In every language there are always some unique words that convey highly expressive notions about food and cultural nuances all at once. In the Malay language, rojak fulfills this down to a T. Blessed with an abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables, Malaysians often take a variety of ingredients and mix them together into a tasty salad called Rojak. In the mind of the locals, rojak has taken upon the meaning of diverse elements and even polar opposites being blended together. As such to describe anything as rojak is to imply a jumbled mix.
The cut-fruit stall is a popular lunch time fixture where rojak can sometimes be found. The vendor will chop up his fruits and mix it with the sweet and spicy sauce. Prior to the advent of plastic bags, it was once common for rojak to be served up in a newsprint cone lined with banana leaves. A few bamboo skewers were included for spearing the pieces of fruit. This is the most basic form of rojak. Specialized rojak vendors have more elaborate ingredients that include fried tofu and crispy shrimp fritters to provide a contrast of textures and flavors.
The sweet and spicy sauce is what makes the fruit salad a rojak. One can almost describe the taste as umami. The ingredients include sambal belacan (pounded shrimp paste and chili condiment), hei koh (sweet black shrimp paste), sweet sauce, caramel soy sauce, and sugar. Hei koh is a very important ingredient, without which it will not have that thick caramel consistency. On this side of the world, it would be similar to a spicy chocolate sauce or mole. In fact, I made a spicy chocolate rojak sometime back using extra dark chocolate as a substitute for hei koh.
Today is the last Sunday of the month and it is time for World on a Plate. This month’s theme “Fruity Dessert” was agreed upon way back in May and the first thing that came to my mind was rojak. I was really excited as I knew I would be able to get hei koh this time since I had a scheduled visit to Malaysia in June. Although I have not seen hei koh being sold here in my neighborhood in recent times, it is available in the larger Asian grocery stores downtown and especially the ones on both coasts. I have purchased it once or twice in the past.
The other very important ingredient in rojak is sambal belacan, a beloved pounded chili condiment of the Nyonyas and Malays. Many such household find food bland where sambal belacan is not present. It is often served during a meal with some raw vegetables known as ulam or simply used as a dip for a myriad of dishes.
There are basically only three ingredients in sambal belacan – red chilies, toasted belacan (shrimp paste), and lime juice. Belacan is a cake-like shrimp paste that must be cooked and cannot be eaten raw. Always buy the best grade you can afford as a little goes a long way. Hei koh on the other hand, is a more sauce-like shrimp paste that can be eaten right out of the jar.
Sambal belacan can be prepared ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator until required. Any left overs should be used up within a week.
- 1 small piece belacan (1”x1”x½”)
- 6 red jalapeno chilies
- 3 – 4 tbsp lime juice from 1 lime
Toast belacan in a non-stick pan until crumbly. This will take about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and allow to cool .
Break chili into smaller pieces shaking off seeds as much as possible. Place toasted belacan and chilies in a small food processor and processed till fine.
Alternatively, belacan and chilies may be pounded in a stone mortar and pestle to the desired level of fineness. Transfer to a jar.
Stir in lime juice. Store in the refrigerator and consume within a week.
The chopped roasted peanuts and sesame seeds provide additional texture and crunch. This salad truly is a mix of flavors and textures unlike any other. It is spicy, sweet, salty, tangy, soft, and crunchy. I hope you will give this recipe a try.
- 6 small deep fried tofu
- ½ pineapple, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 slightly green mango, peeled and cubed
- 1 small jicama, peeled and cubed
- 1 cucumber, cut into bite size pieces
- ¼ cup roasted peanut, chopped
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp sambal belacan
- 1 tbsp hoisin or sweet sauce
- 1 tbsp dark caramel soy sauce
- 1 tbsp hei koh (sweet black shrimp paste)
- 2 tbsp sugar
Fry tofu on a non-stick pan on all sides to crisp it up. Remove and slice thinly when cool enough to handle. Set aside.
Combine all rojak sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Mix thoroughly with a spoon.
Place sliced tofu, pineapples, mangoes, jicama, and cucumber in a large bowl. Pour sauce over fruits and vegetables. Mix everything up well. Dish into 4 individual portions. Sprinkle some chopped peanuts and sesame seeds over each portion.
Enjoy…..and have a wonderful day!