Sayur Lodeh

Monday, 22 August 2011

It was Cook a Pot of Curry Day yesterday because, to cut a long story short, some mainland Chinese with a delicate nose had asked his Singaporean Indian to stop cooking curry. Indignant Singaporeans protested in unison when they heard the story. How dare they tell us not to cook curry! It was a wonderful excuse to tell the mainland Chinese where to shove it, all in the name of protecting the national identity. Before long, Curry Day was organized via Facebook.

There are curries, and there are curries. If it had been a Malay, Nyonya or local Chinese cooking curry next to the mainland Chinese, there probably would have been no dispute. But Indian curries are different when they're not adapted to suit the tastes of the Singaporean Chinese. They have a pungence that's far more powerful than Malay, Nyonya or Chinese-style curries. Chinese Singaporeans call it 'the Indian smell'. For those who don't mince their words, 'smell' may be replaced with 'stink' or 'pong'

I don't know for sure but I suspect the Indian neighbour in the dispute was cooking the original, unaltered version of Indian curry that smelt really good or bad, depending on the race of the nose.

Singaporeans love their curries. But, for those who aren't Indians, most of them simply do not eat true blue Indian curries which have 'the Indian smell' – the kind of curry that Indians cook at home. How much do the local Chinese hate the smell? So much that they wouldn't rent their properties to Indians for fear that the curry pong would not only linger on sofas and curtains, but even penetrate deep inside concrete walls! Gross exaggeration, you think? Hey, the Indian neighbour in the story cooked with his windows closed, but that didn't stop his curries from being offensive!

Would everyone have jumped to the Indian neighbour's defence if he had been a foreigner? Or if the Chinese involved were from Singapore, not China? I doubt it, at least not in such great numbers.

Singaporeans may proudly declare their love for curries and chide the mainland Chinese for not adapting to Singaporean ways. But the unspoken truth is that the bulk of the population, the Chinese Singaporeans, dislike authentic Indian curries as much as the mainland Chinese. The 'Indian' curry fish head they love is actually not very Indian. They might be busy cooking and sharing curries on Curry Day, but chances are very few cooked the type of curry that had upset the mainland Chinese. Hypocrisy, much?

What was my Sayur Lodeh like? Mild and totally harmless, 'cause I followed my mother's Chinese style recipe. There was absolutely nothing Indian about it.

SAYUR LODEH (VEGETABLE CURRY)
Source: My mother
(Recipe for 6-8 persons)
Curry paste
10 dried chillies (10 g), cut into small pieces with scissors, soak in warm water till soft, about
. . . 30 minutes, squeeze dry, and discard water
120 g shallots (20 pieces)
50 g garlic (8 cloves)
10 g tumeric (½ thumb size)
20 g ginger (thumb size)
15 g galangal (¾ thumb size)
60 g red chillies (3 pieces)
10 g candlenuts (4 pieces)
4 kaffir lime leaves, remove veins
15 g belachan (1 tbsp), toast till your neighbours smell it

4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large lemongrass, soft part only, wash and crush
25 g dried prawns (3 tbsp)

550 g cabbage (from Malaysia, not China), trim, cut chunky, slicing thick veins in the middle,
. . . wash, and drain
150 g long beans, wash, trim, devein, and cut 7 cm long
2 tbsp light soya sauce

6 pieces tau pok (beancurd puffs), cut each piece into 2
1 medium size carrot (150 g), peel, wash, and roll-cut chunky
4 sprigs curry leaves, rinse
330 ml undiluted coconut milk
1 medium size eggplant (250 g), wash, trim and roll-cut chunky
salt to taste, about ½ tsp

The mix of main ingredients may be changed to suit your preference. Besides those listed above, other popular choices include fried beancurd, beancurd skin (deep-fried or soaked in hot water till soft), and mang kuang (yam bean).

Wash, peel and chop ingredients for curry paste as appropriate. Grind or pound till fine.

In a just smoking wok, heat vegetable oil till just smoking. Stir-fry lemongrass and dried prawns over medium heat till fragrant. Add curry paste and stir-fry till fragrant, drizzling with 1 tbsp water at a time when it scorches. (The oil doesn't separate because there isn't much.)

When curry paste smells good, add cabbage and long beans. Stir-fry till heated through and wok is hot again. Drizzle with light soya and stir till absorbed. Add enough water to cover half of vegetables. Scrape wok to deglaze. Push cabbage and long beans aside and place tau pok in the middle. Tuck carrots and curry leaves here and there, then add ⅔ of coconut milk. Top up with more water to just cover everything. Cover, bring to a boil, and reduce heat to low. Simmer gently till cabbage is half tender, about 20 minutes.

Push veggies aside and place eggplant in the middle. Add more water if necessary so that there's just enough liquid for veggies and tau pok to sit in. Repeat simmering as before till eggplant and cabbage are tender, 15-20 minutes. Liquid should now cover about 80% of veggies. Adjust if necessary by adding more water or increasing heat to boil rapidly, uncovered.

Add salt to taste, about ½ tsp. Drizzle with remaining coconut milk. Stir gently to mix in. Bring to a gentle simmer and turn off heat.

Sayur Lodeh may be served immediately. Alternatively, let flavours develop for 45-60 minutes, then serve at room temperature or reheated.

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