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.
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 otak udang in Malay, and hae ko (蝦膏) in Hokkien.|
|Ambarella (buah kedondong), a tart local fruit.|
|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.
|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 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