August 31, 2011

Proud to Be Rojak'ed

Penang-Style Fruit Salad, a.k.a. Penang Rojak

When I saw the email from Pick Shan, a.k.a. Babe_KL, more than two weeks of ago, I rubbed my eyes and said to myself in disbelief, “Gosh, it’s that time of year again.”

Time to say merdeka! In Malay, merdeka means independence. In other words, happy 54th birthday, Malaysia!

This year, because Merdeka Day, which falls on Aug. 31, coincides with Hari Raya Aidilfitri, here in Malaysia, everyone gets a (little) break — to soak up the festive spirits, to go on a vacation elsewhere, or, like me, to simply slow down and rest and catch up with friends after slogging for hours for days. But since I’m so tied up with work these days, and thus feeling jaded, I thought to give this year’s Merdeka Open House, which is themed “Makan Through Malaysia,” a miss. (Makan means “to eat” in Malay.)

C’mon, you’ve been doing this over the last two years! Nothing for the Merdeka Open House this year, seriously? You’re going to be missing out on a ton of fun …

Let’s just say I’m now taking my words back. I feel a hint of remorse. I’ve changed my mind. Albeit late, I’d still like to contribute a little somethin’ to the virtual potluck, and to introduce a Malaysian slang and a classic Malaysian salad to the rest of the world.

We love the word rojak, which refers to a jumble of different things — such as the Bahasa Rojak, literally a jumble of languages, a linguistic phenomenon that reflects Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society — and in the culinary sense, usually a salad, a jumble of all things delicious. Simple and straightforward, eh?

We have rojaks of all sorts across the country, and among them, the Penang rojak is a favorite of mine. The name says it all; the rojak is associated with the northern state of Penang.

Penang-Style Fruit Salad, a.k.a. Penang Rojak

Essentially the Penang rojak is a jumble of bite-size chunks of local fruits and veggies — ambarella (buah kedondong), guava, pineapple, raw mango, raw papaya, water apple (air jambu), cucumber, jicama, among others — tossed generously in a thick caramel-like dressing that tastes sweet and savory and spicy with the use of shrimp paste (otak udang, or hae ko, 蝦膏), chile oil, tamarind paste, and torch ginger (bunga kantan). The latter perks up the salad with a mild gingery, yet sprightly floral bite. (If there’s a fragrance designed to smell like the torch ginger, I’d be the first to buy it.)

Southeast-Asian Shrimp Paste or Sauce
Southeast-Asian shrimp paste, or otak udang in Malay, and hae ko (蝦膏) in Hokkien.

Ambarella (Buah Kedondong)
Ambarella (buah kedondong), a tart local fruit.

Torch Ginger or Wild Ginger (Bunga Kantan)
Torch ginger (bunga kantan)

And the final touch: a generous sprinkle of crushed roasted peanuts atop the sticky pile of mess.

But I have no clue as to why it’s Penang. My intuition is telling me the rojak could have originated there.

I’m not a Penangnite. Nor that I frequent Penang; in fact, I was last spotted there over 14 years ago. (And I can vaguely remember the ride on a ferry that my parents took me on, the ocean breeze that cuddled my face as we braced ourselves across the Straits of Malacca. My memory of Penang is that ancient.)

Thanks to the middle-aged Chinese man who sold Penang rojak at the evening bazaar (known affectionately as pasar malam among Malaysians) in my neck of the woods, and thanks to my mom who almost never failed to buy a foam takeout container or two of the rojak every week from this rojak man, I got to indulge in this tropical fruit salad growing up.

“Mama, can I have the crispy stuff all to myself?” little Pei-Lin asked, with her eyes turned misty, waiting rather impatiently for the answer. Once approval was granted, she picked out the crispy deep-fried slices of Chinese donut and saturated them with the rich Penang-rojak dressing, then, after waiting for a few minutes, this chubby little girl gobbled her “work of art” up with utter satisfaction.

Special Dressing for Penang Rojak
The thick, dark caramel-like dressing for Penang rojak.

It used to be more of a deep-fried affair. But not anymore. Fast forward 14 years, to 2011. I’ve outgrown that fussiness and that love of all things deep-fried of mine. And that’s somethin’ to be proud of.

To be able to enjoy every darn piece of the jumble is the ultimate joy of eating Penang rojak — just like being able to enjoy and learn from every single culture of the culturally rojak’ed Malaysia.

That’s how I see Satu Malaysia — or, in English, One Malaysia. Albeit a long ways to go for the nation as a whole, that, too, is still somethin’ to be proud of as a Malaysian, no matter where I wind up in in the future.

Penang-Style Fruit Salad, a.k.a. Penang Rojak

Penang-Style Fruit and Vegetable Salad (Penang Rojak)
Adapted from Periplus Mini Cookbooks: Tropical Salads, by Geok Boi Lee

This is a salad of tropical fruits and veggies, and the dressing is very Malaysian. So, if you’re residing in the part of the world where sourcing the ingredients becomes rather challenging — even with a trip to the Asian grocery store, you may perhaps consider improvising the recipe. For my homemade version, I omit deep-fried slices of Chinese donut (油炸鬼).

½ tablespoon tamarind pulp, soaked in 2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons Southeast-Asian shrimp paste (otak udang, or hae ko, 蝦膏)
1 tablespoon red chile flakes, fried in 1 teaspoon cooking oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, or to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped torch ginger (bunga kantan)

1 kilogram fresh tropical fruits and vegetables — consider a combination of, say, ambarella (buah kedondong), guava, pineapple, raw mango, cucumber, and jicama, cut into bite-size pieces

250 grams crushed roasted peanuts

For tamarind juice, mash and strain the tamarind and discard the solids. Then, for the dressing, mix together the tamarind juice and (A). Toss in the fruits and vegetables to coat well. Sprinkle the top generously with crushed roasted peanuts. Serve immediately.

Yield: about four servings


Janine said...

torch ginger is a must for any rojak that i buy - in fact, that's the first thing i look for at the glass shelves of the rojak stall.

and your post just made me feel nostalgic, i don't really celebrate Merdeka Day where I'm at, as close to Malaysia as I am situated, but my heart's always with her :)

Lisa H. said...

The Rojak looks marvellous... and making my mouth 'water'...yum.

travellingfoodies said...

loving the sweet-sour hae-koh concoction but look at all that fruit and peanut! The whole thing with dressing must be a whooping 1.5kg. But since its mostly fruits, not that sinful yeah?

thanks for sharing!!

babe_kl said...

ohhh now I know Penang version has bunga kantan in it! yummy!

Thanks for participating!

ICook4Fun said...

It has been a long while since I had rojak. For me rojak is all about the crispy crackers. I wish I can get bunga kantan here.

Quay Po Cooks said...

Pei LIn, your next stay over, you must make this rojak for popo. It is her favorite! She will love you long time... hehehe. It is always a pleasure to see what you are up to and always enjoy your writing. You took some nice photos too.

Caca said...

yes, the bunga kantan makes the whole rojak taste so much better.

Jo said...

Hmm no better local dish than this to celebrate Merdeka Day. Looks great and I am ... slurp! slurp! Sorry bad manners!

Alice said...

oh i love rojak, some more with kedondong in it *drool*

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