The “summer heat” in Singapore on most days these few weeks have reached the point of being unbearable. Save for the last few rainy nights which lent to breezy mornings and cloudy days, the rest of the time is basically hot hot hot! This kinda weather calls for something spicy and provocative to work up one’s appetite. Chanced upon some beautiful pucuk paku pakis on my most recent trip to the wet market and it is time to whip up a quick kerabu which is perfect for a homecooked meal!
When I made Som Tam for Asia Food Fest Thailand two years back, I fell in love with how it tasted. The assemblage of piquant flavours from sugary to sour, savory and spicy came together beautifully to stimulate one’s palate. And now I turn to using green mangoes in place of papaya, for Som Tam Mamuang. Needless to say, it was equally, if not even more moreish and appetite whetting!
I love salads because they are such quick and fuss-free meals which are extremely versatile and virtually effortless to make. Given the right melange of components and ingredients, they can also be visually stunning and most certainly help to work up one’s appetite and get those salivary glands raging. That is when you’ll realise that a salad alone may just not be enough. *chuckles*
The other important thing about salads for me, is how they epitomise one of the doctrines of what good food should be, freshness. When the ingredients are crisp and just off the vine, very little needs to be done to tease out all those wonderful flavours and aroma which Mother Nature has put into nurturing them, be it fruit or vegetables. They will sing their own song, with lyrics which speaks of their innate sweetness which make all other condiments redundant. The other thing I love about salads, is how they could easy be assembled using the produce of the season. Midsummer August now and many stone fruits and other exotic varieties are in season. For me, the real treat are figs, especially Black Mission figs. I’d used them in Hidemi Sugino’s Tartlette aux Figues before and they were absolutely lovely. This time round its a red simple Fig and Halloumi Salad, a taste of the Mediterranean summer.
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.
Blood oranges are in season at this time of the year and over the last 2-3 years or so, we see a lot of those of the “Moro” variety cultivated by Sunkist imported from the US. Stroke of luck has it that I’d managed to get some Sicilian oranges imported directly from Italy and my oh my, the difference in flavours are so apparent. The citrusy notes from the Sicilian oranges are so much more intense, refreshing and memorable. The US Moro ones really pale in comparison. Each fruit is just slightly less than a dollar each, a small premium to pay for an explosion of palate experience. The best way to enjoy them is of course fresh as they are, or in my case, Insalata di Finocchio con Arancia Rossa di Sicilia, using these Sicilian oranges and fennel , a simple salad lunch the truly Sicilian way.
Like ルージュ Rouge, this is a plated dessert which I’d created in conjunction of EAT AND MAKE TAU HUAY DAY. Rouge was concocted out of my love for fruits aux rouges. I love berries of all sorts, wholeheartedly worshipping the intricacies that could be teased out of these little parcels bursting with flavour! El Tropicano is inspired by the fruits de la saison we were enjoying at that moment in time. The use of mango and passionfruit together with lemon balm mint is heavily inspired by Hidemi Sugino’s tartelette “Tahiti タヒチ” which I’d made a year back and fell in love ever since. But of course, there were Ai Wen Mangoes then! likewise, I’d used lemon balm for the outburst of refreshing citrusy aroma. Added additional dimension of using pineapple since we had some S&W Sweet 16 pineapples from the Phillippines! It would be really lovely to add a coconuty twist in it but everything was made in a rush, pieced together on a last minute basis. So pina colada would have to wait until another time!
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.