READ, COOK, EAT! #3: The Food of Singapore Malays
Dear Readcookeaters, Welcome to part 3 (and last part!) of Read, Cook, Eat! If it’s your first time here, a summary: I (Tan Aik) will be reviewing a selection of food books while attempting to learn recipes straight off the page. Today’s book is The Food of Singapore Malays, written by food historian and author Khir Johari. It is a work in food anthropology, occupied with the intersection between food and culture, although reading it will dispel the illusion that the two concepts can be separated cleanly. Food as medicine. Food as metaphor. Food is culture, and culture is food. By extending a critical lens and drawing from a wide variety of historical sources of different stripes, Khir outlines the shape of a rich food culture—one that perhaps has been unfairly portrayed in contemporary media.
It doesn’t take much effort to triangulate the parameters of discussion in mainstream discourse surrounding “Malay Food”. For example, during the Hari Raya season, you might have seen sign boards or screens trumpeting taglines like “Enjoy sweeter celebrations with less sugar this Hari Raya”. Or, you might have read articles about the eating habits of certain ethnic groups. Such talking points are nothing new; for years, Malay cuisine has continually been portrayed as unhealthy in mainstream media. Of course, the supposed unhealthiness of Malay cuisine is not something that The Food of Singapore Malays goes out of its way to directly disprove or affirm. However, the topical ground that it does cover—a well-rounded and meticulous documentation of tradition, culture, history, aesthetics, etc—provide valuable counterpoints to lazy narratives about Malay food. Malay food is one-note; Malay food relies too much on cream and fat; Malay food lacks refinement; all of these reductive characterisations of Malay food and the people that cook it, eat it, and love it are impotent when face-to-face with Khir’s loving tribute to a rich, diverse cuisine that proudly stands alongside the other great cuisines of the world. How foolish it is to label it “unhealthy” and leave it at that! Can you tell I’m a fan of the book? The Food of Singapore Malays has a heft and feel of a reference book that is pulled out of the shelves of a dusty library perhaps once a year by an enterprising scholar. The 600 plus pages, however, are used well to cover a truly staggering range of subjects. Khir melds history, anthropology, food, among other scattered -ologies to form a dynamic portrait of a people and their food. The blurb at the back of the book proclaims that it’s “not a cookbook”, and truly, it has a sense of purpose that differs from a cookbook. Where a cookbook would explain a technique and provide a recipe, or even provide a little cultural context, The Food of Singapore Malays goes the complete opposite way. The book is more interested in the “why” and the “when” and the “who” than in the “how”. This focus, paired with the beautiful photographs and curated historical images, makes me imagine a parallel universe in which this book is a sublime museum exhibit.
We’re mainly here not to make sambal, but to appreciate its role and importance in society. For instance, there’s a section in the book titled “A Repertoire of Techniques: Preservation and Preparation”. Here, Khir expounds on the subject of sambal, noting its roles at a table (sometimes a condiment, sometimes a dish), its variations, the styles of preparation (raw vs cooked), and so on. Later on, delightfully, he cites a source that vividly communicates the importance of sambal; a sultan is observed enjoying a feast of 26 varieties of sambal alongside a “pageant of gulai”. Little touches like these really helped me immerse myself in the little cultural nuances that I would otherwise miss. In the section “Lyric Flavours: Food in Verse, Tale and Song”, the writing is at its best. Engaging, witty, and utterly informative, Khir cites pantun, food-based pop songs and proverbs to illustrate the significance and cultural importance attached to food. The coconut and its derivative projects are objects often subject to poetic fixation, and Mr. Khir Johari will never let us forget it. I particularly appreciated the list of food-themed songs provided at the end of the chapter. It’s a very contemporary touch, I think, to include a playlist in your book. So hip! I also liked the jaunts into natural history. The Singapore of the past, as described by the book, is a rich land of plenty, with its inhabitants foraging and drawing from it to feed themselves. That’s definitely a far cry from the Singapore of now, which is a packed metropolis with foodways that extend not just regionally but globally. Much has been lost in this transition, and Khir hammers the point home with segments like “In Search of Lost Durian”, which lists dozens of heirloom durians that are now extinct in favour of the cultivation of a few commercial varieties.
These segments twist the knife when one recalls the frequent ecological tragedies reported in the news. With each acre of forest depleted for living space, for golf courses, for more city, we lose more and more of Singapore’s rich bounty forever, as entire species go extinct, never to return. However, even now, echoes of old Singapore still exist if we look hard enough. In the foods we love, in the kitchens of Singaporean households, in the techniques that we still employ, in the shape of our lives, a culture is kept alive. The Food of Singapore Malays is but one of many efforts to keep the fire burning, and it will take much more than the effort of one person if we want to preserve what we have left. Even if it is a very good book.
In that spirit, let’s cook something that I don’t think is super common anymore in Singapore - sate kĕrang, or cockle satay. The book refers to it as “the once-famous Sate Kĕrang of Kampong Gĕlam'', so I’m really excited to make and eat it!
Our first order of business is to buy some cockles, and so we head to Boon Lay Market, a small but respectable market that’s not too far from my home. I’ve actually never been here much, and thus my knowledge of what the stalls sell is quite limited. When we arrive, we’re hit with a nasty surprise—there are no cockles being sold in Boon Lay Market today. An uncle manning a fish stall helpfully tells us that the only stall that sells cockles hasn’t brought in any today. Instead, we bow to modern convenience and head over to the FairPrice housed in Boon Lay Shopping Centre (right next to the aforementioned market). We find what we’re looking for, I think, and buy 1.5 kg of “blood cockles”, which I assume are the correct kind of cockles. Blood cockles, popularly referred to as “hum”, are the kind of cockles used in sate kĕrang, right?
Anyhow, cockles in hand, we head back to start preparing the food. First comes cleaning the cockles, as they are very muddy and dirty boys. First, we scrub them over running water, before rinsing them several times. Next, as the book recommends, we leave them to soak in salted water for a good 3 or so hours.
In the meantime, we prepare everything else. We make our way to Aromatown, as galangal is smashed, ginger is ground, and lemongrass is chopped (and also smashed). All in all, it’s a fairly simple recipe which just requires a bit of elbow grease. I put my mortar and pestle to work, and soon enough everything is ready except for one last ingredient - The Peanuts.
Just before I start preparing the peanuts, I realise I’ve made a small mistake, as I’ve mistakenly bought peanuts without the shells on. But it’s okay! It’ll do, still. These still have the skins on, though, so we don’t even get to be super lazy. First, I roast the peanuts with the skin on until they’re fragrant and slightly browned. Next, I start grinding about ¼ of the peanuts with the mortar and pestle, as the recipe calls for ¼ peanuts in a coarser texture, with the rest going in the spice grinder. It takes about five minutes before realising that I’ve made a huge mistake. After I taste some of the peanuts, I wonder if they’re supposed to have a papery texture. Of course, dear reader, they’re not supposed to taste like that—I’ve been pounding the peanuts WITH THE SKIN ON. And now, due to my negligence, the skin and the peanuts are all mixed together in the mortar. I could just throw out the whole thing…I could. It’s very tempting. I simply start to hand-sort the peanuts and the skins, and I rope Christy and Melody in to start deskinning the peanuts. Team effort!
We sit in a circle on the floor, all of us intensely focused, crushing peanuts between our thumbs and fingers to remove the skin as efficiently as possible. It’s hard work, and all of our thumbs start hurting after a while. The skin on our thumbs turn raw and red. But we keep going, because there’s 500g of peanuts and they’re not going to pop out, skinless and ready, by themselves. After about 20 minutes, in desperation, Melody starts loading the peanuts into a water bottle and shaking them up, a tip that she picks up online after she decides she can’t keep doing it peanut by peanut. For a good 30 minutes, I dig out peanut dust, separating it from the mass of chaff formed by crushed peanut skins.
The mood is morose. The sunlight seems to dim, even though it’s still early in the morning. But soon we reach the light at the end of the tunnel, and before we know it, there’s a neat little bowl with all of the peanuts inside. Peanut skins and peanut flesh are scattered all over the floor, a testament to our pain. We’ve done it, but at what cost? Only the thought of delicious, delicious peanut sauce keeps us going. Melody, Christy, and I have become shells of our former selves, just like the discarded peanut skins that have caused us so much grief.
In goes the rempah alongside the peanuts. The sauce thickens, as it should, and I know we’re on a good course.
In a separate pot, I throw in some water and the soaked cockles, along with some lemongrass and galangal. It smells wonderful. The recipe simply says, “cover the pot and cook for 5 minutes or until the cockles open”. Simple!
After five minutes, I lift the pot lid. The cockles remain closed. Okay. That’s fine. They need a little time to come out of their shell! I leave them to boil some more.
Another five minutes pass. They don’t open. I feel the spectre of dread hanging around my shoulders. Did I mess up somewhere? Did I soak them too long? Were all of them dead at the point of purchase? Did I salt too much? Too little? All of us start frantically googling cockle information. No information online contradicts the book—the cockles, by all means, should be open. But none of them are, excepting one or two stray ones. It takes a while, but I finally accept that something must have gone wrong. To my limited knowledge, you’re not supposed to pry open cockles when they don’t open…right? It means that they’ve gone bad. Eventually, we give up on the cockles. Instead, I boil some bee hoon. We’ll have satay bee hoon instead. That’s okay! Melody says that we should at least eat eggs with it, and thus she cracks an egg into a wok. A sulfuric smell fills the air as the egg hits the wok. I gag. It’s rotten. Of course it is. EAT
We quietly eat satay bee hoon without any fried eggs. I am hum-bled. It was hubris to tackle shellfish of any kind. The next day, I reuse the satay sauce with chicken-and-onion skewers. It’s pretty good, I guess. Still, I can’t stop thinking about how we threw out 1.5kg of cockles, and I can’t help but dwell on the question of what went wrong. This question remains unanswered - up until I start complaining to a friend of mine (shout out Wei Yang!) I relate the entire sorry affair to him, and he nods along in commiseration, just a good friend lending a listening ear. I think nothing of it until I receive a text at 9:56PM.
Blood cockles don’t open when cooked. Huh. But what about the book…? I go home and flip through The Food of Singapore Malays, and I realise the mistake I’ve made. The recipe calls for cockles. Not blood cockles. Cockles open. Blood cockles don’t open. I want to cry. It seems that I cockled up at the point of purchase. On one hand, it’s good that I now know what went wrong! On the other, I feel really foolish. Not to mention the monumental waste of food! I should have read the recipe carefully and spotted that “hum” and cockles (or kĕrang) are different things (and now, dear reader, you too know this). But heck. Mistakes like these are just a part of learning to cook, right? Sometimes you try to make cockle satay and you make satay bee hoon instead, because you don’t know that blood cockles need to be pried open. Lemons, lemonade, lemon cookies. If you’re reading this and the tale of this unfortunate kitchen incident brings back a memory of a Bad Time When Cooking, I encourage you to keep going still. It’s true, I messed up this time. And also some other times, the times that I cooked something bad or not good or not edible or not presentable and I ate it in shame, afraid to show anyone else how badly I messed it up. But that’s part of the process. Besides, I turned it into #content, so there’s that too. Put it on the Internet. Learning to cook can be quite intimidating. I came up with the idea for this series because I was buying all these food books and looking at all these cool recipes and told myself I would try them but never did it, partly out of fear of failure. Okay, mostly out of a fear of failure. But hey, two out of three successful attempts ain’t too bad! It’s easier than ever to learn how to cook, with the amount of resources at the disposal of the average person. Fry an egg! Make curry! Boil cockles! Feed yourself! I hope that by writing about this process and working through that fear, you, dear reader, will pick up a wonderful food book and make something after reading about it. That impulse that turns appreciation into action, driving us to learn and create—indulge it a little. It’s fine if you stumble on the way to making magic. As always, thanks for reading! See you on the other side. - Aik