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Spicy salad embodies a city's colourful culture

Celebrate the Little Red Dot's imperfect, vibrant glory with a funky dish that can be easily thrown together on a hot day

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Tan Hsueh Yun on 09 Aug 2020

The Straits Times

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For large parts of my life, I have wanted to be anywhere but here.

 

When it came time for university, I chose one in the United States because it was far away from Singapore. If I had been willing to deal with snow, I might have gone to the east coast of the US, about six hours further away by plane. But the weather in northern California suited me perfectly.

 

A decade after I graduated, I spent two years in Sydney, Australia, getting a master's degree. I didn't need one. I just wanted to be anywhere but here.

 

I wish I could offer profound reasons for not wanting to be here, but mine are the garden-variety sort.

 

When I was younger, I felt stifled by the education system here, the endless cramming for exams. The insistence on passing Chinese exams when I have zero aptitude for the language. My days had a dull sameness about them. School, then tuition, on a loop.

 

Mid-career, I was stifled by the demands of a job that required me to be on the ball 24/7. I used to work 12-and 13-hour days. My time off was spent recovering from these exertions. I used to make bread on days off to vent my frustrations. Kneading and punching down dough offered some relief before the whole cycle started again.

 

I wish I could offer profound reasons for not wanting to be here, but mine are the garden-variety sort.

 

When I was younger, I felt stifled by the education system here, the endless cramming for exams. The insistence on passing Chinese exams when I have zero aptitude for the language. My days had a dull sameness about them. School, then tuition, on a loop.

 

Mid-career, I was stifled by the demands of a job that required me to be on the ball 24/7. I used to work 12-and 13-hour days. My time off was spent recovering from these exertions. I used to make bread on days off to vent my frustrations. Kneading and punching down dough offered some relief before the whole cycle started again.

 

And now, I find I can fit in here too.

 

It didn't just dawn on me one day. Nothing earth-shattering happened to change my mind. This isn't because I have mellowed in middle age - I have not. I am not a fan of Kool-Aid and will never drink it. And, no, I haven't gone soft in the head either.

 

Rather, I think, I have stopped seeing the world in black and white, good and bad; and I am willing to tolerate imperfection and mess.

 

When you are not in school or sweating bullets trying to build a career, Singapore is not stifling at all. It is a place that has the power to surprise me, which I find very gratifying.

 

In my early days at The Straits Times, my boss used to send me out to canvass views on a wide range of topics.

 

"Don't come back until you have 50 usable quotes," Mr Felix Soh would say.

 

It was grunt work, but this rookie learnt so much. About how to approach perfect strangers to ask all sorts of strange questions. How to make my pitch in 30 seconds or less. How to get people to trust me in 30 seconds or less.

 

That was the era of "no comment". I would have to approach 100, even 150 people to get those 50 usable quotes. Some people didn't even bother to say "no comment". They just walked away. I would get the cold shoulder even for innocuous things such as: "What do you think of the paint job on the facade of this HDB block?"

 

Can you see why I had to punch dough?

 

How different things are now. People volunteer their opinions even when you are not particularly interested in them.

 

Sure, there are those who hide behind their keyboards, but there is an increasing number of lucid people who give sensible views fearlessly. Who make convincing arguments they back up with facts.

 

The level of discourse can still improve, of course. For every eloquent commentator, there are many who spew vitriol, have ill-considered opinions or make the most banal statements.

 

But this is better than the silence in my rookie reporter days. And I take heart - from rock bottom, there is no place to go but up. Right?

 

Imperfection and mess are what make Singapore vibrant, I have come to realise. The rest of the world sees us as sterile, boring. We are anything but.

 

My hackles rise when some ang moh who parachutes into Singapore makes shallow assumptions about us. I cannot believe they are still doing this. Enough with the tropes. We are not robots marching all in one direction. This is evident everywhere I look. They need to look harder.

 

And so, to celebrate all this, I offer a salad with a funky dressing. The days are hot and cooking is sometimes torture, so this is something easy to throw together with what you have in the fridge and what you like in a salad.

 

I love wing beans because they taste good raw or cooked and are so versatile. They form the base for my salad. If you don't like them raw, simply blanch them after slicing and plunge into an ice-water bath, then drain and use.

 

If you don't like wing beans, use cooked lady's fingers, French beans or snake beans.

 

I throw in honey pineapple and rose apples because they add sweetness and crunch, and are so refreshing on a hot day.

 

Prawns are the protein, but you can also use lightly pan-fried tau kwa, crushed peanuts, flakes of snapper or salmon - or just have vegetables and fruit.

 

The dressing is made with cinchalok, mildly funky fermented shrimps. They add umami to the dressing.

 

The heat comes from my favourite chilli sauce, Lingham's. It is so very hot and sweet, and I love dragging thick-cut fries through it. If you don't have it, use sambal belacan, Sriracha or whatever chilli sauce you have on hand. Calamansi lime juice perks up the dressing and the oil helps it cling to the vegetables.

 

This recipe makes a tart dressing, which suits my palate. Add honey or superfine sugar if you prefer something less bracing. I love a drizzle of coconut cream over the top to provide a hint of richness, but that is optional.

 

My colleague Chee Siong, who came over to take photos, had some salad and declared it "refreshing". Then he had a coughing fit from the chilli.

 

"Wah, very hot."

 

Good. I wanted it to be just like Singapore.

 

WING BEAN SALAD
 

INGREDIENTS

 

DRESSING

 

  • 2 large shallots
  • 75ml calamansi lime juice from 12 to 14 limes
  • 2 Tbs cinchalok, mostly shrimps, with some pickling liquid
  • 1 Tbs Lingham's Chilli Sauce
  • 3 Tbs flavourless oil such as grapeseed or canola
  • Honey or superfine sugar to taste (optional)
  • 100ml coconut cream (optional)
  • Salt to taste (optional)

 

SALAD

 

  • 500g shell-on prawns
  • 250g wing beans
  • 2 large red chillies
  • 200g honey pineapple (about half a small pineapple)
  • 2 rose apples

 

METHOD

 

1. Make the dressing: Peel and slice the shallots thinly, transfer into a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting screw-on lid. An empty jam jar will work perfectly. Pour in calamansi lime juice, cinchalok, chilli sauce and oil. Screw on the lid and shake until dressing is emulsified. Taste and add honey if you want it less tart. Refrigerate dressing until just before serving.

 

2. If you are using the coconut cream, heat it in a small saucepan over medium heat until it thickens slightly. Add salt to taste. Pour the cream into a small bowl and set aside until just before serving.

 

3. Shell the prawns and steam, boil or poach them. Drain and set aside.

 

4. Rinse the wing beans carefully under running water, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Cut off and discard each end. Slice crosswise thinly and place in a large bowl. Slice the chillies diagonally and add to the bowl. Slice the pineapple and rose apples thinly.

 

5. At this point, you can refrigerate the salad and the prawns for about an hour or serve immediately. To serve, place the vegetables, fruit and prawns in a large salad bowl, give the dressing a few shakes, pour it over the salad and toss. Drizzle the coconut cream over the salad (if using) and serve immediately.

 

Serves six as part of a meal

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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