Those of us who do our grocery shopping in supermarkets really miss out on a lot. Yes, they are comfortable places in which to buy fresh food, but air-conditioning isn't everything.
One of the best things about living in this metropolis is that we still have old-school wet markets that sell beautiful seafood, meat and vegetables.
Shop at them often enough and you know which stall to go to for the best, the freshest, the plumpest.
Regular customers build a rapport with their favourite stallholders and that makes the shopping experience much more satisfying.
When we used to have a dog, the chicken stallholder in the market my mother frequents would give her a bag of chicken liver for the pooch, gratis.
A friend who shops at Chinatown market always buys prawns from "the prawn lady", who insists on asking him what he is cooking and then recommending the right prawn for the dish.
Yet another friend, a regular at Tiong Bahru market, gets the most incredible-looking fish and extras like fish roe and liver.
Markets might have wet floors, narrow walkways and bad lighting, but the quality of the produce - and the prices - are good enough reasons to shop at them.
I am reminded of this when, driven by a craving for nasi ulam, I go to Tekka market for the first time in maybe a year.
My reason for shopping there starts off as a practical one. The herbed rice dish calls for ingredients that I am not likely to find in my neighbourhood supermarket.
While I would be able to find things like lemongrass, kaffir lime and laksa leaves in the supermarket, others such as bunga kantan or torch ginger buds, turmeric leaves and good mint will be harder to track down. And I am not in the mood to go supermarket-hopping.
In one short visit to the market, I get all my ingredients, pristine and fresh, from three stalls. Another bonus: I can buy just enough of what I need, instead of buying bushels of stuff.
While shopping, I become painfully aware of how I stick out like a sore thumb. Market stallholders know their regulars and joke and chat with them. I get stony stares when I ask for turmeric leaves and bunga kantan, but the stallholder unearths them from plastic bags squirrelled away and, I swear, rolls his eyes at me.
I mistake a shopper for a stallholder, a terrible faux pas, and later ask another shopper about an ingredient.
"You are asking all the wrong people," says the first shopper in a chiding tone.
I have been put very firmly in my place.
But I have also, in a very painless way, assembled everything I need for my dish. The only ingredients that come from the supermarket are long-grain brown rice and large limes. Incidentally, the market sells those limes too and if I look hard enough, I can probably get brown rice.
The dish is usually made with white rice, but I like the nutty flavour of brown rice and it goes very well with the aromatic herbs.
Now the trick to cooking fluffy brown rice is to ignore the cooking instructions on the packet.
Most brands call for one part rice to two parts water, but that just results in mushy and unappetising rice. Use much less water: one part rice to 1 1/4 parts water.
Rice cookers come in many models and the results will vary, so I have given instructions for cooking it in a pot, which everyone will have in the kitchen.
Everything about this dish is appetising and a pleasure to eat. Without a doubt, the herbs are the best part.
All of them add a little something to the finished dish, but they do not compete with one another. At the end, after all the fine slicing, what you get are bursts of flavour with every spoonful, punctuated with the nutty flavour of the toasted coconut, and a zing of freshness from the lime zest and juice.
The soft flakes of fish provide another layer of texture and make the dish a complete meal.
I would not call my dish authentic, but it satisfies my craving and has shown me again why I should shop more at wet markets.
There is no way to quit supermarkets, but I will be shopping at wet markets a lot more often.
- 400g long-grain brown rice
- 500ml water
- 11/4 tsp sea salt, divided
- 100g grated coconut
- 1 tsp cooking oil
- 250g to 300g batang steak, about 2cm thick
- 1 stalk lemongrass, white bottom part only
- 1 torch ginger bud (bunga kantan)
- 10 to 12 kaffir lime leaves
- 1 turmeric leaf
- 4 to 5 sprigs of mint
- 4 to 5 sprigs of laksa leaves
- 1 small Japanese cucumber
- 1 large lime
- White pepper to taste
1. Place the rice in a fine mesh sieve and rinse under running water, rubbing the grains well. Let drain one to two minutes and pour into a medium pot with a tight- fitting lid. Add water and 1 tsp of the salt and, over medium heat, bring to a gentle boil uncovered. Clap on the lid and turn the heat down to the lowest setting. Let cook for 35 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest for 10 minutes, still covered. When the rice is ready, fluff with a fork and scoop into a large mixing bowl and let cool to room temperature.
2. Meanwhile, spread the grated coconut out in a medium non-stick frying pan set over medium low heat. Stir the coconut frequently until toasted and golden- brown. Scoop into a bowl and set aside to cool.
3. Wipe the pan with a paper towel to remove the remaining bits of coconut and set the pan over medium heat. Rub the remaining 1/4 tsp salt and the cooking oil over the fish. Place in the pan and cook for four minutes on each side for a 2cm-thick steak. Set aside to cool.
4. Peel off and discard the first layer of the lemongrass, slice off the root end and finely slice the lemongrass thinly crosswise. Place in the mixing bowl with the rice, rubbing the lemongrass with your fingers so they separate out into rings. Remove the first layer of the torch ginger bud and slice thinly crosswise. Set aside 1 tsp for garnish and add the rest into the mixing bowl, rubbing with fingers to separate the slices into rings.
5. Stack the kaffir lime leaves and slice finely and add to the mixing bowl.
6. Slice along both sides of the central stem of the turmeric leaf. Discard the stem. Cut the two halves into two crosswise. Stack the leaves, roll tightly and cut crosswise into thin ribbons. Add to the bowl.
7. Remove the leaves from the sprigs of mint, stack, roll up and slice finely crosswise. Remove the laksa leaves and chop finely. Add mint and laksa leaves to the bowl.
8. Slice the cucumber in half length-wise and then into quarters. Slice off the seeds and cut each quarter in half lengthwise. Cut crosswise into cubes and add to the bowl.
9. Zest the lime, adding it to the bowl and squeeze the juice over the rice and herbs.
10. Flake the fish into the bowl, discarding bones and skin. Add the toasted coconut into the bowl, reserving 1 Tbs for garnish. Toss to mix everything well. Add more salt if needed and white pepper to taste. Scoop into a serving bowl, top with reserved coconut and torch ginger and serve.
Serves four to six
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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