Right. I’m starting this static page to explain some ingredients that I seem to able to write tomes on, I’m almost embarrassed. I am going to try to make this is as neat and legible as possible, but I do hope it helps explain certain things about ingredients a bit better. I will add on to it as I go….
The word ‘sour’ in the Malay language is masam, the tamarind fruit as you would find it on the tree is called buah assam and assam in the Malay language refers to the tamarind fruit pulp used for cooking and can be found at any grocer or supermarket in Singapore. In Singapore it is mostly sold in clear plastic packets and is very soft and jammy and nearly homogenous in texture, although the seeds are still present. I have seen tamarind pulp in London and Delhi packed into very firm bricks, where the seeds and even outer skin of the fruit are left in. In the preparation of either, you need to cut off or pinch off your required portion and soak it in water. The harder it is, the longer a soak it’d need. The assam in Singapore barely needs a soak, maybe more of a massage with the fingertips to release the pulp into the water.
Pungent smelling dried prawn paste. The Malay one is different from the Thai one, so for our recipes here, get something that originates in Malaysia. Usually sold in small bricks, wrapped in paper not unlike sticks of butter. It’s always recommended to toast your belacan before using it in your cooking. This toasting can be skipped if you’re ultimately cooking it in a dish, but for sambal belacan, it is an essential step as you don’t want to eat it raw. Toasting takes the edge off it slightly, and lends it some smokiness.
No Malay cook worth their salt would be without a jar of cili giling in their fridge. It’s a pantry staple, and must always be on hand. We usually use this pre-prepared blend of dried chillies, garlic and onion as a base for dishes that require red chillies. Mum calls it cili giling referring to the batu giling or grinding stone traditionally used to make pastes out of ingredients (it’s like a mortar and pestle but the base is ginormous and flattish, while the pestle is basically a huge round rock). Her sisters call the same chilli paste cili blender because now, we all just use the blender or food processor! I never have a jar in my fridge much to the astonishment of my mother, because frankly I don’t use much chilli in my cooking anymore because of the kids inability to eat it. So I never make cili giling to store in my fridge, but I will make it as I need it, and it’s pretty simple. Soak the chillies in water til they swell. Two handfuls of dried red chillies would need one large onion and 2 garlic cloves. Blend the soaked chillies with the onion and garlic, and store in the fridge for up to a week.
Be wary of chillies from India, they are HOT. Singapore ones are milder, and dry extremely wrinkly. The smoother and flatter and shorter the chillies are, generally speaking, the more lethal they are. Indians don’t blend their dried chillies to be consumed, dried chilies are more often used to flavour oils for drizzling on a finished dish. The Malays consume the chillies, so it needs to be a bit milder for the quantity used.
Otherwise known as Santan in the Malay language. Santan is a heavily used ingredient in Malay and Indonesian cooking and often blamed for high cholestrol problems in individuals who eat lots of Malay food. There is a lot of new research coming out stating that saturated fats are not the culprits they were purported to be so many decades ago, which led of course to the war on fats that carries on till today. What could possibly be the real culprit, is sugar, which is what carbohydrates are broken down to. My point is, I don’t think we should be so afraid of coconut milk, but try instead to vary our diet, and get a good amount of cardiovascular training in everyday. And of course don’t over eat, and don’t eat junk. But I’m supposed to be telling you about coconut milk, so ignore my health advice.
In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the brands of choice are usually Kara or Cap Ayam (that’s read, ch-aap aa-yaam, or Ayam Brand). I’m not sure about Thailand, but perhaps the brand of choice there is Chaokoh, because anywhere else in the world, it certainly is! When I couldn’t find Kara or Cap Ayam when were living away, Chaokoh was definitely the go-to for me.
Coconut milk is NOT the translucent, grey coconut WATER drunk from a coconut with a straw. Coconut milk is NOT coconut cream. Coconut milk is what gets squeezed out of grated, fresh coconut flesh, you know that white crunchy stuff, when mixed with a little water. It resembles milk, and its viscosity is like pouring cream. And if it’s bright white, it’s probably slightly artificial…it’s usually off-white, leaning towards grey-white, and if not shaken in the tin, once opened you should find that the thicker fat portion is separated from the liquid slightly (which is easily stirred to recombine). If it’s homogenous even when left alone for a while, then it’s probably had something added to it for this to happen, and it will not taste optimal in your dish.
In Singapore, we have a local herb known as daun kesom which is the same as what you would find labelled as daun laksa (because, it’s also used as an aromat in Peranakan, or more commonly known as Nonya Laksa. Ooh! I should do a post on that one day..). It has a lemony sort of basil-ish fragrance, sharp and somewhat refreshing. Usually added towards the very end of cooking a dish, just to release it’s tangy aroma. In English it is also known as vietnamese basil. If you do find it where you are and you want to grow it so you don’t have to hunt around town for it again in future, just take one of the stalks that you have, and stick into a glass of water, for a few days until the roots appear. Once the roots become a bit longer, it’s safe to put into a pot of soil and it will grow quite prolifically. This weed loves heat, make sure it gets sun (altho, not 40degreeC heat, it will die).
Buah Keluak (boo-wah kuh-loo-aa’) / Pangium Edule
Buah keluak is a seed with a black pulp used mostly for Kuah Rawon in Javanese kitchens, or Ayam buah keluak in Peranakan kitchens, the former using beef while the latter, chicken. Toxic when fresh, it must first be fermented by burying in ash before it is cracked open, traditionally in a heavy mortar and pestle, the pulp removed and cooked up. One would think it is found in the ground, but a quick search on google tells us that the seeds are found in a fruit on the tree, and in each fruit hide many seeds, much like a jackfruit. The outside of the brown fruit resembles a cacao pod, but tapered at the top and tail ends.
Not found in every market, in Singapore I’ve discovered that you can find it whole with the seed’s shell intact at the Pasir Panjang wholesale centre, and at Tekka Market. Years ago, I used to find it at the Cold Storage supermarket at Yishun MRT of all places! At Geylang Serai market, one can buy them with the shells already removed, the pulp of each seed still whole and packed in little clear plastic packets. I prefer them whole with the shell on, as I’ve been told that sometimes, the pulp being sold has had oil massaged onto their surface to make them appear shiny and fresh, but that’s just me, my relatives prefer buying these to save time in the kitchen.
I always go to one stall in Tekka Market that specialises in the seed, and if I remember correctly his stall number is 105 (it’s 100-something, but not more than 110! you can spot him from his big sacks of buah keluak) in the dry foodstuff area of the market. Roughly, if you enter Tekka Market via the big front stairs facing the hawker center, head left to the vegetables section, take the very first left passageway through the vegetables, all the way to the back of the market where the dry foodstuff is (ie, curry powders, ikan bilis, dried chillies, belacan, dried prawns, dried squid, that sort of thing).
The numbers of the stalls are painted very clearly in this section, so you shouldn’t have any problem finding the Chinese uncle with sacks of beautiful looking buah keluak. The Uncle is very chatty, which is great, I personally love talking with market stall holders when I’m not too groggy from sleep deprivation. Apparently he is the only person who can send buah keluak to Australia without them getting confiscated at customs. He has a sticker he uses to label the seeds very clearly as Pangium Edule so as to ensure they clear customs there, because according to Uncle, if the carrier doesn’t have this sticker and describes the seeds incorrectly as nuts, “cannot”. He is the one who told me that the grey ones he sells have a slightly sweet flavour, while the brown ones have a more bitter flavour, and he was quick to point out it really is personal preference. The brown ones can be found at a vegetable stall on the way in to the dry food stuff section, it would be a stall on your left. In any case, ask around if you get lost, the stall holders will point you in the right direction, and of course use the local name of ‘buah keluak’, not pangium edule unless you want a HAHR?? for a response.
Always buy more than you need for a recipe, in case you find when you open them some aren’t quite up to scratch. I don’t know how to describe the selection process of buah keluak apart from using your eyes, choose the ones that look fresh, and plump and clean and dry but not dehydrated. Feel the weight in your hand, it shouldn’t feel empty, and if you shake it, it shouldn’t sound like something hard is knocking about inside, the pulp should really be soft but firm, a bit like firmly chilled butter, or .. a heated squash ball… or…what I imagine a lipstick might feel if I held it in my hand, or … fudge! Like room temperature fudge. (I literally sat here for a few minutes trying to think of something. That was tough.) The pulp might be loose inside the shell, but if you shake it and hear nothing, that just means the pulp is attached to the shell which is fine too. What matters most is when you crack it open at home, whether it is whole or in pieces, it looks plump, shiny, soft and firm, and … well, fresh!