On the Trail of the Phoenix – Babi Pongteh
For me, the Peranakan culture is probably the most intriguing bit of Southeast Asian history. There are so many stories and theories which attempt to explain their origins but none so far has been rock solid. And precisely because of this shroud of vagueness that lends the Peranakan heritage a veil of mystery. Yet, the inter-marriage between the Chinese and Malays then yielded the “Straits Chinese” community which encapsulates the very essence of these two cultures, alongside influences from the Indians and even Europeans which colonised this part of the world. It is this “melting pot” of cultural and historical bearings that nurtured the Peranakan culture to be rich and colorful as we know it today. Through their architecture and handicraft like sewing and beadwork, we saw how the Peranakans brought together elements of the East and West and slowly over generations yielded it to become their uniquely own. But personally, I feel that the spirit of Peranakan culture, like many other cultures, lies in their food.
My first experience with Peranakan food outside of the household was actually at the most uncanny of all places, Pow Sing Chicken Rice 報喜 at Serangoon Gardens. Their chicken rice is fairly decent but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the standard of the Nyonya dishes on their menu. Alas, the quality of the food wasn’t fantastic but the liberal use of tau cheo (fermented bean paste) in addition to a hoard of spices, and the eccentricity of buah keluak’s appearance which can only be matched with its taste… the dining experience left quite an impression, both good and bad…
Babi Pongteh is an immensely popular Nyonya dish, a common fare on the dinner table of any Peranakan family, especially important during semayang ibu, i.e. ancestral prayers. Together with other dishes, it also serves as the litmus test to the culinary skills of any young nyonya who wishes to marry well. To me, the most interesting bit of this dish is the lack of spices used in its preparation. Unlike many other Nyonya dishes which are laden with ketumbar, kunyit, assam or chillies, Babi Pongteh celebrates the use of Tau Cheo 豆酱 fermented soya beans, a quintessential ingredient in Peranakan cooking which is remnant of its roots to classic Chinese cuisine. Together with shallots and garlic, a simple rempah is formed which is able to provide the dish with so much flavour and lift nonetheless.
There are many recipes for Babi Pongteh out there and I’m sure each of them earns a special place in the hearts of those whom the recipes have been bestowed, which they in turn would hand down, as a culinary heirloom to their young. One of Peranakan cookbooks which contains a recipe for Babi Pongteh is “The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook” whose first edition has been sitting on the bookshelves since 2003 when it was first in print. Unfortunately, I have not cooked from it and I have my reasons for not doing so. Embellished with beautiful pictures of Nyonya tableware, which I often flip through to admire, the artistry of the photography is quite phenomenal, together with range of traditional Peranakan crockery used, from kamchengs to chupus, all of which are exquisitely crafted. Afterall, very few Peranakan cookbooks/authors have the necessary means to present their recipes to such levels of political correctness. But then again, if you know the background of the author Shermay Lee, its not difficult to piece together the “hows and whats”. And quite unfortunately, the photos are probably all that are exquisite and fascinating, and the bowls and plates used are all which are authentic about being Nyonya. The recipes are marred with grave mistakes and if one looks closely, its not difficult to find them. For me, the most glaring of these hiccups is the mix-up between Babi Pongteh and Babi Chin, a similar recipe which uses spices, and mostly importantly serbuk ketumbar (coriander powder). And then of course, there’s a recipe for Mee Siam which doesn’t use assam (tamarind)! “Interesting” to say the least. And the list goes on and on… quite literally. What’s more interesting is how Lee’s cookbooks managed to
squander garner a whole lot of accolades, from raving reviews to winning best “Cookbook of the Year”, as well as a “Special Award of the Jury in the Respect of Tradition” for the cookbook which contains a recipe for Peking Duck which was gorenged instead of roasted. I wonder which tradition are they referring to, or more blatantly, if the jury cooked through the recipes, or even at all. So no, I cannot recommend Shermay Lee’s books despite how beautiful they look. They definitely serve well as a coffee table book but not as a functional cookbook. The recipe I am sharing here is from Cooking for the President – Reflections & Recipes by Wee Eng Hwa, the daughter of Dr. Wee Kim Wee, the late former President which many Singaporeans greatly respect even till today. The book is a compilation of her mother, Mrs Wee Kim Wee’s recipes which she cooked for her father. The book is unpretentious and the instructions detailed, and for me, much more credible than Lee’s rendition.
Babi Pongteh adapted from “Cooking for the President – Reflections & Recipes” by Mrs Wee Kim Wee (for 8-12 persons)
1.5 kg front pork knuckle with trotter (I used pork belly)
160 ml vegetable oil (This is way too much, I’d used around half the “recommended” quantity)
160 g shallots
80 g garlic
60 g light brown Tau Cheo (fermented soya bean) paste
2 tbsp light soya sauce
2 tsp thick dark soya sauce
30 to 40g gula melaka (palm sugar)
100 g sugar cane (30 cm long), or 25 g rock sugar (I omitted this and used all gula melaka)
¼ tsp salt
10-12 medium size Chinese dried mushrooms
(optional) 1 medium cooked bamboo shoot
(optional) 2-3 medium sized local potatoes (the yellow, harder variety used for curries and not the soft, pale and starchy ones like Russet)
(optional) 200 g soaked sea cucumber
Mise en place
Chop trotters or pork belly into large chunks, blanch in boiling water, remove hair if any, rinse thoroughly and marinate with 4 tsp thick dark soya sauce for 30 min
Peel and pound/blend shallots to form a coarse paste. Do likewise for garlic but separately.
Sift tau cheo grains from the liquids and rinse very briefly with water to remove excess brine. Coarsely crush the soya beans to form a paste.
Wash and quarter sugar cane lengthwise; chop each quarter into 4 pieces if using.
Rinse and soak dried mushrooms in water till soft, trim and reserve stems, along with the soaking liquid
If using, cut bamboo shoots into bite size 5 mm thick, then blanch in boiling water (same one usef for the pork). Drain and set aside
If using, peel, rinse and chunk potato into quarters
If using cut sea cucumber crosswise 5 cm wide and lengthwise 3 cm thick; soak in water till ready to cook
In a wok, tumis (stir fry) shallots in hot vegetable oil over low heat till translucent.
Add garlic and tumis till everything is lightly golden.
Add fermented soya bean paste and tumis till semi-dry, intensely aromatic, and colour changes, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to very low.
Add light and dark soya sauce and tumis for 10 seconds. Add pork with marinade. Increase heat slightly to low (from very low). Stir-fry till semi-dry and intensely aromatic, about 10 minutes.
Transfer to a pot. Deglaze wok with 1 cup water. Add the water to the pork, along with palm sugar, sugar cane, salt, mushrooms (if using), mushroom stems, mushroom water, potatoes and bamboo shoots (if using).
Top up with enough water to just cover. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer gently, adding more water when necessary, till pork is tender but still has some bite. This should take about 2¼ hours.
Add sea cucumber (if using) and bring to a boil. Sauce should be medium brown and ‘with substance’, not thin and watery. Increase heat to boil rapidly if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning if required.
Serve hot with rice.
One of the distinct differences between Peranakan and Malay cooking is the liberal use of pork, embraced in the very many dishes in the former, but a culinary taboo in the latter. Despite the amalgamation of cultures, many Peranakans remained staunched Taoists or converted to Christianity from the influences of the European missionaries. Traditionally, twee kar pig trotters are used in Babi Pongteh but I prefer to use pork belly, which is first chunked and then blanched briefly in boiling water.
Gula melaka, palm sugar is another very commonly used ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking and thus, not surprisingly is used in Babi Pongteh as well.
Dried Chinese mushrooms are first soaked in water until soft
Blanched pork belly marinated in dark soya sauce
Another “heart and soul” bit of Peranakan cooking is the use of bawang merah, shallots. These little reddish pink morsels are packed with much more flavour compared to their larger onion cousins.
After a whole lot of “tumis-ing”, water is added and the melange brought to a low-heat simmer for 2-3 hours.
Goes well with a hot bowl of rice. 🙂