Dreams and Pragmatism: A Conversation Between Generations

Most people queue to buy food, but Ng Chiam Hui and Malcolm Lee waited for hours to find out how the hawkers prepared their favourite dishes.

Chiam Hui is born in 1949 in Fujian, China, while Malcolm is born a Singaporean Peranakan almost 40 years later. These men belong to two different generations but they have the same patience for a good recipe.

In the late 1960s, Chiam Hui ate duck rice for a week so that he could spy on the adjacent stall, the famous Lao Zhong Zhong outside the old Thong Chai Medical Institution. In a triumphant voice like a prankish kid, the 67-year-old exclaims in Mandarin, “I know every single thing he put in the sauce! No big deal lah! He was mixing there, and I was eating my duck rice and watching him!”

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Aida Muda

Sambal tumis telor.

Sambal tumis telor.

Aida texts me a few hours before I’m due to meet her at her sister’s flat. She has already cooked the sambal for the exchange with Rose, because it is also for her lunch with her sisters and their mother.

I arrive at 4 p.m. to find a household full of young and older women. There is Aida, two of her older sisters, their mother, her niece and her niece’s toddler, and her young nephew — the only opposite gender who can be home on a weekday afternoon.

The sambal tumis for Rose is already packed in a plastic container. I ask to take pictures of it, so Aida scoops another portion into a pretty glass dish found in many Malay kitchens. There are pots of leftovers on the stove, including a fermented durian (tempoyak) curry. There is also a box full of cempedak that they plan to fry for dinner.

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Rose B. Rusdi

Sambal Mak Kasek

Sambal Mak Kasek

Rose takes a while to open the metal gate. When she appears from behind a wooden screen, which blocks the view of her flat from the corridor, she’s in tudong and home clothes. The mismatched outfit suggests she has gone to cover herself after I knocked on the door. The moment we’re in the dining area, she takes off her tudong. I remind her that I’ll be taking pictures, so she puts it back on, along with a nice set of baju kurung.

While she’s changing in her room I notice the ingredients on the dining table. A shallot is frozen in a half cut state, while a tablet continues blasting euphoric American-accented commentaries.

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Banana Flower Sambal: Discovering a connection between Southeast Asian and Sri Lankan Cuisines

I knew that, even though the commonly seen sambals in Singapore are sambal tumis and sambal belacan, there are many varieties of this chilli paste, especially in the neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia. There is sambal tempoyak that is made of fermented durian, there is sambal balado comprising of tomato besides the usual suspects, and there are sambal petai, sambal setan, sambal rica rica…

But I didn’t expect to find, while browsing old newspaper archives, sambal recipes that call for, separately, binjal, salted fish roe, and banana flower. While a quick search online gave me little leads about the first two renditions, I found contemporary recipes for banana flower sambal—many from Sri Lanka, and one by renown Singaporean cookbook author Sylvia Tan. The old recipe that I found was published in The Singapore Free Press in 1912. It was among three sambal recipes all of which written in both English and Malay. Interestingly, the recipes had a preceding story describing the festivities of Hari Raya. There was no byline, although I speculate that the writer was a British, because he or she made a reference to the old Oxford saying “Fingers were made before forks” when describing the Malays’ preference to eat with their hands. The writer also drew a parallel between the sambal-curry and the English roast beef-Yorkshire pudding relationships.

What is Banana Flower Sambal?

The banana flower sambal recipe (jantong pisang sambal) caught my eye because it was made by boiling banana flowers, cucumber, and chilli in coconut milk. Boiling as a method of combining the ingredients is rather unusual since the sambals that we come across today are typically stir-fried.

Screenshot of Singapore National Library Board's newspaper digital archive

Screenshot of Singapore National Library Board’s newspaper digital archive

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