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.
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!