The case for rem­pah

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

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.

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