It is mango season again and we see an assortment of mangoes from all over. From the honey and rainbow mangoes from Thailand, to the Benishaan and Alphonsoes from India, each visit to the local supermarket often involves getting hit by heavily perfumed wafts of heady aroma they exude. Each variety has its own distinct fragrance, devised by its own unique concoction of volatile chemicals which contribute to a sometimes intoxicating brew making them distinguishable from one another. However, many cultivars nowadays are grown for certain attributes like being less fibrous and longer shelf life in place of others like flavour and aroma! As a result some varieties like the Tommy Atkins which do not taste and smell very much are still in cultivation and widely sold, though hardly anyone buys them as far as I know! As far as I’m concerned, I still prefer very much my Harumanis, buah binjai and buah kuini when they are in season!
Yes, MFF Penang Month may be over but I still miss the flavours of their kerabus, one of the highlights of Penang Straits Chinese cuisine. Heavily influenced by Thai cooking, the northern Peranakans create an assortment of toss-in salads that are light and refreshing yet so flavourful and wholesome, many of them are good as a meal on their own. The combination of sambal belacan with lime juice and sugar in the dressing is classic, creating a medley of flavours that makes the dish all the more moreish! Last month, I’d made Kerabu Kacang Botol (winged bean salad) and Kerabu Bok Hnee (wood ear fungus salad) last month for MFF Penang. Here I “reprise” the experience with another interesting Kerabu from Penang Peranakan cuisine that incorporates a lesser known ingredient – jellyfish in Kerabu Hai Tay.
Kerabu making is part and parcel of Penang Peranakan cooking, owing much to the influence from Thai cooking. I love love love Kerabu Kacang Botol for the crunch which the winged beans have, on top of the freshness they render without any hint of the harsh rawness which some vegetables have. It is for the same reasons that I like Kerabu Bok Hnee as well! 木耳 Bok Hnee is the Hokkien anglicisation of “cloud ear fungus“, to literally mean “wooden ear” owing much to its appearance. It is a very common ingredient used in Chinese cooking and typically comes in two forms. The “white” form 白木耳 which is actually more translucent is softer and has an almost jelly-like consistency, thus making it very suitable for desserts. The “black” form 黑木耳 is more resilient to cooking and thus lends textural contrast to accompany vegetables dishes like Nyonya Chap Chye where the rest of the vegetables are cooked until very soft.
I bought quite a number of packets of these coral seaweed last year at a food fair. Touted as “sea bird’s nest“, these wobbly translucent branches immediately caught the attention of many
housewives aunties ladies, thanks to the high content of carrageenan, which has textural properties likening collagen. Well, truth be told, it isn’t the real deal as collagen is found only in animals, specifically vertebrates. But its pretty yummy and I’m sure being a seaweed, it has many beneficial qualities as well!
This month’s MFF brings us to Sabah, the Land Below the Wind. Admittedly, I do not know anything about Sabah nor its culinary heritage. So I guess its going to be a month of “copycating” around. While searching for over the internet for interesting Sabahan dishes to prepare, I came across Hinava, a raw fish salad made with few other items, and mostly readily available at hand. It seems that simplicity in ingredients and technique is an ideology perpetuated in Sabahan cuisine. While some may dub it as being primitive and unsophisticated, I choose to think that the minimalistic approach actually maximises the experience of the true flavours of each ingredient. Less is more.
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.