How will the Nigerian tetra pak of tomato blend fare in Malaysian cuisine? Jerome Kugan’s successful experiment with Pepe Terra is left with only one spoonful of evidence: read about this Nasi Tomato Tenggiri Risotto!

First Impressions
Tomatoes are champs. Ever since gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors brought them back from South America in the 16th century and spread their cultivation across the world, they have infiltrated almost all the palates of the world.

The amazing thing about tomatoes is how varied they taste in different states of preparation. Raw, it’s crispy. Cooked, it’s gooey. Unripened, it’s sour. Ripe, it’s tangy sweet.  Throw it in a stew, it melts and flops. Boil it even more, it becomes a base for a sauce. You can dry it, roast it, juice it, chutney the hell out of it, and so forth. Why? Why do we do these things to tomatoes? Because they’re yummy.

So it’s unsurprising that a product like Pepe Terra Blend exists. Made in Nigeria, it’s a pre-made paste made of tomatoes, chilli and onion. Apparently it’s well-known and well-loved in its home country, used to make sauces and flavour dishes. And it comes in a cute little red tetrapak.

As I contemplate its existence, I think of how modern food processing and packaging has changed the world of food. Putting aside opinions on culinary authenticity, mass produced food has done more to change the way we live than any other factor in the whole of human history.

And the simple act of my cutting open a package of Pepe Terra Blend with a pair of kitchen scissors seals my pact with the reality that modern food can travel further in space and time than whatever that could’ve been dreamt of by the first hunter who decided he’d grow corn instead.

(LOL. That was silly.)

On with the show.

The Experiment  
The things Pepe Terra Blend are made of — tomato, onion and chilli — are a winning combination. It’s hard to find fault with it. Tomato is zesty sweet, the ubiquitous onion adds a savoury flavour, and chilli finishes it off with a grrr.

So deciding to keep it simple and easy for this one, the decision to make a nasi tomato cili was a no-brainer. And as a treat, I decided to serve it with some pan-fried tenggiri (can be substited with a cheaper fish).

First: rice. Short grain is best. Wash and soak in water, for half the hour. Drain.

Second: the base.

Into a mixing bowl: a spoonful of Pepe Terra. The stuff is concentrated, with more heat than flavour, so you don’t need a lot. Half a can of tomato pulp or puree. One whole fresh tomato, finely diced. A bit of salt. Mix.

Into a saucepan: sautée garlic until it starts to turn gold. Add Pepe Terra mix. Mix it all up. Add the pre-soaked rice. Add water until enough. [Note: usually the rule for cooking rice is two parts water to one part rice, but it also depends on the heat of the flame. It's best to keep the flame low.] At this point, you can add other ingredients, herbs and stuff. I added some sautéed brown mushrooms, chopped black olives and sundried tomatoes (can be substituted with less costly ingredients).

Next: Tenggiri. Chop into small pieces. Fry in a pan with some oil. [Note: You can serve the tenggiri on the side with the nasi tomato. Or, better yet, you can put it into the pot to cook with the nasi tomato, in which case you'll end up with a kind of nasi tomato tenggiri risotto! How amazing is that!]

[Note: You can also make this one-pot dish in a rice cooker if cooking rice in a saucepan freaks you out.]

[Recommended condiment: garlic chilli. Tastes so good.]

While cooking with Pepe Terra Blend, I thought of how warm equatorial countries like Malaysia and Nigeria share similar palates, especially for the spicy hot. I have a theory about this. [Note: surely must be stealing this from somewhere but am simply too lazy to cite.] Back in the pre-refrigeration era, raw meat in equatorial regions went bad really fast. However, people found out quite early that they could cover up a bit of that meaty stink by adding spice to it. Of course, spice gave the added value of making the food taste more wicked. Necessity led to like, like to love, and thus was born: our equatorial addiction to spice!

Apologies for the digression.

Of course the experiment was a success! You can’t go wrong with tomatoes. And Pepe Terra, with a few slight adjustments worked really well with the rice and fish. Though it’s not widely available in Malaysia, I don’t see why it wouldn’t sit well with Malaysian palates. For one, it’s easy to use. Second, we’re pretty much used to its flavours. If anything, it’s like hot tomato puree. And that’s something I’ve dreamed about for years. A meeting of perfect flavours. Ah…