"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:
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.
I asked some of my food blogger friends who live away from home, "What dish reminds you the most of home?" Check out their answers by clicking here!
It's your turn to tell us: What dish reminds you the most of home? Leave a comment below!