I have a sour tooth; I crave for sourness and I love all kinds of sour. According to Wikipedia, sourness is the taste that detects acidity – there’s tantric acid and citric acid. I don’t know all that mumbo jumbo, but I can distinguish different types of sourness – mouth puckering sourness, refreshing sourness, sweet sourness. Whatever the degree, sourness just livens up the taste buds.
There is the intense sourness that shoots straight into your head, like when you suck on asamboi or bite into a young unripe mango. There is the rounded sourness of tamarind, usually tempered with sugar. There is the sharp sourness of lemon, lime and kalamansi limes. There is the sourness of vinegar – I love the sourness of black vinegar cooked with pigs trotter and old ginger. There is also the sourness of belimbing buluh (carambola) that softens when cooked in coconut milk, and absorbs the flavours of the spices.
I hardly ever crave for sweet desserts, but am always feeding my sour tooth. But I have also realised that loads of sugar is used to balance sour, so I am actually feeding both my sweet and sour tooth.
My favourite snacks are these asam and jeruk – essentially dried or/and pickled fruits and ginger and lime peels. I’ll also admit that half the time I don’t know what I am eating, except that it’s some fruit.
In Hokkien, they are collectively called kiam-sui-ti, which translates to salty-sour-sweet. And that’s the flavours of these snacks – they are interesting because there are hardly ever single-flavoured; but layered and nuanced. Preserving and drying these fruits also intensify the flavours.
There are stalls in markets and supermarkets these days, selling these asam and jeruk by weight. Once upon a time, we bought these in ready-packed packets, and they cost ten or 20 cents.
Except in provision shops where you can still get them in small plastic packets stapled to a board, most stalls now sell them by grams and a scoop costs a few ringgit, depending on what you chose.
Asamboi must be one of the most popular. These are dried sour plums that are sour, salty and sweet. Connoisseurs can discern the quality of asamboi – good ones are big and fat, and the flesh comes off cleanly from the seeds, and has the sour-salty-sweet balance right. The ones that are overwhelmingly salty are no good.
There is also asamboi dyed red; they are generally similar to the white ones but some of these are softer. Some people like the soft asamboi as their flavours are gentler.
My mother was convinced I was a skinny kid because I ate so much asamboi. I probably spent my pocket money on asamboi everyday. I can’t remember when I stopped chewing on asamboi but it did keep me awake when I was mugging late into the wee hours of the morning (and listening to an emo Malay programme on radio when the DJ reads out readers’ letters on love and heartbreak).
Apart from chewing on them in between sips of iced water, it is also great for making ice lollies.. Asamboi powder (asamboi flesh blended finely with lots of sugar) is also the best dip for fruits like guava and pineapple.
I also love lemon peels. They are also sweet, sour and salty, but is less intense. They are comforting, and not quite as mouth puckering sour as asamboi. I like them especially for long drives to help keep me awake. I also like them better than asamboi to keep nausea at bay.
There must easily be 40-50 types of these preserved fruits at these asamboi stalls. There are lots of plums – or at least they are called plums – in the selection, in varying degree of the sour-salty-sweet balance. The stall owner told me most of them are imported from China.
The other asam I like is the red ginger. It’s dyed the brightest red, and will stain your fingers and tongue. It’s hot and sweet, and best chewed on with sips of the iciest water. There are two types – the drier version which I like best, while the other one is a softer and moist version which lacks the ooomph of the former. I was also recently introduced to crystal-like yellow ginger, which is similar to the preserved ginger found in the West.
These asam and jeruk stalls are my version of the Western candy store. Their offerings are not so pretty, but they get my tastebuds going and they are immensely comforting and satisfying.