The Nonya cooking ingredient Rempah is a ground mixture of fresh herbs and dried spices, often consisting of some five or more items. Cooking with rempah is an important technique employed by cooks in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and to a lesser extent Thailand, most likely an influence of the Indian.
There are endless Southeast Asian dishes based on rempah, laksa, chicken curry and sambal sting ray are some of Singapore’s favourites, just to name a few.
Rempah making is thus the first thing anyone interested in Southeast Asian cooking should learn. While there are some great favourite mixtures, there is no standard quantity and as a result every cook has her favourite mix different from her neighbour’s. Remember there is no need to follow any recipe to its last detail. Rempah making is not a scientific equation but an art for creative minds.
It may seem all too strange or difficult for anyone new to Southeast Asian cooking, but it is in fact rather simple once you know the basic. And the result will be an unending list of wonderful tropical dishes that are fast and easy to prepare.
Fresh and dried chillies, galangal, turmeric and lemon grass form the basis of most rempah. Garlic, ginger, coriander seeds, shrimp paste (belachan), candle nuts, dried shrimps, bean paste and many other herbs and spices are often added, depending on the dish you are preparing. Knowing the nature of each ingredients will help one create endless new mixtures according to one’s liking.
Rempah should not be made in a food processor. Simply mincing ingredients in a food processor will not produce the depth of flavours and crushed texture produced in a mortar and pestle. Unfortunately, pounding rempah is a time-consuming process, a luxury for many busy home cooks today – however, the results are definitely worth the effort.
Pounding rempah does require some skill to ensure a smooth, well-blended paste. While not exhaustive, here are some things we’ve found useful when working a mortar and pestle.
- Place your mortar and pestle on the floor while in use, as the force created by pounding the pestle against the mortar can damage a kitchen benchtop.
- Place a cork-board or a folded towel underneath your mortar to protect your flooring. This will also help muffle the noise if you live in an apartment.
- While pounding the rempah, only use sufficient force necessary to break up the ingredients. Too much force and your ingredients will be flying in all directions.
- Hold the pestle at a 45-degree angle and pound slowly in a clockwise or counter-clockwise motion around the base of the mortar. Avoid hitting the sides of the mortar in order to minimise noise.
- Pound dry ingredients first, then add the ‘wet’ ingredients with a higher water content, such as shallots and onions.
- Thoroughly pound each ingredient before adding the next. This will help ensure a consistent texture in your rempah.
- As the amount of ingredients inside the mortar increases, scrape down the sides occasionally with a spoon to aid even pounding.