, curious what the dish would be like when it is totally taken out of context or juxtapose with another cooking genre. And of late, these previously occasional episodes of what ifs are beginning to haunt me more frequently.
We cook asam fish all the time at home. In fact, whenever the belimbing trees are laden with fruits, those few days are asam fish days. For us at home, Ikan Gerang Asam is the default way of cooking asam fish. But of course there are geographical variations to how asam fish is cooked. Ikan Gerang Asam, the Melakan peranakan of preparation depends heavily on the use of daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves) amidst other fresh ingredients like lengkwas (galangal ginger) to work up the aromatics! And that most certainly helped to work up an appetite! When I was preparing Laksa Belut Perlis, the famous eel laksa from the most northern Malaysian state in the Peninsula, all the rempah (blended ingredients) were basically boiled together with the broth base without any sautéing. But yet, it was still very delicious. And this month’s MFF brings me down all the way to the far south, to the bordering state of Johor for Ikan Pari Asam Pedas.