Malacca. One of the few places that I will include in the chart capturing the hyperbolic growth of my interest in spices.
The very first place was in a school bus. I ate up my social studies project as a snack on the boring trip home.
Thirty years ago, my teacher had us do a presentation on the East India Company and the spice trade. I was in primary school – I didn’t understand the significance of the EIC, but I knew how to eat. So the focus then was more on the spices than the trade. My parents got me a bag of spices from the mamak store (local provision store run usually by a burly but friendly Indian man) which I happily poured out and carefully sorted, bagged, labelled and stuck on a piece of vanguard sheet, rather wildly illustrated to help prove that I knew what I was talking about. I was already OCD then.
After the exhilaration of telling my friends about what a star anise was, I proceeded to lick one on the bus on the way home because it looked so pretty. Ick. Didn’t like it much. Which is probably why I don’t care for licorice. Then, I decided to try another and another and another till I had uncooked dried shrimp. Boredom sure made me do odd things.
I am unsure why they were there since prawns are strictly not a spice but they were. I loved it and fished out all the orange bits I could find and gobbled them up before I arrived home. There, my love for Hae Bi (dried shrimp, cooked) began.
You make a lot of things with Hae Bi. Peranakan cuisine is one whose dishes are liberally doused with them. I discovered the true blue taste of the Nonya while in Malacca many years back. I learnt what a rempah (spice paste, like pesto but spicier) was and what ingredients went into making one. Of course, there isn’t just one way to make it. The composition, that affects taste and flavour, is totally dependent on where the cook is from, his preferences and what the paste is for. It seems the amount of time spent manually pounding, not machine-blending, spices together makes a great difference. Therein lies the space for creativity and innovation not for the weak of heart nor short of stamina!
When I think Peranakan, I think of Malacca and all the wonderful bowls of Ayam Buah Keluak, Babi Pongteh, Ikan Assam, Jiu Hu Char, Kueh Pie Ti,Belacan and Chendol.
In fact, I am on my way there now on yet another boring bus trip. My Hae Bi beckons and I must comply. In an hour or two, I will whisper I do to my beautiful goggly prawn eyes.