Snapshots from Asia: Rojak
It’s tricky being vegetarian in Singapore. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a myriad of suburban, organic, Buddhist vegetarian eateries, hip green joints in air-conditioned shopping malls, Indian vegetarian restaurants galore, and even a handful of swank, gourmet vegetarian places. Leafy greens and tropical fruit abound and tofu and tempeh-lovers are spoilt for choice. (Psst… you know how tempeh comes in nubbly, vacuum-packed slabs from the supermarket? Here, it comes wrapped in a banana leaf scroll…still warm in all its fermenty-goodness and very much alive!)
So, back to the tricky. Singapore’s an island. And we like seafood. We like seafood a lot. So we tend to add it to everything. And unlike an average Western salad, where you could, in a pinch, cast aside the offending shrimp/ahi tuna/salmon, it’s not that simple with a local salad. Because the shrimp’s a tad more…tenacious, shall we say?
In rojak, Singapore’s most "famous" salad (pretty much because it’s our only salad, and local speechmakers like using it as a pithy soundbite… more to come on this, later), the shrimp’s fermented. It’s been made into a pungent, salty, heady black paste the Malays call belacan and has been thoroughly mixed up with Indonesian kecap manis, a sweet, unctuous soy sauce, to form the salad dressing itself. Problem number one: You can’t really flick dressing away. And no, you can’t have rojak dressing on the side.
Problem number two? You would have noticed there’s nothing green in this picture. Look really hard, and you may spy a lonely sprout. Turn on your x-ray vision, and you unearth a couple of bobs of cucumber, pineapple dice, jambu or “water apple” cubes, and crisp, juicy turnip. Nothing leafy though. Essentially, this is a salad for people who aren’t particularly fond of vegetables. In fact, what it is, is a salad for people who cannot get enough you tiao, or Chinese, deep-fried dough crullers — which have been snipped into crunchy thumb-lengths and arguably, form the greater half-share of this salad.
You can confine yourself to eating in vegetarian eateries, and you’d probably do well enough. But you’d be missing out on all the glorious hawker fare the island is known for. And that pesky belacan shows up in many otherwise-vegetarian offerings. Not forgetting his cronies: oyster sauce; fish sauce (also known as nuoc mam or nampla); dried baby shrimp, oysters, cuttlefish, anchovies, and scallops. Like Z-grade celebrities, they’d show up at the opening of an envelope. Unlike forgettable one-hit wonders though, they’re always memorable, always succulent fun.
Alert readers may have noticed rojak consists of Malay belacan, Indonesian kecap manis, and Chinese you tiao, plus a whole jumble of mix-ins. Local speechmakers like to talk about Singapore as the "rojak nation"—a multi-racial, multi-cultural island of immigrants. It’s what you get when you throw a bunch of completely disparate items together, toss them around, and hope for the best. In this case, it’s a sweet-salty, juicy-crunchy, chilli padi-spiked (think jalepenos!), and peanut peppered “salad” that in it’s culinary "neither here nor there-ness", defies ethnic classification.
It does have a “mighty tasty” label though.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling, Serious Eats's overseas summer intern, is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Singapore. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work," or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.