Thanksgiving Stingray, and Other Culinary Stories from Ex-Pat Roommates
children of ex-pats or diplomats or folks otherwise afflicted with incurable wanderlust. They're American citizens, but they were born in Taiwan, the Phillipines, Samoa, the Marshall Islands. (The lone non-TCK, apart from myself, was born in Queens, which is a foreign country all its own.) They were raised in these places, and in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Majorca. They pass as ordinary American because they've spent their time in ex-pat enclaves -- the Little Americas that spring up in places like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the same way Little Haitis and Chinatowns spring up here.
You can only tell they're different when they eat.
I acquired these roommates slowly. First was my boyfriend, five years ago, when he was fresh from his senior year at the Singapore American School. He's not an enthusiastic eater -- like a lot of smart young technokids, he's impatient with the slow rituals of restaurant-picking and food-choosing, and he's deeply offended by the idea of cooking. He's a double-quarter-pounder-hold-the-onions kind of kid; he'd happily subsist on pepperoni pizza if doing so wouldn't result in scurvy. He's into comfort food. But because of his upbringing, comfort food for him also encompasses things that similar kids from Peoria would find gross. Before burgers and pizza, his favorite food is raw sea urchin, fresh from the shell.
But because of his aversion to cooking, it wasn't until his childhood best friend joined our household that our kitchen became really interesting. Suddenly, the rice cooker was always full of jasmine rice. Beside the cooker sat cans of chunk tuna and a big bottle of Sriracha sauce -- red stuff, similar in color and consistency to ketchup, but made of chilis and vinegar and garlic. Easy snack: Cup of rice + can of tuna + a generous spray of Sri. (To this, I usually add a teaspoon of truffle oil, though my housemates think this amounts to defilement.) Once, dinner in our household was all salmon steaks, mushroom reductions, risottos. As our household grew, dinner became became curries -- red ones and green ones, generally flavored with Scotch Bonett peppers, the hottest my roommate could lay hands on outside of Thailand.
The house grew from two ex-pat kids to three, and to four, and to five, and breakfast changed. I like to make cinnamon buns a few mornings per week; now, the buns are preceded by scrambled eggs with kimchee. As our Majorcan roommate asserted herself in the kitchen, lunch became tortilla espanola -- a dish that involves no actual tortillas -- and illegally imported spicy Spanish hams atop hard brown breads, topped with tomatoes and olive oil and shavings of a firm cheese that tastes like the earthier cousin of Manchego.
The nexus of our group formed in Singapore, where five of the eight of us went to high school. Always, no matter what we're eating, my roommates lament the absence of Singaporean street food, served by people they call "uncles" in that tiny country's thousands of hocker stalls. Chicken rice, chili crab, and especially sambal stingray - a devilishly spicy dish, in which the intense flavors of sambal float atop the firm unctuousness of the stingray's wing. It's a legendary dish. Whenever I mention it to someone from Southeast Asia, they begin raving. Sometimes they cry a little.
This Thanksgiving, my roommates are scattering to various aunts' and uncles' houses along the Eastern seaboard, in Connecticut and New Jersey and Rhode Island. There they'll eat turkey -- a dish they find a little bland. When they get back this weekend, they'll find two stingray's wings chilling in the refrigerator. Monday night, in a belated, multi-culti food orgy of a Thanksgiving celebration, they'll eat American-made Sambal stingray for the first time.
Here's how it's done. (This recipe comes courtesy of the awesome Kitchen Tigress.)
Sambal (makes about 1 cup)
140 g shallots (14 pieces)
70 g peeled garlic (10 cloves)
20 g ginger (thumb size)
20 g lemon grass, white part only (2 medium size stalks)
50 g red chillies (3 medium size pieces)
15 g dried chillies (15 pieces)
trim stems, cut 2 cm long, soak in warm water till soft, about 30 minutes; squeeze dry and discard water
15 g belacan (1 tbsp)
roast at 150°C or dry-fry over medium-low heat till dry and crumbly
½ cup vegetable oil
20 g tamarind paste (1 tbsp rounded)
mash with 2 tbsp hot water, drain and discard seeds and pulp
30 g palm sugar (3 tbsp), roughly chopped
¼ tsp salt
1 stingray wing (850 g), rinsed and dried
2 tsp salt
1 big piece banana leaf, a few inches wider than your baking tray
4 calamansi limes, halved
½ red onion, thinly sliced
¼ cup tomato or pineapple slices
½ cup cucumber slices
Wash, trim, peel and roughly chop shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and red chillies as appropriate. Grind or pound with dried chillies and belachan till smooth.
Stir-fry sambal paste with vegetable oil over medium heat till fragrant and colour darkens, about 15 minutes. Add tamarind water, palm sugar and salt. Stir-fry till sugar is dissolved and water evaporated. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove from heat. Leave till cool. You should have about 1 cup of sambal.
Preheat oven to 230°C (450°F). Soften banana leaf in hot water. Dry with paper towels and brush with oil. Line baking tray with aluminium foil, followed by banana leaf. Tuck long ends of banana leaf under tray.
Cut stingray into 2 pieces (easier to flip over), or leave it as 1 big piece (more 'wow'). Cut a few slits in the thicker end - along the grain, on both sides, spaced about 3 cm (1 inch) apart. Sprinkle with salt, including the slits. Place on banana leaf, bottom/white side up, top/grey side down. Bake in middle of the oven with the thicker end inside, till 70-80% cooked. This should take about 10 minutes.
Remove stingray from the oven. Turn off oven's bottom heat, leaving only the top heat on. Spread ⅓ of sambal on stingray. Place stingray in top of oven. Grill with oven door ajar till sambal sizzles and top half of stingray is just cooked, about 4 minutes. Flip stingray over with a spatula. Spread with remaining sambal. Repeat grilling as before.
Remove stingray and banana leaf to a serving plate. Garnish and serve immediately.