Saturday, February 03, 2007

"Kampung Gourmet,: by Tabitha Wang. Today, 02 Feb 2007.

Why chase western food fads when we have snob appeal at our doorstep?

I WAS so amazed to find unripe jackfruit at Tekka Market the other day that I called a friend to tell her. A fellow foodie, I thought she would be ecstatic. Instead, she offered a bored response: "So what? They're not artichoke hearts."

Artichoke hearts? This was better than artichoke hearts - and possibly rarer. Granted, in the bad old days, unripe jackfruit was the poor man's vegetable but now that orchards are scarce in HDBland, it is a delicacy you have to root out in obscure market stalls. Artichoke hearts you can find in almost any supermarket now.

When I was a kid, my baby- sitter was a Malay makcik. She also cooked for us so my palate was trained from young to appreciate simple kampung food.

Unripe jackfruit curry was one; the others included stir-fried sweet potato leaves and winged beans, petai (stink bean) sambal and young fern shoots in coconut milk. All simple produce she could get for free from her kampung compound but tasting so fresh and delicious.

She wasn't the only one influencing my tastebuds. Both my grandmothers were nonyas and no one's more finicky about her food than Peranakan matriach - even more so, I dare-say, than Anthony Bourdain.

Only the best would do. No factory-made palm sugar for them, only those made in bamboo.

Belachan (shrimp paste) had to come from Penang because only the Penangites used fine enough shrimp. You couldn't fool my grandmas - one sniff and they could tell the difference.

Even food preparation was down to a fine art. Spices had to be pounded to different consistencies depending on whether they were for stir fries or for curries. Buah keluak, that brown nut so beloved in nonya cooking, had to be soaked for three days before it could be used.

Having grown up under such strong influences, I've always been as exacting in my kitchen and when I go out for meals. I never thought of myself as being a gourmet, just a little nonya girl with kampung tastes.

My friends would often laugh at me when I went into ecstasy on finding the perfect tamarind paste or a rare dish of jungle herb salad. Once, I found a stall that served delicious unripe jackfruit curry and went back every day for a week to get my fix. The last few days, I went on my own as no one wanted to have curry that many times.

So, it's funny to see the same friends putting on airs these days about getting expensive gourmet food. "Oh, I've been using only free-range eggs since Jamie Oliver recommended them on TV," one told me. Another said: "You must try organic food. It has the most amazing flavour."

These are not new discoveries. What are free-range eggs but kampung eggs? And kampung folk have been eating organic food (fertilised by free-range chickens) since before Jamie Oliver appeared on TV. Since before TV was even invented.

And the same people who poked fun at my "nonya tastes" are now snobbishly telling me I have to "educate my palate" to enjoy truffles and foie gras. I don't need to - truffles have the same earthy flavour that you find in mushrooms harvested from the jungles behind kampungs while foie gras has the same texture of well-made otak otak.

My palate knows them well.

It's sad that these "gourmets" hooked on Western food fads can't see the rich heritage they already have.

Last weekend, I went for a cookery course held in a 200-year-old kampung house on Pulau Ubin. We harvested herbs from the garden to make nasi kerabu, a traditional dish that is harder to find now than coq au vin because of the rarity of the ingredients. None of the herbs used could be farmed - we were lucky because the house was so old that they still grew in the garden like weeds.

My class had 18 people, of which only six were Singaporeans. The rest were foreigners who obviously appreciated Singapore's fare more than the locals do. Where were the rest of the Singaporean self-styled gourmets?

My bet would be at a $300 cooking class conducted by a foreign chef on how to use imported free-range chicken and herbs harvested from Umbria instead of Ubin.

Tabitha Wang is no food snob but still takes a plane to Penang for her belachan.