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Rempah is a multidimensional spice paste that some believe is the "mother sauce" of Southeast Asian cuisine. The paste, which means spice in Malay, can be used to make (almost) any Malaysian dish.
Rempah's central ingredients are red chilli, garlic and ginger. Traditionally, belachan (shrimp paste) and lemongrass are included too. Other spices and aromatics may accompany it, depending on which dish it's used in. For instance, grind in turmeric to make rempah kuning, a common base for ikan goreng (fried fish). Add candlenuts to make rempah titek, typically used in masak titek (papaya soup). Include galangal and tamarind to make rempah garam assam, a key ingredient for ikan garam assam (sour fish curry).
Rempah is usually prepared by grinding the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle. The pressure of the pestle releases natural oils and juices, which gives rempah stronger flavours and aromas. This method is preferred over blitzing and gives the paste a silkier texture.
Once formed, the paste should be fried over a gentle heat to release more of its fragrance. Then it's ready as a seasoning agent for any vegetable, meat or fish dish.
"After the main ingredients, you add the flavour profile that you want to the different dishes. So, say we're making an assam nyonya, we'd use those main ingredients then add bunga kantan (torched ginger flower). If we were making laksa then we'd use the above and add laksa leaves, or [if we're making] a rendang, then we would use the above and add cinnamon sticks and star anise."
Khoo has always been drawn to the fresh aroma and intense flavours of rempah.
"My amah would make the rempah in the morning that she would then use in her dishes for our family dinner," he says.
"When you cook rempah, it travels through the whole house and is very strong and I would follow my nose to the kitchen and see her sauteing the rempah and just sit there and inhale it all in."
"When you cook rempah, it travels through the whole house and is very strong and I would follow my nose to the kitchen."
Some of Khoo's fondest memories are of learning to make rempah with his amah at age five.
"Being so young, she would always get me to do the simple jobs like peeling the onions or bashing the herbs and onions with the mortar and pestle," he recalls.
Today, Khoo uses this recipe at his restaurants, where it underpins many of Ho Jiak's authentic Malaysian dishes.
"Rempah in a way is Ho Jiak," he laughs. "Easily 80 per cent of our menu is all based on rempah."
Dishes like laksa, curry chicken, wagyu rendang and stir fries, such as char koay teow, all depend on rempah.
"I credit what we have done with Ho Jiak to amah every single time because of the fond memory of being woken from the smell of her cooking rempah in the morning, and then applying it to my career," Khoo concludes.
"It was all the rempah."
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This recipe was given to Jacob Leung by his mother, who adds curry leaves, kecap manis and fried garlic for a distinctly Malay touch.