A Taste of Nostalgia

This month (May), it will be a year and a month since my co-founder Andrea Tan and I opened the Pit Stop Community Cafe.

We hoped to open and build a platform, a place where people would come to, not just to serve and give back to the community that we are a part of, but also to reconnect with themselves and their humanity, where kindness, care, compassion and consideration would be the currencies in operation.

In the one year, we have been blessed with kind souls and Earth Angels who have supported our work, financially and in kind, and there are now an increasing number of people who are starting to get what we’re trying to do.

But what are we trying to do? That was the question most people kept asking.

It was a simple wish: to see our community reconnect with each other, to show that all of humanity is one family, regardless of the colour of our skin or religious or political affiliations, to bring back, if you will, a sense of family.

It was interesting initially to see the reactions of our new volunteers, when they smell the food that we cook for our evening service, which currently serves anywhere from 200 to 280 people and some 350 to 400 portions of food.

A standard menu generally consists of bread, eggs, chicken porridge, a vegetable stew or noodles, a pot of oatmeal, green bean tong sui or soup and red bean soup.

One of the questions we always get when they see the latter is: Oh wow, that’s expensive, why are you serving something so expensive?

The answer is simple: We’re serving human beings, therefore we’re serving family. And does our family not deserve the best we can give?

At the same time, we ask, when do we eat a tong sui, or a bubur manis? And the answer almost inevitably is when you’re with friends or family. And what I wanted personally, was to offer those who might have had some trials in their life a taste of nostalgia, of better, happier times, when they were surrounded by friends and family, instead of the present, when they’re sleeping rough or barely eking out a living to keep body and soul together.

At the same time, we took note of our street clients, many of whom could be termed senior citizens, and we wanted to help to improve their health.

On the face of it, a simple bubur kacang merah pulut hitam might not look like much but the combination of the humble red bean and black glutinous rice has much to recommend them.

Consider this: research has associated this humble bean with improved heart health, lower cholesterol and higher energy while black glutinous rice is high in dietary fibre and iron content. The latter also has anthocyanins, a flavinoid, which gives the rice its black colour, usually found in fruits and berries.

And palm sugar? It’s a healthier alternative to refined white sugar, contained essential minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, zinc, iron and magnesium, all essential to a healthy body, as well as antioxidants.

As for rock sugar, well, the Indians (who call it Mishri) and the Chinese have been using it in their curries and herbal brews for centuries because of the health benefits it is reputed to have. It’s also less processed than refined table sugar, so it does come highly recommended.

Health benefits aside, for us at the Pit Stop, this humble traditional dessert evokes in many of us a sense of nostalgia, of family, of happier times. And for me, specifically, it reminds me of a time when my grandmother would make it for when her grandchildren came to visit and it brings a smile to my face, because I know I am loved. And is love not the best medicine of all, no matter how ill or healthy we are?

The ingredients for Kacang Merah Pulut Hitam for a family of five

  • 500gms kacang merah or red beans, also known as adzuki beans
  • 100gms of pulut hitam or black glutinous rice
  • 100ml of santan or coconut milk
  • 3 pandan (screwpine) leaves
  • 100gms of rock sugar
  • 100gms of gula melaka (palm sugar)
  • 3 cloves
  • 1 star anise
  • half a stick of cinnamon (about 2cm)
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • a pinch of salt

Step One (Prep):

  • Tie the pandan leaves into a knot, put it in about half a liter of water, together with the cloves, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon stick. Boil for about 10 minutes or until you can smell the fragrance of the leaves and spices.
  • While waiting for the water to boil, wash the beans and glutinous rice and set aside.

Step Two (Cooking):

  • Transfer the liquid and spices into a pot.
  • Add the red beans.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour.
  • Add the glutinous rice about 45 minutes later.
  • Stir every 10-15 minutes to make sure the rice is not sticking at the bottom.
  • Add the sugar about 45 minutes later and stir occasionally.

Alternatively, toss the liquid, beans, glutinous rice and sugar into a crockpot or slow cooker and put it on low for four to five hours.

Step Three (Serving):

  • Just before serving, add the pinch of salt in the coconut milk, then add the coconut milk and bring the mixture to a boil

Pandan leaves and its uses

At the Pit Stop, we go through pandan leaves like there’s no tomorrow. Not for us the bottled chemical version that imparts nothing but a smell.

But this plant, which grows profusely in Southeast Asia is not just good for flavouring local desserts and its brilliant green colour.

For instance, a knot of leaves tossed in the car, the towel closet or even the show closet will work as well as or even better than charcoal in shooing away bad smells.

Even better, it acts as a natural bug repellent and is amazing at keeping the cockroaches away. Just toss out the knot of leaves every two weeks and renew it with another knot of leaves to keep your clothes, shoes and car smelling fresh.

If you’re not into dying your hair but there’s a little grey showing, chop up about six or seven pandan leaves, throw in a few red hibiscus flowers (minus the yellow pollen), and pound it into a paste. Add a little olive or coconut oil, rub it into your scalp, wrap with a towel for an hour or so and then wash it out. The hair will be darker, shinier, healthier. The side benefit? Pandan is also reputed to be a traditional treatment dandruff as well.

For those with little appetite, the pandan leaf has also been used as an appetite booster. Just boil a knot of it (three leaves tied in a knot) with a stick of lemongrass and a couple pieces of rock sugar. Reduce it to a syrup. Top it up with water (sparkling or still, your choice), and a couple of mint leaves and it will be a refreshing drink for a hot day.

Another version, for those who prefer hot drinks, is an infusion of pandan, ginger and cardamom. Chop of a couple of leaves of pandan, peel and dice about 2cm of old ginger, toss in two pods of cardamom.Bruise the leaves, ginger and pop the pods, add hot water, leave it for five to 10 minutes. When you want to drink it, add hot water and a little honey or palm sugar. It’s super calming.

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