Growing up straddling the 2 worlds of the city and the jungle, with a mother who does kick-ass comfort food, I learnt a lot about jungle produce, its preparation, and the simplicity of taste.
If I was about to die and my executioner will grant me any food that I wish for, it would be…
Tempoyak as it is known in Malay, or fermented durian, is a delicacy that you will either love, or hate, at first smell.
When we were young, cracking open durians by the side of a small fire, smoke in our eyes, ears pricked for the sound of a THUD THUD yonder beyond the bush and mosquitoes, gorging on that custardy, sweet ambrosia. The pile of these spiky balls will grow as the sun sets, our bellies full, breaths stinking.
Some durians that are partially ripened, or bitter, or for whatever reason deemed inedible, will be skinned and deseeded. She would add salt, tasting it till the formula was good enough.
Then she scoops it into a payan, or giant ceramic jar. seals the direct surface of the salted durian with a sheet of plastic, and sealing it again with another sheet of plastic by tying the mouth of the jar with raffia string.
Then we’d wait. At slightly less than room temperature, the mixture matures into a sourish, milky yellow and less pungent paste. For a few months up to a year, to be opened and fried, or added to a myriad of other dishes. Sometimes eaten raw with raw vegetables and chilli.
My favourite is the refrigerated kasam dihan, where the mixture turns greenish grey, salty and sweet. It won’t become too sour because the fermentation process is slowed down.
Dried anchovies, bird’s eye chillis, and shallots, thrown into a wok with hot oil. Heap spoonfuls of kasam dihan stirred in and caramelized to a darker shade of brown.
The piece de resistance would be pieces of tipurandu’, or deep fried pork skin (keropok babi) folded into the mixture at the end.
Best eaten with yesterday’s rice, unheated.
Outsiders won’t understand the glorious taste of the sweetness from the caramelized flesh, spicy from the chillies. sour from the fermentation, crispy from the tipurandu’ and salty kasam, just like how I can never understand wine.
Warning: If you see people selling tempoyak at markets, sometimes it’s been mixed with flour or water so it will taste diluted.