"What meal always tastes like home to you?"
That question has been on my mind ever since it was brought up on the #WhyIWriteAboutFood interview series I host (read the interview here and and check out the entire collection of delicious conversations here).
Vermilion Roots was born out of the necessity to find a sense of place after I moved from Malaysia to California. In many ways, it has given me a space to confront my feelings about the place I left and to explore the place where I now live. Along the way, I made a few new friends, met many more at the recent SAVEUR Blog Awards in New York, started volunteering on a farm, tried a bunch of vegetables I'd never heard of before, picked apples and pumpkins for the first time in my life, and became a better cook. A whole new universe opened up for me. All thanks to the universal love of cooking and eating.
At the very heart of this desire to express oneself through food is the fundamental need to create a sense of home no matter where one is in the world. For me, it's being able to have kaya toast whenever the mood strikes, having cili padi with all my meals if I can get away with it, and, in recent years, stuffing my face silly with California peaches in the summer.
All these experiences are part of who I am and what home means to me. And I have just the dish that perfectly captures this sentiment. Rojak. The word by itself does not really translate to anything but the name carries the meaning of "mixed", because that's exactly what this dish is: a mixture of fruits in a sticky sweet, spicy, and tangy dark sauce.
It is one of those untranslatable words filled with colloquial charm and inside jokes. In Malaysia, the word has interestingly come to represent more than a fruit salad, and is fondly used as a slang term to express the identity of a multicultural nation and even recently sparked an art project (involving food!) called The Rojak Projek aimed at inspiring unity through the embracement of diversity.
Here's one of the art pieces created using rojak ingredients. Check out The Rojak Projek website for more!
So it is that rojak always tastes like home to me.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a deep love affair with this unique Malaysian fruit salad. I knew all the best rojak sellers in my neighborhood and ate it at least once a week. It is the food I am most homesick for.
The rojak I make at home here is based on a recipe that can be whipped up in no time with simple ingredients, especially useful when the craving is immediate and intense! Tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, and papaya are usually used, along with cucumber and jicama. Sometimes, bean sprouts, spinach, crackers, and fried tofu find their way into the mix. Tart apples and radish make nice additions too.
Some of the ingredients called for in the rojak sauce, such as petis udang (a thick black shrimp sauce), asam jawa (tamarind), and sambal belacan (a chili mixture with shrimp paste), may be elusive and difficult to find so I make it without them. My version of the sauce is simplified, vegetarian, and less pungent, and this hardcore rojak fan is finding herself oddly pleased with its less complex flavor.
The way I assemble this salad is the same way it has been prepared for me by my favorite rojak sellers in Malaysia. It starts with making the sauce in a big bowl and then tossing the ingredients in the sauce in the same bowl, a counterintuitive salad-making sequence that David insists we show, so we have a step-by-step video to accompany the recipe.
Malaysian Fruit Salad (Rojak Buah) Video:
The full recipe is at the bottom of this post, but before you get to it, I have a special round-up of Asian recipes that I'd like to share with you. I asked some of my food blogger friends who live away from home, "What dish reminds you the most of home?" Here are their answers....
Dixya Bhattarai of Food, Pleasure & Health
Home country: Kathmandu, Nepal
Currently living in: Texas, USA
Taste of home: Nepali Style Cauli Aloo
"This recipe is my mom's and it reminds me of home, especially my mom. She is an excellent cook but something about her cauli aloo is very nostalgic to me, even more so now that I live so far away from her."
Maggie Zhu of Omnivore's Cookbook
Home country: Beijing, China
Currently living in: Texas, USA
Taste of home: Chinese 4-Ingredient Fried Cabbage
"It's a simple dish that my mom cooked all the time and packed for my lunch. Not only does it remind me of home, it's also really fast to cook and lets me use a whole head of cabbage in one sitting."
Read Maggie's #WhyIWriteAboutFood interview here.
Marvellina Goh of What To Cook Today
Home country: Medan, Indonesia
Currently living in: Minnesota, USA
Taste of home: Indonesian Spiced Tofu (Tauhu Bacem)
"The thought of tahu bacem reminds me of a group of close friends I had when I was in college. I was away from my hometown for the very first time in my life. These friends made me feel less homesick and almost every evening we would go get tahu bacem for snacks. It's just such a fond memory of mine."
Read Marvellina's #WhyIWriteAboutFood interview here.
Lisa Ho of Lisa's Lemony Kitchen
Home country: Alor Setar, Malaysia
Currently living in: Perth, Australia
Taste of home: Lentils and Indian "Drumsticks"
"This dish reminds me of my mom's cooking and the scary 'orang minyak' (literally translates to oily man) story that goes with it. As a young girl, I would sit quietly and listen to adults exchange ghostly stories. This one's about a cursed man covered in black oil who was on the prowl for young maidens. It turned out the foot-long Indian drumstick (Moringa Oleifera) or kacang munggai in Malay has the same effect on him as garlic has on vampires!"
Shihoko Ura of Chopstick Chronicles
Home country: Kansai, Japan
Currently living in: Brisbane, Australia
Taste of home: Sweet Potato Bites (Daigaku Imo)
"Purple sweet potato reminds me of home. I love sweet potato. Both my grandmother and my mother have a vegetable patch and they grow purple sweet potato. We often made Daigaku Imo with them. It's a simple and delicious snack that I still make for myself."
Read Shihoko's #WhyIWriteAboutFood interview here.
Soe Thein of Lime and Cilantro
Home country: Yangon, Myanmar
Currently living in: California, USA
Taste of home: Pickled Tea Leaf Salad (Laphet Thote)
"This dish holds precious memories about being together with my family. This excerpt from the blog captures very well my feelings about pickled tea-leaf salad: 'One of my absolute favorite chunks of the day while growing up in Yangon was from 7pm to 9pm, also the noisiest 2 hours of the day. The dinner was just finished, and all of us would sit in the main living room, patiently waiting for a one-a-day-episode of foreign drama series. My eldest aunt would make a big pile of pickled tea leaves salad or laphet thote (sometimes, with more rice) for an after-dinner snack. The salad, despite eaten after a meal, is extremely bold—it has sharp sourness from pickling and lime, spiciness from pounded chili, pungent saltiness from fish sauce, simultaneous mellow and crunchy note from fried garlic pieces. It felt like there is a San Francisco pride parade running around in my mouth. Despite just having eaten, all of us would congregate around the salad bowl, and devour in a flash.'"
Yan Luo of Yankitchen
Home country: Guangxi, China
Currently living in: Michigan, USA
Taste of home: Asian Style Boiled Peanuts
"I grew up in Southern China. When fall came, we always had boiled fresh peanuts. It could be served as a dish on the dinner table as well as a late night snack when the whole family gathered around the fire. That's a really beautiful and warm memory and a true taste of home for me."
JinJoo Lee of Kimchimari
Home country: Seoul, South Korea
Currently living in: California, USA
Taste of home: Cold Soy Milk Noodle Soup (Kongguksu)
"When I was a child, our family had this often in the hot summers. Most Koreans did not have air conditioning, so this cold soy milk noodle soup was something that Koreans loved to cool themselves down with."
Binjal Pandya of Binjal's Veg Kitchen
Home country: Mumbai, India
Currently living in: Pennsylvania, USA
Taste of home: Indian Potato Burger (Vada Pav)
"It's a popular street food from Mumbai and it reminds me of my mom's home in Mumbai where I was born and raised. For me, my mom's recipe is the tastiest, better than anything bought from the streets. She usually made it on Friday night, especially on movie nights. It was like a burger party and we watched a new movie with family and friends with lots of chitchat, games, songs, and dance. Unforgettable memories that always remind me of home."
Christine Leong of Vermilion Roots
Home country: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Currently living in: California, USA
Taste of home: Malaysian Fruit Salad (Rojak Buah)
"It seems to me that the best rojak buah comes from pushcart stalls or the back of a truck parked on the roadside, made by uncles and aunties who have perfected the recipe for the signature black gooey sauce and mastered the act of mixing hundreds of servings daily, I'd imagine, at lightning speed. My favorite rojak stalls were on Jalan Petaling, Jalan Batai, in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, and outside of Atria Shopping Center. Most of these places have undergone major transformations in the two short years since I moved, and I'd be curious to find out if they are all still there. To me, tropical fruits in a sticky, sweet, spicy, tangy sauce is a uniquely Malaysian taste. The taste of home."
Malaysian Fruit Salad (Rojak Buah)
A mixture of fruits in a sweet, spicy, and tangy dark sauce. This recipe serves 2 to 4.
2 to 3 cups of the following fruits: cucumber, jicama, pineapple, underripe mango and papaya, tart apples like Granny Smith, peeled and seeded where necessary and cut into bite-sized pieces
Optional add-ins: A handful of baby spinach or bean sprouts and pieces of fried firm tofu
2 to 3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
Juice of 1 lime
2 teaspoon coconut sugar
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup toasted ground peanuts
In a large bowl, add hoisin sauce, lime juice, coconut sugar, chili powder, sesame seeds, and half of the ground peanuts. Mix well to combine into a sauce. Then add the fruits and toss to coat with the sauce. Sprinkle on the rest of the ground peanuts and serve.
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It's your turn to tell us: What dish reminds you the most of home? Leave a comment below!