The case for rempah
I’ll admit. It wasn’t until I stumbled into the culinary world through a part time job during my polytechnic years that I began to look at food with a level of reverence. Back then, as a sheltered middle class Chinese kid glued to my Game Boy Colour, I barely paid any attention to my grandmother toiling away in the kitchen, pounding ingredients to make rempah for rendang and braising turnips for popiah, during our monthly family gatherings. Food was quite the afterthought for eight-year-old me.
Life has a funny way of turning things on their head. Through a part-time job as a cook in a café, I developed a new-found interest in food, and enrolled myself into the Culinary Institute of America in Singapore. As part of the program I had to secure a restaurant for my internship. While my classmates scored prestigious restaurant internships in America and Europe, I was hoping to complete mine with Malcolm Lee at Candlenut, the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, perhaps as a way to reconnect with my culinary heritage. What followed next was a deep dive into a whole new world of spice and flavour.
Let me just put it out there: making rempah is simple in concept but requires a lot of work. Before I started my internship I spent some time learning the basics from my uncle Fred, who runs Rumah Baba Fred, a small eatery tucked away in a corner of the [email protected] building in Eunos. He taught me his rempah base that could be used to make almost every sauce in the Peranakan lexicon. Assam fish? Add tamarind. Kuah Lemak? Add coconut milk. It was here that I got my first experience with the infamous buah keluak; the stubborn nut has to be soaked for five days, scrubbed clean, and broken with a stone pestle before using a spoon to dig the flesh out. It took me an hour to process 10 of them.
Candlenut, however, was a completely different beast. I was no longer in my uncle’s quaint Peranakan home, preparing just enough for a small party of 10, while an old vinyl player crooned 1960s Malay tunes. Candlenut’s dinner service regularly reached 120 covers every night. Throw in the same number for lunch on weekends, and I can safely say that I cooked an average of 5kg of rempah for the lemak base a week. And that was just one kind of
rempah. I was in charge of at least four. A large portion of my time there was spent watching over a massive sizzling pot of rempah, making sure that it wasn’t burnt yet cooked enough to coax out the maximum flavour of the pounded ingredients. Worse still was the fact that we didn’t have a Thermomix in the kitchen (a proper rempah needs some texture), we had to contend with a tiny blender which regularly overheated – especially when making the rempah for Candlenut’s Crab Curry (galangal, why do you have to be so hard?).
If anything, being trained to make rempah has given me a new perspective. I did have a ball of a time working at Candlenut, but that was largely because there was a whole team of chefs to support each other. Even when I was busy preparing a triple batch of sambal belacan for a 200 pax wedding, I could always count on someone else to help me make the kicap manis glaze for the satay. If it was up to me alone, I’d probably have to put in 20-hour days just to make the rempahs and sauces for the dishes on the menu. And more likely than not I think I’d crash and burn, with fingers seared from processing chilli, handling a broken down blender and burnt sauces.
Knowing the amount of effort and diligence it takes to make Peranakan food, I cannot relate to people who refuse to pay decent prices for heritage dishes. When a single batch of rendang takes hours to prepare, why does it seem difficult to fork out more money to pay for the effort that went into it? (Plus, Candlenut’s variation uses Westholme Wagyu intercostals, cuts of meat from in-between the ribs that are tender and flavourful.) Let’s put that into context; a spaghetti carbonara, which would cost 15 to 20 dollars at a café, is a 15-minute job, tops.
And so, I implore everyone to consider the work that goes into our local dishes. Take a moment to notice the hard work that chefs and restaurateurs put into their food, especially those that take up as much time and effort as a well-cooked, aroma-laden rempah. Let’s hold our local food in high regard, and start viewing it in the same way that we see Singapore — a first world country. Is $30 really too steep a price for delicious homemade rendang? I think not.