By Jatinder Singh | SINGAPORE | OPINION
Mummy, whats for dinner? Rice, dhaal, chicken wings and ikan bilis sambal.
A few days ago a friend posted on Facebook a picture of a mouth-watering cuisine she had cooked for dinner. It was complimented with many ‘Likes’ and comments. I decided to read them.
– Fantastic Punjabi style makan
– Home Punjabi food is the best
– Well donelah, keeping our tradition alive!
And on the flipside…
– Sorry what kind of dinner is this?
– How does anyone eat lentils with chilli paste?
I investigated into the profile of the ‘dumbstruck’ to find that they were in fact of India origin; I have to exclude the term Indian but write India, because the former refers to all of our ethnic allegiance, while the latter inclines towards the country of socialisation.
My mind went back 18 years to my undergraduate days at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I met Rajveer Bains, a first year engineering student from New Delhi who was doing a cross faculty module with my majoring discipline of sociology.
My affinity for Punjabi material, social and cultural, accelerated my exchanges with Rajveer.
During Diwali in 2001, I invited him to my sister’s place for dinner, an experience that I would never forget.
While tea and samosas and insights to bargains while shopping at Karolbagh, New Delhi, formed enriching common ground (to my sister obviously), the transition to beers and assorted nuts with live Gurdaas Maan numbers formed the entertainment highlight of the evening.
It was then time for the “traditional” Punjabi dinner; no garlic naans or chicken tikka, not even butter chicken nor palak paneer, but….
Lemak curry with potatoes and carrots and cabbage and string beans, fried Tenggiri fish, tahu sambal, circular slices of cucumber garnished with light salt and lychee in tinned syrup for desert.
Rajveer stared at the food. He was a polite Delhi Boy. He said the beers had bloated him bad. He had overkilled the salted peanuts. He would very apologetically skip dinner.
My brother in law was quick to sympathise. He had years of experience in the F&B industry and could identify the actual root of the crisis. However, he added a disturbing statement, “Dont worry about it. Be comfortable. Food won’t be wasted. We will keep some in the fridge and it will taste better for lunch tomorrow!”
KITA PUNYA MAKAN
A grand narrative in Malay filled the room. My brother in law exclaimed, “Jet Sia (my nickname) lu tak cakap lu bawak orang dari sana datang rumah. Dia orang mana boleh makan kita punya makan (You didn’t tell us you were inviting a foreign guest. Our type of cuisine is not palatable for them)!”
So in 2010, Diwali dinner was prepared in a Punjabi household but deemed not palatable by a Punjabi from India. In 2018, what took seconds to stimulate my gastronomy, won consensus by many Singaporeans and Malaysians alike but did once again arouse “alienation” in a foreign few.
The conclusion: The study of social science informs the mental faculty that there exists peculiar or unique realities when communities react with localities.
EAT FIRST, PRAY LATER
A few months ago, I shared an article that was fairly well received by Punjabi folk in Singapore and Malaysia about the special Punjabi ‘Lingua Franca’ we enjoy and experience. I was pleased to garner feedback on many different paser vocabulary that I had not included or moreso grammatical expressions that I had not visited in my narratives.
We have now arrived at a congruent reality and that is Punjabi food or Punjabi homemade recipe. Unlike the topic of localised Punjabi language that was/is easy to connect with owing to commonalities across sects and families, the Punjabi food of Singapore / Malaysia has its special trademark, type and taste- or combinations.
We can mark a starting point of common prevalence in gurdwaras (Sikh temples) here, where tahu sambal and mee hoon are sought after entities so much that you would hear relished expressions such as “Hmmm, Gurdwara tahu sambal you cannot find anywhere at all.”
I grew up recognising gurdwara culinary experts with nicknames like “Tahu Sambal Majhi” – you see her and you know you need to adopt the summarised prayer version so you can attack the delicacy while stocks last (eat first, pray later…..!).
At the home front, R&R will form the staple base; roti and rice. The dhaal…Yes, the dhaal, all time “Happy Meal” condiment will have variations but typically with one genre the favourite… “If you go to Masi house and she cooked her yellow dhaal, you can eat it plain with rice!” And to be fair…. “Don’t eat Puah’s Dhaal.. the Rajma (kidney beans) is a real spoiler!”
And the main dishes to accompany the core foundation shall be the dynamic selection; so much so that as I pen these stanzas I am still not sure if I should even mention The List of possible combinations!
Well maybe for the sake of non Singaporean Punjabis, I should plot an idea of what’s cooking at home? I really don’t know if Thai Punjabis have Tomyam flavoured chicken with yellow dhaal, or if Japanese Punjabis savour Sushi with green dhaal, but we Singaporeans define Punjabi homemade food as:
– Egg sambal
– Kicap chicken
– Fried fish
– Chicken wings (KFC for some)
– Ikan bilis
– Potato masala fried
– Prawn sambal
– Tahu sambal with bird eggs
– Sausage sambal
With dhaal of all sorts, curries, sauces, AND
The classic signature, unparalleled, as good as gold – Saag Suri: Boneless pork marinated with spices and pressure cooked with greens like spinach, mustard Seed Leaves, Chillies, etc.
The Saag Suri, now considered by some to be a dying, soon to be extinct, gastronomical gift to mankind in Singapore and Malaysia, has evolved to be experimented with alternatives to pork such as chicken, mutton, and even sardine. The signature standalone dhaal has also not been spared with some families infusing pork ribs in it, eggs and sardine.
As an ardent meat eater, I do apologise to adversaries of non-vegetarian culinaries if this assertion appears biased or wrongly represented.
I do envisage a gastronomical platform for vegetarians where “mock” meats shall find places in recipes such as Saag Suri and its likes.
I do also welcome criticisms to this rendition of mine since it is a secular account and I am sure I will be insighted with other “comfort” foods and recipes of the Punjabi home in Singapore and the region. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
If I know there is dhaal in my fridge and plain rice is a quick fix but nothing else to go along with… so I stop by the Chinese chicken rice shop and takeaway just roasted chicken and barbecued pork.
I should share a picture of how I neatly arrange the dhaal, rice and “complimenting” local meat delights on my lunch plate!
Jatinder Singh possesses great interest in culture which he studied at National University of Singapore (NUS). He currently trains students and adults in schools and enrichment centres in a range of topics; including public speaking which forms his forte. Jatinder also extends his flair to host and emcee events.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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The Birth, Growth & Withering of ‘Paser’ Punjabi! (Asia Samachar, 1 Nov 2017)