Earlier this week folks chimed in about restaurant salad recreations. One of my favorite restaurant salads here in Los Angeles is the rojak at Singapore's Banana Leaf. Their vegetarian-friendly version of the fruit and vegetable salad served in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia is spicy, tangy, sweet, and unbelievably refreshing. I won't stop ordering it at the restaurant, but I'm happy to have come up with a homemade version that doesn't require trekking across town.
Rojak or rujak means "mixture" in Malay (sometimes it's translated as "wild mix" or "eclectic mix") and the fruits and vegetables in rojak salad vary by region and cook. At Singapore's Banana Leaf, the salad includes cucumber, jicama, pineapple, green apple, spinach, bean sprouts, and crispy fried tofu, tossed with a lively dressing and a handful of crushed peanuts. From sweet to sour and crunchy to juicy, these contrasts of textures and flavors are immensely satisfying.
Hitting all the tastebuds, the dressing for this version of rojak salad includes sour tamarind pulp, a spicy chile pepper sauce called sambal oelek, and palm sugar, which has a richer, more caramel-like flavor than white cane sugar. Look for these in markets with Southeast Asian ingredients, or order them at Amazon.com. Tamarind may also be found at Indian and Mexican markets, and if you want to go the DIY route for sambal oelek, there's a recipe online at The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. (If using the tamarind paste that comes in a block, such as the one pictured above, see this post for tips.)
Traditionally, rojak salads often include shrimp paste (belacan); if you aren't a vegetarian, feel free to throw that into the dressing, too. I have also seen rojak salads with green mango or papaya, banana, pomelo, potato, and green beans, as well as eggs and Chinese fried bread (youtiao). So it's quite all right if you don't have the exact roster of ingredients included in the recipe below. Rojak is flexible.
1 (12- or 14-ounce) block extra firm tofu
Vegetable oil for frying
2 tablespoons tamarind pulp
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons palm sugar or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sambal oelek (or more, to taste)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks or slices
1 Granny Smith apple, cut into chunks or slices
1 cup jicama chunks or slices
1 cup pineapple chunks or slices
1/2 cup unsalted or lightly salted peanuts, crushed
Fry the tofu: Cut tofu into 1-inch cubes and gently press between clean kitchen towels or paper towels to absorb excess moisture. Add 1/2-inch oil to a skillet and heat over medium-high. Oil should be hot enough that a small piece of tofu sizzles but does not burn. Fry the tofu cubes in a single layer until crispy on all sides. This may need to be done in batches. Drain and cool on a towel-lined plate.
Make the dressing: Whisk together the tamarind, vinegar, sugar, sambal, and salt.
Assemble the salad: Toss the cooled tofu, cucumber, apple, jicama, pineapple, and half of the peanuts together in a large bowl and toss with the dressing.
Garnish with remaining peanuts and serve immediately.
(Images: Emily Ho)