Thursday, November 29, 2007

Malay Home-Style Cooking

The street food in Singapore reflects the multi-racial composition of its population. Chinese, Indian, and Malay food can be found everywhere, at all hours of the day. It is not uncommon for a Singaporean to have Indian food for breakfast, Malay food for lunch and Chinese food for dinner. Even to categorize Singapore food into Indian, Malay and Chinese does not do Singapore food justice. Among the Chinese, the various dialect groups from different provinces of China have very different cuisine. So too with the Indians and Malays. Indians hail from different parts of India with very different cuisine, and Malay food has different nuances depending on whether it is near to the Indonesian islands of Sumatra or Java, the Eastern or Northern parts of Malaysia. There is also the food of the Peranakan, as we call the descendants of immigrants who have inter-married with the indigenuous Malays. Peranakan cuisine is unique and refined.

Of all the food available, I like home-style Malay food. It is relatively cheap, it fills the stomach, yet is healthy and delicious. One of my favorite stalls is at the Eastern end of Singapore, in the market at Changi Village. Run by two house-wives, it is gutsy, unpretentious food. There are many other Malay food stalls in other parts of the building, but these stalls have capitulated to commercial whims, and cater to those who are not so discerning in their taste, or to put it more tactfully, they are less fussy about what they eat. Thus, recipes which involve the time-consuming grinding of spices and slow-cooking are replaced with fast-food style deep- fried items. The stall that I eat at has no signboard, and is located in an obscure corner of the market. Yet it has a regular and loyal clientele. The Chinese boatmen that steer the bumboats to the island of Pulau Ubin prefer this Malay food to the Chinese food. So too the armed forces personnel at nearby military bases, the workers from Singapore's airport, and those who go to Changi village for fishing and relaxation.

Pictures from top:
1. Mee Goreng: Or fried noodles. A dish commonly found all over Singapore. The noodles are fried with Soya sauce, tomato-paste, chili-paste and garlic. An egg is stirred in. Garnishing include mustard greens, onions, tomatos. The recipe looks unchallenging, but as any Mee Goreng connosieur will tell you, a good dish of Mee Goreng is not easily found.
2. Grilled fish: A type of mackerel is slit open at the sides and filled with a paste that is a mixture of fresh-ground chili, fermented shrimp paste, Kaffir lime, lemon grass, ground shallots. The fish is then slowly grilled over a charcoal fire. The skin of the fish is crispy, while the flesh is tender. The stall owners use fish that is freshly caught and brought in by the fishing boats at the jetty nearby.
3. Tapioca [Cassava] stew. A rare dish, even here. Tapioca leaves and the Tuber [root]itself are used to concoct a milky stew. Coconut milk and pounded dried shrimp are added to give a kick to such a mild-looking dish. The slightly bitter Taptioca leaves could have been a goat's meal. But that's what makes this dish unique-and very healthy too.
4. Sayur Lodeh. Another favorite vegetable soup of the Malays. Coconut-milk based, and with the yellow tinge of Tumeric [a ginger-like spice root, claimed by the Indians in their Ayurvedic medicine to have healing properties, it is a dish that is sometimes eaten with rice-cakes that have been cooked while wrapped in the fronds of the coconut palm. In addition to cabbage, long beans, vermicelli and tofu cakes are added.

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