Salted Black Olives – Magok
by Kasma Loha-unchit
I recently received an email from a Singaporean woman looking for a recipe for salted black olive fried rice which she said has become very popular in Thai restaurants in Singapore. "Olives in Thai cooking? How authentic can that be!" you might think. After all, whenever the subject of olives is brought up, most people here quickly associate it with Mediterranean cooking and particularly Italian cuisine.
But there ARE olives in the Far East! You might be surprised if I were to tell you that I grew up in a town, now the bustling metropolis of Bangkok, named after the "village of the olives" ("ban magok"). The "magok" I grew up eating is similar in size and shape to the green olives most people here know. The astringent and tart tropical green olive is most frequently pickled, to be nibbled on any time of day dipped in or sprinkled with a mixture of crushed chillies, salt and sugar. It is also frequently sliced up and pounded into a spicy green papaya salad.
Just the mention of pickled "magok" makes my mouth water! For someone who loves tart and salty things, the pickled Thai olive was one of my favorite snacks while growing up in Thailand. Even today street vendors sell great numbers of them daily, along with pickled young tamarind, green mango, jujube, gooseberries and other tart and immature fruits abundant in the tropics. But the salted black olive for the fried rice is not made with Thai "magok." Rather, it uses a preserved Chinese olive that is larger and more elongated in shape, tapering at both ends almost to a point. Indeed, the hard seed is sharply pointed on both ends. This olive is preserved either as a sweet-and-tart dry fruit great for snacking on, or as salted black olives packed in brine used for cooking. The latter is today imported from China and can be found in cans in most well-stocked Asian markets in the Bay Area.
Waves of Chinese immigrants over the past several centuries brought many preserved foodstuffs into Southeast Asia, which over time found their way into the local cuisine. In fact, the "olive village" of Bangkok got its start primarily as a Chinese settlement and trading post when the capital of the country was upriver in the fabled city of Ayuthaya. Destitute and persecuted in their homeland, the Taejiew and Hokkien minorities migrated into then Siam to work, trade and search for a more peaceful and tolerant place to live where they had a better chance to improve their lot in life. Large numbers of them settled in the central valley of the country and on the Malay peninsula, from Thailand into Malaysia and all the way to Singapore. Among the foods they introduced was the preserved salted black olive which, like many salted foods, provided an inexpensive way to flavor a lot of rice and porridge for those yet to find their fortunes.
Among my siblings, salted black olives were always a favorite whenever they appeared on the breakfast table, along with other highly flavored preserved foods like salted duck eggs, dried anchovies and shrimp, salted mackerel, fermented tofu, and pickled cabbage and mustard greens. Just one olive flavored a whole bowl of porridge to satisfy me before taking off for school. Better yet was when its pitted, black flesh was chopped and stir-fried with chopped pork and generous amounts of garlic, seasoned with a little soy sauce and sugar. That always called for seconds without any twist of the arm!
I remember Mother would save the seeds until she had accumulated a small bowlful and would indulge us kids by hammering them until they crack (not an easy feat as they are rock hard) on the concrete patio, so that we could savor the tiny bit of delicate, nutty flesh inside. That had to be my favorite part of all, but there's always so little to go around, so sharing this precious little with so many siblings was a valued lesson in those formative years. Today, I can indulge myself on salted black olives any time I wish, simply because I love them. We aren't living in the same frugal conditions while I was growing up after the last great war reduced a lot of people's fortunes and dreams to dust. But whenever I eat them, I still recall the good times we had when we were poor, because we had each other and little of the materialism that sometimes can alienate and the comfort that sometimes can make us take things for granted.
Continue on to Black Olive Rice Recipe.
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