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Rojak is a local salad of mixed vegetables and fruits, drizzled with a sweet, sour sauce made up of local prawn paste, sugar and lime. Rojak in Malay means "mixed", but the dish exemplifies the cultural diversity of Singapore, including Chinese and Malay elements in the ingredients. Often eaten as a side dish or an appetiser, rojak can also be served as a main meal.
It is uncertain how the dish, rojak, originated. There are different vegetable salads that are unique to the Malayan archipelago. However, where the Indonesian gadoh-gadoh has a thick peanut-based sauce and has vegetables like long beans and proteins like eggs, the rojak is cut vegetables mixed with the sweet-sour flavours of the black pasty sauce of local prawn paste. The flavours of these salads are as far apart as the East is to the West, although often, they are grouped together as Asian salads. It is also a dish distinct from the Indian rojak which shares only the name and identity of a mixture of items but has little relationship with actual rojak.
This Asian salad is a rich mix of vegetables and fruits. Fresh vegetables, such as "water convulvus" or kangkong and "beansprout" or taugeh, are blanched. Others, such as the cucumber and the Chinese turnip are sliced in an angled fashion to add crunch. Sour, tangy flavours come from added ingredients such as sliced pineapple although sometimes starfruit, young mangoes or unripe rose apples (jambu) are also added. Chinese rojak include yu tiao, a crispy length of deep fried flour cut bite-sized while others add toasted beancurd. The mark of a good rojak is in its sauce, and in particular the "prawn paste" or hay ko used. The sticky paste is mixed with a little water, lime juice and a lot of sugar. Chilli paste or freshly pounded chillies may be added for some spice. A dusting of ground peanuts gives further texture. The paste is then mixed thoroughly, traditionally in a large wooden bowl with a wooden spoon. Only when the sauce is complete are the mixed vegetables and ingredients added and thoroughly covered with the paste. Finally, the mixture is garnished with a dash of finely cut ginger flower.
Rojak in Singapore
Until the 1980s, rojak peddlers could still be found, often illegally, moving through neighbourhoods on bicycles. This was an improved means of transport from the 1960s when they used pushcarts instead. These carts, whether on bicycle or as a mobile stall, often had a wooden box where the fresh ingredients could be seen through glass panels. The peddler's only tools would be his cutting board, a knife and the large mixing bowl. The rojak would be cut and mixed on the spot. Before the days of paper plates, the ingredients would be packed in daun upeh, a leaf folded into the shape of a cup. Toothpicks pierced through the first few vegetables served as forks. Today, variations of the rojak has multiplied as new ingredients are creatively added to the spicy, sweet and sour black sauce. More often than not, the dish is found in hawker centres or food courts often prepared by the Chinese.
Bonny Muliani Tan
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