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Thanksgiving Stingray, and Other Culinary Stories from Ex-Pat Roommates

I live with seven other people in a three-story apartment. We're all 20-somethings with American accents, American habits, steeped in American pop culture. But with one exception, my co-habitants are not American. At least, they wouldn't be considered American by the kinds of people who worry about our president's schooling in Indonesia. My flatmates are Third Culture Kids; the

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
Garnish
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. 


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