Saturday, October 23, 2010

Spicy Dried Shrimp Floss: A Uniquely Singaporean Bread Spread.

Hae Bee Hiam or Spicy Dried Shrimp Floss on a slice of bread
The dried shrimp fron which Hae Bee Hiam is made.
The Americans: Peanut Butter
The French:Duck Rillette with Baguette The Italians: Tomato Bruschetta with Mozarella Cheese
The English: Marmalade on Toast
The Australians: Vegemite Something spread on a slice of bread is one of the most basic of foods. Usually meant as a quick and easy way to quell hunger pangs. The Americans have their peanut butter and Nutella, the English have Marmalade, Australians have their VegeMite, the French their potted meats, Middle-Easterners their Hummus, Jews their chopped liver, Italians their tomato bruschetta and so on. Bread spreads are not meant to be complex, just utilitarian. Nobody need spend an inordinate amount of time dreaming up complicated recipes for bread spreads. But here in Singapore, we are fortunate to have inherited a recipe for a bread spread so exotic that I believe it qualifies for the title of "most interesting thing to spread on a slice of bread".
The Chinese name for it (in the Hokkien [Fujian province] dialect ) is Hae Bee Hiam which approximately translates to " spicy dried shrimp floss". But the origin of this dish is unlikely to be Chinese. It is essentially a product of Peranakan cuisine, the cuisine of the the first Chinese immigrants who married the local Malay women, and spawned an interesting cuisine that is a fusion of Chinese and Malay cooking techniques and ingredients. For more on Peranakan see http://www.fu-lu-shou.net/2007/02/singapore-food-cuisine-of-peranakan.html.
Hae Bee Hiam is essentially pounded dried shrimp*to which we add, in various amounts and at various times the following pounded mixture: dried chili, fermented shrimp paste, lemongrass, candlenuts, turmeric, garlic, shallots, tamarind pulp. Fry this concoction using pork lard that has bits of pork crackle in it. [may be unhealthy, but definitely tastes better than frying in Canolla oil] When everything is slightly crispy and the excess oil drained and mopped with kitchen tissue, you will have something that can be used not only as a bread spread but also as a garnish for blander dishes. Not to mention that you can keep it for months in a tupperware placed in the refrigerator. * dried shrimp is an important ingredient of Asian cooking. The Chinese, Malays, Thais, Filipinos and Vietnamese use dreid shrimp in many of their dishes. Dried shrimp adds taste to soups as well as stir-fried vegetable dishes.
With such a mix of ingredients the Hae Bee Hiam is a melange of exotic flavors and smells that no other bread spread in the world possesses. The unmistakeable smell of Hae Bee Hiam once lead me by the nose to a laundry shop in Philadelphia's Chinatown, whose owner was from Singapore.
Hae Bee Hiam should be sprinkled on a piece of bread. Just enough to balance the blandness of the bread. If consumed regularly, especially in early childhood, Hae Bee Hiam becomes a comfort food when one is grown up, and the smell or taste of it conjures up emotions of nostalgia and the joys of childhood.
I 'm not sure what drink we should have with a Hae Bee Hiam sandwich- it has to complement the strong character of hae bee hiam and not compete with it. Coffee would be too strong, wine is out, perhaps hot tea with honey, a slice of lemon and a sprig of Mint leaf.

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