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On the Trail of the Phoenix – Hee Pio Soup

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Peranakan cooking is a classic example of an amalgamation of the culinary cultures from many ethnic groups who have lived closely together in this region for hundreds of years. It likens a ”Creole Cuisine“ of the East, blending together influences from Malay, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian and Thai cooking all into a unique genre which we know today as “Straits Chinese cuisine”. Out of these influences came a myriad of dishes which have now become signatures of Straits Chinese cooking, whose names run analogous to the cuisine now. Ayam Masak Buah Keluak, Itek Tim, Babi Pongteh and Ikan Gerang Asam are some of the more iconic ones. Like many other Peranakan dishes, he Hee Pio soup has its origins in traditional Chinese cooking, particularly those from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. For many lovers of the cuisine, Hee Pio Soup is a simply must-have on the dining tables at family dinners, important gatherings, wedding celebrations and other joyous occasions where the “Tok Panjang” was served. While the concept of Tok Panjang has kind of waned and disappeared from the modern lifestyles of most Peranakan households, Hee Pio soup still makes its customary appearance whenever folks get together just to dine together in the company of one another.

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On the Trail of the Phoenix – Ayam Tempra

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Like Kangkong Masak Lemak, Pong Tauhu and Ikan Pari Kuah Lada,  there are many Peranakan dishes do not require time-consuming or laborious preparation. Neither are they fiendishly difficult to prepare as some had claimed them to be. One such dish is Ayam Tempra. What is essentially chicken cooked in a sweet and sour sauce, there is a hint of heat in Ayam Tempra as well from the red chilies used which very subtly they lend their flavours to this dish.

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On the Trail of the Phoenix – Kangkong Masak Lemak

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Peranakan cooking is often thought to be complicated, elaborated, time-consuming and difficult to learn. Well, this is what many people think and some, expound or expect others to think. Yes there are indeed dishes in straits chinese cooking that have long ingredient lists and/or require more time to prepare and cook than others. But that is also true for most other cuisines which I know of. So the concept of the cuisine being “complex” and troublesome is to me much of a fallacy, perhaps used to instill some sense of  apprehension or anxiety to newbies and the unwary, those who are approaching it for the first time. But this is often what I hear others describe Peranakan cooking to be. Sadly so, because in order to lead one to better appreciate the cuisine and hence the colourful culture underlying it, the last thing one wishes to hear is how intimidating and unapproachable it is. How should one embrace something which is so unachievable and intangible? So that the preparation of Peranakan dishes be left only to the exclusive who have inherited their ways of making from the grandmothers and bibiks of the faded past? It is a perpetuated thought by some that only through so, would the dishes remain “authentic”? Well, I choose to think otherwise…

There are a lot of simple dishes in Peranakan cooking, many which require much less time and effort to prepare than what had been described as being atrociously difficult. These would include dishes like kangkong masak lemak, ikan tempra, pong tauhu, udang masak nenas etc. Many of these simple dishes are cooked on a daily basis, and not just for the much-revered Tok Panjang. Afterall, how often does one hosts or attend a Tok Panjang at home? But surely one’s gotta eat everyday yeah? In fact, the ability to cook with ease, a table of dishes what may impress upon others to be difficult and painstakingly prepared, is what many would hope for. Minimal efforts to reap maximal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Now that, is a true blue bibik’s secret if you ask me…
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Kangkong Masak Lemak is a dish which we cook at home very frequently. Firstly, it is very easy to prepare as I always have a large batch of rempah made in a advance and frozen in smaller portions that allows me to cook a large variety of dishes which call for it. It can be used be for both beef and chicken rendang, laksa lemak, ikan asam pedas, ikan gerang asam and even sayur lodeh etc! It is very versatile, which is the beauty of it. Fuss-less freezing for a good bowl of pedas goodness on a rainy day.

And of course, it tastes really good! The umami flavours and aroma of the udang kering combines perfectly with the fresh santan used. Flavours which remind me very much of my mum and grandmother’s cooking. It would do very well with daon ubi kledek (sweet potato leaves) as well but I prefer the crunchy textures of kangkong. I could go with just the kuah (gravy) and a bowl of rice or two. Really sedap
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Kangkong Masak Lemak Recipe (serve 3-4)
1 bunch of kangkong (water convolvulus) appro. 400g
1/2 cup of udang kering (dried shrimp), soaked in water for 1-2 min and rinsed
8-10 medium prawns
1 cup of fresh santan pekat (concentrated coconut milk)
1-2 medium ubi kledek (sweet potatoes, preferably of orange variety), peeled and cut into large chunks
2-3 generous tbsp of generic rempah (detailed recipe see here)
2 tsp of toasted belacan (dried shrimp paste), crumbled into powdered form
2-3 tbsp cooking oil
2 cups of water
1 tbsp sugar
salt as required to taste

Method
Pound or blend 1/2 the amount of dried shrimp to form a coarse floss. Keep the other half intact for more textural contrast. But one when one is really malas (lazy), one can always blitz everything into a floss.
Peel the prawns and retain their shells and heads.
To a heated wok, add 1 tbsp of cooking oil and saute the shrimp shells and heads until aromatic.
Add 2 cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover and simmer for 5 min.
Drain the mixture and retain the liquids. Set aside the prawn broth and discard shrimp heads and shells.
Add 2 tbsp cooking oil into the same wok and saute the generic rempah and toasted belacan powder until fragrant.
Add all the dried shrimp (flossed and intact whole) into the rempah and continue to saute until aromatic.
Add santan pekat and prawn broth to the rempah and bring everything to a boil.
Taste and season with sugar and salt.
Add chunks of ubi kledek and lower flame. Cook for 15-20 min or until the sweet potatoes are just soft.
Top up with more water or coconut milk if necessary.
Meanwhile, rinse kangkong and petek (pluck) the leaves from the stems.
Cut the stems into chunks and discard lower portions which are too tough and fibrous.
When the sweet potatoes are just soft, add kangkong stems first and stir fry for about 1 min or so, before adding the leaves and peeled prawns.
Stir fry for another 30s or so until the leaves just wilt and soften, and the prawns begin to turn pink and curls.
Taste and adjust with more salt or sugar if necessary.
Dish up and serve with other dishes like Pong Tauhu, Ayam or Telor Tempra, ikan goreng sama cili garam with nasik puteh chueh (steamed white rice)

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Fridge Drama, with Mentaiko, Ikura, Shrimp Roe and Poached Egg Pasta

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There are those days when I feel so lazy to get out of the house to do anything. Well, make that most of the time *chuckles*. Yet we all have to eat yeah? So to compensate for those “lazy days”, I make sure that my fridge and pantry are well-stocked with ingredients which I may need to whip up something fast yet no less gratifying. As such, my fridge is always packed with food, and I often tell my friends that it is so stuffed that I have to be careful whenever I open it, or something would just drop out from somewhere. Friends laugh, dispensing it as a silly joke which I’d spun up but it’s true you know. Being a food hoarder comes with its own set of problems and fears. Some stuff are buried so deep within the abyss of other produce that they have to excavated. These “archaeological findings” usually take weeks and at times, months to be uncovered. Things which were once fresh turn stale and had to be binned. Wastage… But the greatest fear any food hoarder has is the day when the fridge decides to kick the bucket. That is sheer armageddon I tell you. And that happened to me just two weeks ago!

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Gulyás – Hungarian Beef Goulash

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I’m always in for different ways to eat oxtail as it is one of my favorite cuts of meat. It is so flavourful and the intermingling of fat, tendon and meat makes it all the more interestingly texturally. Apart from the standard beef stews, I’d also used it as a substitute for beef briskets in more Chinese dishes and oxtail works well for them too. I know that Gulyás or Hungarian Beef Goulash typically uses stew cuts like chuck roast which are chunked to become much smaller actually. But definitely no harm in trying out with oxtail. I’m glad I did because it worked beautifully.
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燒仙草 – Hot Grass Jelly

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Grass Jelly is a dessert which many of us enjoyed since our childhood days. The Cantonese folks call it 凉粉 “leung fun“, while it is 草粿 “cao kueh” for the Teochews and 草粄 “cao ban” for the Hakkas. Its popularity spreads throughout Taiwan, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia where it can be easily cultivated as well, to Vietnam, Thailand and of course Malaysia and Singapore. It is usually eaten as a cold drink or dessert, especially welcoming when the weather is hot and humid but in Taiwan, it is also enjoyed during the winter months, where a hot version would be available and is no less gratifying. And the way 燒仙草 Hot Grass Jelly is eaten seem to be uniquely Taiwan indeed!

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金瓜櫻花蝦炒米粉 – Pumpkin & Sakura Ebi Fried Bee Hoon

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米粉 Rice vermicelli or what is colloquially known as “bee hoon“, is much of a staple like rice in Taiwan. It doesn’t matter if you are a Hokkien or a Hakka, bee hoon is served in every occasion, from daily meals to family gatherings and celebrations. There are many ways of frying bee hoon, with recipes varying not just across dialectal groups but also from family to family. It also very much depends on what is available in the pantry and could be as simple or as elaborated as one can think of. 金瓜櫻花蝦炒米粉 Pumpkin and Sakura Ebi Fried Bee Hoon counts as one of the traditional Taiwanese dishes, a 手路菜 “chew loh cai” which most 台湾媳妇 “taiwan sim boo” Taiwanese housewives would know how to prepare at home, as it is imbued with a deep and profound sense of 古早味 “koh zah bee” and more importantly for many, 妈妈味.
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