For some folks, preparations for Chinese New year starts as early as a month back right after Tang Chek. It marks the beginning of spring cleaning as well as cooking and baking to usher the new year. Folks like give an assortment of kuehs and snacks to friends and family during this period of time. The all-time favorite would be kueh tair, i.e. Peranakan Pineapple Tarts, with kueh belanda and kueh bangket etc following closely behind. Another top on the list is acheir, the Peranakan achar and Sambal Lengkong too is given away as a token of appreciation as well for some.
Thai cuisine is up next for Asian Food Fest #2 and the contrast between Thai and Japanese food couldn’t be greater. Yet I love them both! For me, Thai food is all about the explosion of flavours albeit with little mouthfuls that go a long way. The prototypical impression many of us have on Thai food is its stong notes on heat and sourish palate profile. Thai cuisine liberally incorporates chili in many of its dishes so one is almost immediately hit by the impact from these little morsels of red firecrackers bursting in one’s mouth. Acridity and astringency introduced take form through the use of Thai green limes and/or tamarind pulp and together, they produce a wave of refreshing sensation against the heat, helping to subdue the latter slightly. Some say that it is really a competition of these two flavours but I choose to think that the amalgamation makes it multi-dimensional. Speaking of multi-dimensional, Thai cuisine is also heavy on the use of fish sauce, much loved for its savory hues and profound sense of umami flavours it transpires. In fact fish sauce, despite being commonly employed in Indochinese cuisines like Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian food as well, is synonymously linked with Thai food. And everything is balanced with a bit of sweetness from Thai palm sugar, a milder, and incidentally paler version compared to its southern cousin coconut sugar (gula melaka/gula jawa) used extensively in Straits and Indonesian cuisine. As such, Thai cuisine is really a big melting pot of flavours as well as aromatics. For me, one dish which epitomises the very essence of Thai cuisine has to be ส้มตำ Som Tam, its ever popular Green Papaya Salad.
Straits cooking, be it Malay, Indonesian or Peranakan is characterised by the elaborated and generous use of chillies, spices and herbs. Given the variety that grows within the region, a slight difference in combination of these ingredients permutates to produce a plethora of different culinary delights which Straits cooking is so well-known for. Baba-Nyonya cuisine, heavily influenced by the other cuisines in the region, pushes this further through the incorporation of fruits into dishes. The additional dimensions rendered through these fruits often bring dishes from Peranakan cuisine to the next level, be it in visual appeal, aroma, texture and/or flavour.
Mango, pineapple, jackfruit and bananas are the “regulars”, being used in many signature dishes which many of us are familiar with. Once a while, we encounter lesser known local fruit varieties like bilimbi buluh (Averrhoa bilimbi), buah cermai (Phyllanthus acidus), buah kedondong (Spondias dulcis) and buah sukun (Artocarpus altilis), buah binjai (Mangifera caesia). These would be a real treat to those who appreciate the interesting flavours which many of these fruits have.
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.
This month’s Malaysian Food Fest features the local cuisine from Negeri Sembilan, which is known for their liberal use of chili, especially bird’s eye chili aka chili padi by the locals. Like all the other MFFs of other states, I am keen on the look out for unique dishes which are representative of that region. Negeri Sembilan was no exception. Through Wendy, I came across daun puding, commonly grown for ornamental plant for their beautfiul shades which the foliage manifest in, from mauve to maroon. Spent the whole month looking for it in Singapore but to no avail. Apparently not that common in Singapore. And just as this month’s event reaches its closing, I finally found a small patch of it within walking distance from where I reside. But I was kind skeptical as plant I saw did look kinda different from the others over the internet. Not wanting to risk having sakit perut or worse, cirit-birit I abandoned the idea of cooking rendang out of it. I settled for something less exotic, but no less delicious, Rendang Daging Rembau.
Ask me what I deem to be the most delicious in this world which I cannot stop eating, I probably can’t give you a definite answer. So many foods would come spinning in my head like sevens on a pachinko machine. Über fresh sea urchin roe sashimi (uni) over a bowl of piping hot Japanese short-grain rice, perfectly braised pork belly sandwiched in crisp salad greens, timely cooked Kacchi chicken biryani, freshly baked ciabatta with a simple pesto dip and aged balsamic vinegar, otah otah from just fresh mackerel and coconut milk, chilled pengat durian… and the list runs on and on. Ask me again on what I find to be the most delicious dish which can be whipped up in just minutes and the list narrows down quite easily to just one candidate emerging victorious and somewhat vindictive. It has to be 明太子パスタ Mentaiko Pasta!