Right side of photo above shows a wet and finely ground spice paste which us locals call “Rempah“.
Rempah is an integral part of many Nonya, Malay and Indonesian dishes besides curries. What then is “rempah“? It is fine ground paste of fresh herbs and dried spices. Quite a number of ingredients make up this paste. What these ingredients are and their exact proportions in a rempah depends on what dish you are cooking.
This “concoction” also varies from region to region and from cook to cook. In most Nonya households, this combination is usually a closely guarded secret. This practice is understandable in the olden days. A young girls’ cooking skills weighed heavily on how well she marries.
COMMON REMPAH INGREDIENTS
Photo above shows some of the more common ingredients that go into making a rempah .
- Blachan is dried prawn paste (in a binge, Fine Prawn Paste which is used in Chinese cooking is a good substitute). It has a strong and pungent smell. It needs to be baked or stir-fried over slow fire to break down into a powder form. This process of dry roasting blachan is not difficult. Slice a block on blachan into thin slices, place slices into a heavy duty non-stick saucepan and dry roast it till it breaks into small granules. It takes about 20 mins to reduce a block of blachan into small granules. Nowadays, ready fried blachan powder in bottles are sold.
- Turmeric has many proven health benefits. It is used also in cosmetics and dyes. Leaves are used in Nonya dishes like Nasi Ulam and Otak Otak. It features frequently in Indian cooking too. Watch out for its potent colour which stains anything in contact with it very easily. Stains are a nightmare to remove! For this reason, I usually use the powder form in my cooking and exercise care when cooking the rempah.
- Star Anise is used in local and Chinese cooking. It has a strong flavour so use it sparingly.
- Buah Keras is the Malay name for Candle Nuts or Kemiri. Botanical name is Aleurites moluccana. Since these seeds contain saponin and phorbol, they are mildly toxic when raw. Dry roast them for safety. It doesn’t add much flavour but adds some oil to the curry. Reminds me of macadamia nuts which are used a substitutes.
OTHER CURRY INGREDIENTS
Besides the all important rempah, a short explanation of some other ingredients is required for present purposes.
1. Curry Powder.
- Besides different brands (for example Lingam, Baba’s and Alagappa), broadly speaking, no matter what the brand is, there is curry powder for meat dishes and curry powder for seafood. You may also find Kurmah curry powder which is used for non-chilly-spicy curries.
- Some brands contain a higher percentage of chilly- hot spiciness in the mix. In this case, don’t add fresh chilly nor chilly powder.
- Vietnamese Curry powder is of a different composition of spices. It is not suitable for Singapore curries.
They feature in meat curries like Chicken Curry, Beef Curry, Chicken Kurmah and not in seafood curries.
- Use only waxy potatoes since they hold their shape when cooked. In the local markets, use yellow flesh Dutch potatoes or Indonesian Brastagi.
- In the USA, use Yukon Gold or Red Potatoes and not Russet Potatoes (floury).
- In Japan, their commonly available potato was waxy when we lived there.
3. Coconut Santan.
My domestic helper used to buy freshly grated coconut to extract the santan. She will add some water, knead it and squeeze for the coconut’s first milk. Then, she adds more water to the dry pulp and squeezes for second milk. First milk is referred to as santan or coconut cream and it added at the last stage of cooking curry. The second milk which is much more watery is added much earlier to the meat already covered with cooked rempah and then simmered.
For convenience, most households use UHT coconut cream instead of freshly squeezed coconut cream. Hence, you don’t get second milk any more. You can then (a) add a tablespoon or 2 of coconut cream to water to create second milk or (b) just use water.
- For UHT packets of santan, in Singapore I am familiar with Kara Brand.
- In the US or Japan, there are numerous brands. You must ensure that the packet is for pure coconut cream with no sugar added or it is unsweetened. Do not buy coconut cream for Pina Colada!
- Cold pressed virgin coconut oil (current rage for all sorts of health benefits) is not suitable.
4. Common Spices in South East Asian Curries
Photo above shows the some other spices mentioned in my post “Singapore Chicken Curry” with the exception of Tamarind paste which does not form part of the ingredients for that dish.
5. Tamarind Paste.
Tamarind paste is the fruit (separated from the pod) of the tamarind tree. It is dark in colour, sticky and has a sourish taste. The local Tamarind Paste is not de-seeded so bear this in mind when you are measuring it by the tablespoonfuls for any recipe. It is used in Fish, Prawns and Sotong Curries and in the Nonya dish called Mee Siam. Thai and Mexican cooking also use tamarind paste.
In most SE Asian recipes which list tamarind paste as an ingredients, it is the liquid that is required. The paste is mixed with water. To extract the tamarind liquid, use your fingers and rub the paste with water to loosen paste. Strain the liquid and use that for cooking. In the photo below you see the liquid, and some pulp left in the strainer. On the bottom right of the photo, you see a lump made up of a bit of the pulp and seeds.
6. Curry Leaves.
They are also known as “sweet neem leaves”. Curry leaves add aroma and taste to your dishes. Lately, local seafood restaurants have been using these leaves liberally in Crab and vegetable dishes too. Is this due to their many health benefits too?
Curry leaves are said to prevent diarrhoea; are good for the digestive system; control bad cholesterol and to encourage hair growth. If you want to read more about this, click
7. Different Types of Ginger
There are 4 types of ginger that feature in South East Asian cuisines. Turmeric (Chinese name is 姜 黄; Malay name is Kunyit ) and Galangal ( Chinese name is 南薑; Malay name is Lengkuas; Burmese name is “Ba dae gor” ) are common ingredients in curries whilst young and old ginger will be used in other types of dishes.
The photo above helps you to identify the different types of gingers that are available in the local wet markets or in the Asian groceries in the US and Australia. Galangal fragrance is delicate but distinct and it is more evidently present when the root is young. It is young when it is slightly pinkish in colour. Old pieces of galangal are no longer pink and they are very fibrous. You will have a difficult time peeling and slicing through the root and the delicate fragrance is hardly present.
SUBSTITUTES for some ingredients
- Red or brown onions are good substitute for shallots. Onion powder should’nt be used as it gives a totally different flavour.
- Lemon peel is a good substitute for serai (however, it should only be added towards the end, when coconut santan or cream is added).
- Chilly powder (cayenne powder) works well if fresh red chillies are not available.