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

August 17, 2011

Looking on the Bright Side

On a Business Trip, Alone in the Hotel Room ...

Here I am, sitting before the laptop, alone in the hotel room somewhere in Ipoh for official duty. My strained eyes are staring at a blank sheet of Word document, my fingers poise themselves with uncertainty on the keyboard, my mind burned out and feeling dazed. Words are at the tip of my tongue. I know I want to write, but I don’t know where to begin with. I may not even be clear about my thoughts.

Still, I’m going to forge ahead with this. It’s been a while, people.

And it’s been very quiet here. Unsurprisingly, with the cold response this blog has been getting, I’m beginning to have doubts. I wonder if I should abandon this blog so that on weekdays, it’ll be just work and work and nothing else, then by the time I’m home, it’ll be just quiet moments spent in solitude before hitting the sack. I’ve been questioning myself: How long this blog will last and if the blogging momentum is leaving me for good. I don’t have the guts to peek at the answers, even.

On the other hand, I do feel a little easier now with the label, “corporate communications executive,” on an introvert like me, a greenhorn who racks her brain to plan, organize, and execute events; who takes care of the image of the company that hires her; who, no matter how jaded she is, has to put up a smile on her face and talk to people of all walks of life, be it the press, the staff, or the bosses; who used to write more but less now professionally. A good portion of my brain is occupied by things like corporate social responsibility, corporate branding, internal relations, investor relations, the media, annual dinner, product launches. I no longer write full time, and I’ve been missing writing terribly.

Just About to Reach Ipoh, Perak ...
Nearing Ipoh ...

I may have been out on a limb, throwing myself in the nasty corporate world. The good news is, I’m trying to look on the bright side. I wonder if this turbulent ride will take me to another stage in life. I hope to share it with you as time goes, and as I grow.

So, before I head for the bed, before I embark on another busy day tomorrow, before I return — in another week, or two, or who-knows-when — with another new post, it’d be nice to share with you a recent addiction of mine.

Pei-Lin's Salad, Dressed With Homemade Vinaigrette

Loads of vegetables, beans, and sardines, coated in loads of homemade balsamic vinaigrette.

That’s a balanced meal, my kind of food, for someone who loves to cook and bake and eats homemade food, but who can hardly on hectic days like now.

A small head of sweet, crisp organic cabbage, either green or red. A couple of crunchy, sweet-tasting, mildly peppery bell peppers, red and yellow. Some jalapeños, for a picante touch, seeded. (Keep the seeds if you can handle more heat than I do!) A good handful of juicy honeyed cherry tomatoes, both red and yellow colored. Diced pitted black olives. Some sardines packed in olive oil. A can of chickpeas or fava beans. (Canned beans are still acceptable.) Dress them all in spoonfuls of good-quality balsamic vinaigrette, which I love for its sweet caramel-like flavor. Lastly, season for taste with fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper.

Addiction in a bowl, y’all.

I’ve been caught devouring this salad for lunch in the office. Come to think about it, I may have really been out on a limb, crawling my way through the cruel corporate world. But looking on the bright side, albeit jaded, I’m thankful that it all takes at most — if not more than — 40 minutes, approximately, from start to end, to knock together the salad and the week’s supply of balsamic vinaigrette. Down it.

And I’m a rather happy working girl.

P.S. This post was written, on and off, across three days. It was first composed in a hotel room in Ipoh, while I was away on a business trip two days ago now, then was expanded upon the next morning I got up. The entire post finally came into shape last night, after my return from Ipoh, cozily in my own room in Kuala Lumpur.

Homemade Lemon-Mustard Vinaigrette and Balsamic Vinaigrette
Vinaigrette made with lemon juice on the left, and one with balsamic vinegar on the right.

Balsamic Vinaigrette

This vinaigrette hits home. And the below formula is something I picked up over the months, through reading good food write-ups and looking at recipes. A no-brainer, really. Some kind of oil, an acid of some sort, and mustard as emulsifier are basically what you need. I find myself fiddling around, enjoying the process. I’d tried with malt vinegar, and it’s not a good idea. At times I use freshly squeezed lemon juice in lieu of balsamic vinegar. Lemon juice, perhaps because of its much higher acid content, however, makes emulsifying less easy, and hence a runnier vinaigrette. Try throwing in a clove or two of minced garlic or a small shallot to give it a greater savory gusto.

3 parts balsamic vinegar
1 part Dijon mustard
5 parts good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a mixing bowl, using a hand whisk, whisk together the vinegar and mustard to blend well. As you keep whisking the mixture (rather vigorously), dribble in the olive oil. Do this slowly; otherwise, the mixture won’t emulsify. Taste with salt and pepper. Use it to dress your choice salad. Store the vinaigrette in an airtight jar, refrigerated. It keeps for weeks.
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