Curry Favours: Jackfruit is the star ingredient in this traditional Malay curry
Think you know all your curries? CNA Lifestyle tries out some ethnic curries that are well-loved in Singapore homes. This week, it’s opor nangka – have you heard of this Baweanese delicacy?
Rendang and chicken curry are commonly known Malay dishes, but have you heard of jackfruit curry?
Opor nangka is a traditional dish made from unripe jackfruit, explained 27-year-old Azfar Maswan, a food service supervisor at a restaurant who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Singapore.
When it comes down to semantics, it’s not technically called a curry in the Malay culture but an “opor”, which refers to a style of cooking in which ingredients are braised or stewed in coconut milk.
“This dish is very representative of my sub-ethnic group,” Azfar said. “My great-grandparents came from Indonesia, from a place called Bawean Island. We are the Baweanese community within the general Malay community.”
The recipe was passed down by his late grandmother, who would cook up feasts for the family, inspiring him to spend time developing his interests in the kitchen and to eventually attend culinary school.
“Before she passed, I had the opportunity to learn to make dishes from her. She told me that opor nangka was a dish they used to do a lot during weddings,” he said.
To begin, the dry rempah, or spice mix, consists of cloves, cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon and white pepper; and the wet rempah has shallots, ginger, garlic and fresh turmeric. Dried shrimps rehydrated in water are also added.
He boils the unripe jackfruit in water to get rid of the starch content, then adds it to the pot and lets it cook for a good 40 minutes. Coconut milk is added towards the end.
The result is fork-tender chunks of jackfruit that absorb the piquant flavours of the spicy gravy.
“When the jackfruit softens up, it has a very meat-like texture,” Azfar said, adding that in Western cooking, the fruit is used as a vegetarian substitute for pulled pork.
One common misconception he’s noticed is that Malay food is “unhealthy”, “oily, meaty, high in calories”.
In fact, traditionally, it used to be a highly plant-based cuisine. “Rendang and chicken curry used to be cooked for special occasions and prayer sessions,” he said.
And in daily life, people would eat what was grown in their backyards, including a lot of raw vegetables as a meal accompaniment known as ulam.
Things like these led Azfar to feel “that it was very important for me to start to tell people stories about my culinary heritage”, he said. “It's such an unknown cuisine and it's been so untapped.”
And within his family, he carries on the cooking traditions of his grandmother.
“Family recipes and family traditions form part of your identity,” he said. When you lose certain practices… it’s like losing a part of your past and your family’s past.”
With his grandmother gone, his family misses and craves the dishes she used to make; which her mother before her made.
“I feel like part of my responsibility in the family is to recreate this feeling of comfort and these memories, so that we all can sort of relive the past. It brings us back to our childhood. And I think with a dish like this which was handed on to her – it has a sort of sentimental value to me personally. It really, really, really means a lot.
“It's a dish that I'm proud of and proud to inherit.”