Being away from Singapore, there are times when I really miss the flavors from home. My first year in Melbourne led to my virgin bakzhang attempt where I had to resort to video-calling my mother-in-law to figure out the wrapping process. My husband and I also developed a serious craving for Hokkien mee, which led to a full-blown endeavor of preparing the stock and sambal and braising three types of noodles.
Reading and hearing stories of Singaporeans overseas, it seems as though a common thread runs through all of them. Being away from home is often the catalyst to develop a newfound appreciation for one’s own culture and heritage. I’ve never felt more Asian than when I left home. While I always was excited about international ingredients in Singapore, now my freezer is solidly stocked with banana leaves, galangal, turmeric and lemongrass.
Each time I prepare something from Singapore, it shocks me how much effort is involved in something that is so cheap and taken for granted. Take rempah udang, a banana leaf-wrapped rice dumpling, for example.
This is an endangered Peranakan dumpling that you can only find in old-school kueh shops like Galicier Pastry. The steamed glutinous rice is marbled with blue pea flower which proliferated in Joo Chiat, a Peranakan enclave. It is rich in coconut and seasoned with just a hint of salt, a good foil to the sweet sambal within. The prawn filling is made with haebee (dried shrimp) and coconut, with candied winter melon and coriander powder offering sweetness and fragrance.
I made rempah udang for the first time today, after cobbling together useful notes and tips from cookbooks and recipes online. I steamed the glutinous rice, blanched the banana leaves, fried the rempah and wrapped the dumplings. The whole process was meticulous and tedious in that trademark Nonya way… it took me 4 hours. And all I had to show for my time and effort was 20 of these banana leaf-wrapped batons. (Though they were downright delicious and moreish.)
As I was wrapping these, I wondered, how is it that an average Singaporean is willing to pay more for a macaron than they do for one of these? Why is S$1.50 considered pricey when something demands so many hours of labour? This is as artisanal and involves as much, if not more, effort to produce. Yet, the notion of local food having to be cheap still persists.
I guarantee that if we took an afternoon to cook the way our grandmother’s generation did, we would experience first-hand how much skill, craft, passion and effort it takes. Maybe then would we, perhaps, be willing to pay for what our heritage food what it is really worth.
45g dried shrimp, soaked 10 minutes, drained, ground to a floss
6 tablespoons oil
65g red onions/ shallots
15g garlic cloves
20g dried red chillies, deseeded, soaked till soft, drained and squeezed
20g lemongrass stalk, white part only, sliced
10g turmeric root
200g shelled prawns, deveined and blended into a paste
50g coconut cream
75g chopped winter melon
25g gula melaka
1/2 teaspoon salt
35g desiccated coconut, toasted
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
170g glutinous rice, rinsed and soaked in water overnight
80g glutinous rice, rinsed and soaked in blue pea flower water overnight (heat 2g dried blue pea flowers in 280g water and cool before soaking rice)
90g coconut cream
1 teaspoon salt
1 pandan leaf
1 lemongrass stalk
Prepared glutinous rice
20-25 pieces of banana leaf squares, each 13cm x 13cm
Oil to prevent sticking
Prepared prawn filling
Heat a saucepan with 2 tablespoons of oil until the oil shimmers. Add the dried shrimp floss and fry until fragrant and shade darkens slightly, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Blend the red onions, garlic, dried red chillies, lemongrass, candlenuts, turmeric and galangal.
Heat the remaining oil in the pan until the oil shimmers. Add the paste and fry over medium heat.
When the rempah is a deep brick red colour, add the prawn paste. Break up the prawn paste as it cooks.
Add 100g water, coconut cream, winter melon, gula melaka, salt, desiccated coconut, coriander and pepper.
The filling should be moist but not overly wet. It should taste umami-rich and sweet – rempah udang is traditionally served at the end of a meal as a dessert or as a teatime snack.
Drain the glutinous rice and spread it on a plate, keeping the two colours separate. Add the pandan leaves and lemongrass to the rice and steam for 10 minutes over high heat.
Combine the coconut cream, 90g water and salt and mix evenly with the rice. Steam for another 10 minutes, or until tender but not mushy. Mix to combine the blue and white rice.
In the water of the steaming set-up, blanch banana leaves squares for 5 seconds to sterilize and soften them enough for wrapping.
Place the banana leaf shiny side down, matte side up. Oil the matte side lightly.
Take a 25-30g mound of rice and flatten it out in the centre of the banana leaf.
Form the rice to the shape of a rectangle. Add a generous teaspoon to the centre of the filling.
Lift the side of the banana leaf closest to you and use it to help you envelop the filling completely in rice. Like making sushi with a tatami mat, firmly form the rice into the shape of a log.
Lay the banana leaf flat again to expose the newly-formed log. Now roll the log up with the banana leaf like you would a swiss roll.
With one hand holding the cigar, dip a finger from your other hand in water. With the moistened finger, pushing the rice down on one end, making sure that the filling is not exposed. Fold the excess banana leaves down to completely seal the opening.
Secure with toothpicks. Repeat on the other end.
At this point, you can freeze the rempah udang, or store it at room temperature or in the fridge. When ready to eat, simply heat a dry pan and char the dumpling on both sides. You can also barbecue the dumplings over charcoal.
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