Monday, 4 May 2015

CultureHackSG 1.0 | Confessions of a Jiak Kantang Cook

Jiak Kantang: to eat potatoes; a Chinese person who eats the Western staple of potatoes instead of the very Chinese bowl of rice. A figure of speech to describe a Westernised Chinese.
  
Although to be accurate, it is not only rice that has been replaced by my proverbial potatoes, but chap chye, ayam buahkuas, and bee hoon. This is Singapore, and I am Peranakan Chinese. The only time I eat a spread of Peranakan food is during Chinese New Year. And I never cook it at home.
If you were born in the late 80s and early 90s, my guess is you, too, are a jiak kantang cook. You learnt your first dishes with The Naked Chef, and perfected your repertoire with Nigella and Gordon. You can pull off a modern British dinner with ease and aplomb. You have a wide range of one-dish wonders that pop out of the oven in an hour. You are familiar with ingredients that grow in the aisles of a specialty supermarket, like truffle oil and pink Himalayan salt. But langkuas? Serai?

So you can imagine the questions in my head when I received the Jiak Masak Masak mystery box for CultureHack 1.0, held at the NUS Baba House during Singapore Art Week. The recipes were from two colonial ma├ím’s cookbooks, written in the 1930s to ease their culinary adventures in the exotic but often distressing Malayas. But I found that unpacking the recipe was as confusing as if I was a new expat in Singapore.

I conquered the Fish Moolie in the end, but not without taking notes for future jiak kantang cooks who are up for a new project. I present to you:
Steps to Hacking a Fish Moolie:

1. Ask Google the obvious question, “What is a moolie?” It will quickly tell you it is a coconut curry that does not involve curry powder.

2. Ask Google more questions, such as “What is serai?”and “Is saffron tumeric?” If you feel vaguely defeated at NTUC with nothing concrete from Google, head to Local Ingredient Mecca for expert help: Tekka Market.




 

3. Tell an expert Tekka auntie what you want, and watch her pack it all swiftly into a bag for you. Easy peasy. Stare unabashedly at all things wild and wonderful in the vegetable aisles. Think of yourself as a modern female Ali Baba navigating treasure caves.

4. Hunt down saffron. Find an Indian man who stands behind hills of golden spices. Do not be fooled, none of the vivid piles of spices are saffron. He will give you a tiny clear plastic box, no bigger than TicTacs. Inside it lies a cluster of delicate strands. Be delighted.

5. Discover a week later that Mustafa’s supermarket has an entire section dedicated to saffron. Prefer your rugged discovery journey anyway.

6. Start assembling the ingredients. Use a stainless knife, or your cute blue knife will turn irreversibly orange from the yellow ginger.

7. Serai (lemongrass) is to be cut from the base; the tips have much less fragrance. Use a few inches of it, sliced thinly.

8. Langkuas (a kind of ginger) is to be cut from the fat roots, not the narrow shoots. A few slices will do.

9. Saffron, though red, turns everything yellow when crushed. Use sparingly, because it is costly.

10. Pound all ingredients together with a pestle and mortar if you want to feel extra Heritage.

11. Fry dry ingredients, pour coconut milk in to make a broth, and add fish. Realize that colonial tastebuds are used to a lot less flavour. Increase quantities of ingredients until your eyes pop open at how yummy it suddenly becomes.
12. Fry firm fish fillets separately. Unless you are loaded, do not buy Kurau. I repeat, do not buy kurau.

13. As a tribute to your Jamie Oliver roots, think of ways to maximise your hard labour by hacking the Moolie into a pasta meal. Surprisingly, the moolie adapts well as a creamy sauce for linguine. Ignore the laughter, they will understand when they try it. Just make sure you have enough sauce to coat all the pasta. Not for the calorie conscious.

Julienne Tan is an illustrator, graphic designer and small-quantity food enthusiast. She writes about her art and design (occasionally) at www.julienne-tan.com.



Me at the end of the buffet line, dishing out Fish Moolie Linguine.

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