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Published: Sunday August 31, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday September 1, 2014 MYT 9:39:52 AM

Rojak 1Malaysia or fruit salad with Malaysian attitude

No other dish embodies the essence of being Malaysian more.

On Merdeka Day, I am rooting for rojak as a dish to be upheld. With food fads trending on a global scale and at greater speeds, traditional dishes like the rojak have pretty much gone under the radar.

When was the last time you had rojak? I can’t recall either. There was a time – in the 1970s and 1980s – when assam laksa, rojak and ais kacang were the weekly must-haves. Outings were not complete without visiting a joint for some rojak.

In fact, rojak was an addiction for some folks; once enamoured of its secret nuances, they craved it.

These days, mention rojak and it is assumed you are referring to Indian rojak, a totally different dish – that is how out of circulation fruit rojak, or rojak buah, is and also a measure of how popular Indian rojak has become. The new reality is that you need to add the pre-qualifier “fruit” to rojak to refer to the former.

A little bit stinky, sweet, salty, sour and spicy, rojak is said to be an acquired taste – like durian. The pungency and black, sticky character of the sauce comes from prawn paste, a condiment fermented from the heads and shells of shrimps as a by-product of the making of dried prawns.

Interestingly, its Bahasa Malaysia name is otak udang – “prawn brain”. The Penang Hokkiens, who are champions in making prawn paste, calls it haeko and the Indonesian reference is petis udang. Its almost black colour is due to charcoal flour added to dampen the whiffiness, according to one report.

mixing rojak

But back to why rojak should be upheld as a national dish. Perhaps this review of Amir Mohammad’s book of Malaysian short stories entitled Rojak bags it succinctly:

“Rojak is an exquisite escape into the very heart of the Malaysian experience. Short, scrumptious stories that captures the essence of who we are as a people. Tiny toothsome tales that encapsulate clearly, our hybridity, our eccentricity, our cross-cultural identity.”

The author was talking about the book, but he might as well be describing the dish. No other dish can claim to be so quintessentially Malaysian.

The term “rojak” has come to mean “mixed”, a reference to the many different types of fruit and vegetables that can be tossed into the salad. The statement “she’s a rojak” refers to a person of mixed origins, and a “rojak nation” would be one with a plural society of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural people. That’s us, folks.

This idea of mixing things up is prevalent in Malaysian cuisine – nasi campur, ais kacang, kerabu, chap chai and Indian rojak – and may have come from the way we eat where all the dishes are laid out together. So we could be eating a bit of this and a bit of that in one mouthful.

And when we gather, we speak a language that has come to be known, amusingly, as bahasa rojak, or rojak language, a lingua franca and pidgin language marrying Malay, Chinese, Indian and English elements, which amazingly, people have no problem understanding.

According to Editions Didier Millet’s Encyclopedia of Malaysia, the rojak language can be traced back to 1402, in the Malacca of Parameswara where traders and merchants coming from many different parts of the world mingled without knowledge of a common language. Some 80 languages were spoken in Malacca then.

Wikipedia puts the uniqueness of the rojak language to its code-switching style. “A person who speaks Rojak language may begin with standard Malaysian, continue with English, then mix one or two words in Cantonese garnished with Tamil, and finish with Mandarin Chinese or some fashionable Japanese words.”

And that’s what rojak the dish is all about, too – a flexible and accommodating recipe that can be personalised to harmonise with all taste preferences.

It’s a dish that we have all contributed something to: taukwa and youtiao by the Chinese, sambal belacan and bunga kantan by the Malay and Nonya, and fried fritters by the Indian.

Now that we don’t find fruit rojak at every street corner, you may want to learn to make your own with our recipe here, which has suggestions on how to personalise it, and dress it up or down to suit the occasion. Homemade rojak will always be better, so don’t be tempted to use store-bought rojak sauce.

For Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day, make a resplendent rojak and invite friends over for a rojak party.

Happy Rojak Day!

ROJAK

fritters*

300ml water
1 large (Grade A) egg
80g tapioca flour
80g rice flour
1 tbsp fennel seeds
salt to taste
oil for deep frying

sambal

6 red chillies, sliced
3-4 bird's eye chillies
20g belacan, toasted and crushed

sauce

30g tamarind paste dissolved in 100ml water, or lime juice to taste
100g shrimp paste (hae ko or otak udang)
150g caster sugar, or to taste
2 tbsp sambal, or to taste

basic rojak

200g yambean, cut into wedges
200g cucumber, cut into wedges
200g pineapple, cut into wedges
200g green mango, cut into wedges

optional

guava (jambu batu), cut into wedges
rose apples (jambu air), cut into wedges
kedondong, cut into wedges
water convolulus (kangkong), cut into lengths and scalded
beansprouts, scalded
hard beancurd (taukwa), cubed
Chinese cruller (yutiao, yau char kwai or chakoi)
soaked dried cuttlefish, scalded and sliced
deep fried fish skin
wild ginger flower (bunga kantan), split and sliced finely

topping

150g peanuts, roasted and crushed
60g white sesame seeds, toasted

To prepare fritters: In a mixing bowl, combine the flours, egg and water. Mix well and strain the mixture before adding salt and fennel seeds.

Heat enough oil for deep frying in a wok over medium heat. When hot (not smoking), add a small ladle of batter down the sides of the wok. The batter will fan out as it hits the hot oil and form a natural fritter.

Fry, turning over once until it browns on both sides. Remove and drain on paper towels, and leave to cool before storing in airtight containers until needed .

For the sambal: Pound the chillies and belacan together to a fine paste.

For rojak sauce: Soak the tamarind in water for 5-10 minutes to extract pulp. Strain mixture and discard solids. (Or you can replace tamarind with lime or calamansi juice to taste.)

In a big mixing bowl, combine the tamarind juice, sambal, shrimp paste and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves. Adjust the seasoning to taste. The sauce should be thick, of cake-batter consistency, and can be easily scooped with a spoon.

To assemble: Just before serving, toss the rojak sauce with the cut fruit, vegetables, beancurd and etc., in the mixing bowl to coat them well. Then add the “crunchy” ingredients such as the Chinese cruller and fritter – if you like, break the fritter into pieces before adding. Finally, sprinkle generously with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds, and serve immediately.

*Note: Fritters can be replaced with rempeyek, prawn or fish crackers, or deep fried shredded wonton or popiah skin.


Tags / Keywords: rojak, rojak recipe, tropical fruit dish, prawn paste

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