The word rojak in Malay or Indonesian means mixture and perfectly describes this jumble of a salad from those countries in South East Asia.
I’m familiar with a couple types of rojak: there’s the Indian rojak or pasembur that’s topped with a peanutty sauce and then there’s the Penang rojak (or Chinese or fruit rojak are also similar) with its fermented prawn paste dressing. There’s a whole range of Indonesian rojaks too that I know nothing about. I prefer the strong prawn paste version myself and its contrast to the fresh fruits and vegetables and nutty roasted peanuts. I’ll be honest with you – its funky flavour may be an acquired taste and as I grew up with it, I love it. It’s strong yes, but it’s complex and punchy too.
I had a jar of hae ko (that’s the Hokkien name for the fermented prawn paste that in Malay is petis udang – you can buy it in some Asian shops in Chinatown) in the fridge and it being Mothers Day reminded me also that I had scribbled down her recipe for the dressing. Her recipe was very agak agak (a Malay term meaning to estimate – here’s a great essay about Nyonya recipes and how they are very agak agak!) but I put together this recipe based on what I remembered and what tasted good to me – I like it with some chilli kick (tinker to your taste) and sweet but not too sweet. The dressing is both strong and sticky and I like to keep it as thick as possible as it thins with the juices from the fruits, especially the pineapple.
For my rojak that day, I used cucumber, fresh pineapple, green apple, and a fresh Chinese doughnut (youtiao) from Chinatown; my favourite ingredient is really jicama (or yam bean) but decent specimens are difficult to find in London. The dressing is usually tossed together with the salad ingredients but I also like to serve it as a dip with the vegetables on the side – it’s perfect for lazy days when you don’t want to wash up a salad bowl!
For the dressing
3 heaping tbsps prawn paste (hae koe)
1 scant tbsp dark caramel soy sauce (Yuen Chun or Cheong Chan are brands I’ve found and used in London)
0.5 tbsps chilli paste/sambal (or more or less to taste)
0.5 tsp belacan powder
3-4 tbsps sugar (to taste)
1 tsp tamarind paste
1.5 tbsp hot water
Other ingredients that would work are rose apples, blanched beansprouts, jicama (yam bean) and deep fried tofu puffs.
freshly crushed roasted peanuts
freshly toasted sesame seeds
Dilute the tamarind paste with the hot water. Mix together with the rest of the dressing ingredients and stir well to combine. Leave to sit for about 10 minutes before stirring again (the sugar seems to dissolve better). It should be quite thick. This amount of dressing is enough to dress a salad for 4 people. You don’t need to use it all up now though – it keeps very well in the fridge for up to a week.
Cut the salad ingredients into bite sized chunks and place in a large bowl – the amounts of each should be based on what you like and the size of your stomach. Drizzle over the dressing and scatter over the crushed peanuts and sesame seeds. Toss all together and place on a plate. Top with more peanuts and sesame seeds and serve.