As you know, I ate A LOT of food in Singapore. Like a small child's weight in food. And while I enjoyed Hainanese chicken rice and drooled over banana fritters with kaya, the single food I thought was most memorable, most delicious, most fantastically awesome is this ugly mess of a dish called rojak.
Rojak is a fruit salad -- yes, that's fruit under that mound of sauce! -- but it's not some prissy fruit salad: it's a sweet, sour, savory, spicy POW of a fruit salad. Scratch that. It's a flavor experience.
Rojak is Malay for "mixture." And that's exactly what this salad is: a weird mixture of stuff that really, really, really should not be delicious together. Rojak commonly has jicama, pineapple, cucumber, green mango, taupok (deep-fried tofu), beansprouts, and youtiao (Chinese-style dough fritters). Sometimes there's even squid!
But what makes this melange delicious is the even weirder dressing, which is made with varied ingredients, including tamarind, belacan (shrimp paste), sugar, chili, and lime juice. I know it doesn't sound at all yummy, but trust me when I tell you that this sauce is bombtastic. It's so good, in fact, that I seriously licked the plate after devouring all the fruit.
While we had rojak at a few places, the very best iteration we had was at Toa Payoh Rojak at the Old Airport Food Centre, which we found through my favorite Singapore food blog, "I Eat Shoot Post." TPR operates out of a tiny space, just enough room for the two people (son and mother?) who operate it. There's such a long wait for the rojak here that you have to take a number and wait . . . and wait.
This is because they make each order a la minute. The guy toasts the youtiao and chopped peanuts over a charcoal grill, while the tiny, stooped-over elderly woman peels the jicama by hand and chops all the fruit. He then mixes the sauce according to your spice specifications (hot or mild), then puts everything in a wooden bowl and tosses it by hand.
It's so humbling to watch these two people quietly at work, executing a dish that they've perfected. Eating it, you taste all of the fresh ingredients, the secret dressing recipe (that's been passed down through the generations), and the earnest dedication of these people to serving the very best version of their prized dish.
Have you tried rojak? If someone put squid in your fruit salad, would you run away screaming, or pick up a fork and dig in?