On the Trail of the Phoenix – Ikan Gerang Asam
Ikan Gerang Asam is one of my favorite Peranakan dishes. It is also amongst the first nyonya dishes that I’d learnt to cook and experimented with. The intermingling of tang and heat often calls for additional servings of rice just to finish up any remnants of kuah (gravy) and assortment of stewed vegetables that went with it, even when the fish was long gone. Often times, more kuah than what the dish required would be prepared, so as to add more fish or other seafood, as well as vegetables and fruit for second helpings the next day. As with most stew or curry-based dishes, the flavours develop over time making it more sedap nia!!!
600g of fish or seafood
2 tbsp of tamarind (assam) pulp added to 500ml of water
3 tbsp of cooking oil
5-6 lady’s finger aka okra, stalk removed and cut into two
2-3 medium sized eggplant/brinjal, stalk removed, cut lengthwise and then into broad slices
1/2 pineapple, cut into broad slices
2 medium tomatoes, halved and then quartered
2 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
5-6 buah berlimbing, cut into finger slice pieces (optional)
pinch of salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Staple ingredients for making rempah, i.e. bawang merah, buah keras and serai
15 dried chilies, soaked in water and drained
5 fresh red chillies, seeds removed
18-20 bawang merah (shallots), peeled
2 bawang putih (garlic), peeled
5 buah keras (candlenuts)
1/2 thumb length of kunyit (turmeric), peeled and sliced finely
thumb length piece of lengkuas (galangal), peeled and sliced finely
2 stalks serai lemongrass, white portion only, sliced finely
1 tsp toasted belachan (dried shrimp paste) and then crushed and pound into powder
Staple ingredients in gerang asam dishes – egg plant, lady’s finger and tomato.
Heart and soul of peranakan cooking – asam pulp and belachan
1) Prepare rempah with ingredients until it forms a fine paste, either by pounding using a batu lesung or simply blending everything until well amalgamated.
2) Prepare assam juice by meshing asam pulp in water with fingertips.
3) Heat wok until it begins to smoke, add oil followed by rempah and slow fry in low flame until fragrant, with the oil beginning to separate from the cooked rempah.
4) Add assam juice to rempah and fry slowly, bringing mixture to a boil . Cover and simmer for about 5 min
5) Add sugar, pepper and salt to taste, adjusting proportion to own’s liking.
6) Add main ingredients and continue to slow fry followed by cover and simmer for about 5 min until ingredients are fully cooked.
7) Bring to a quick boil again, check for taste and adjust once more with sugar or salt if necessary.
8) Serve with rice.
Telur kachang panjang or better known in my family as chai dau neng is another dish which my mother frequently prepared for dinner, and goes very well with both rice and porridge. It is a family dish which she had as a child but oddly, got “lost in transition” along the way as she and her siblings grew older and my grandmother stopped cooking for no apparent reason. The first time I had it was over porridge lunch in one of the coffeeshops at Chinatown about 15-18 years back with my family, when my mother “rediscovered” this dish and related to us its story as her childhood dinner dish that just vanished over time. Since then, this simple dish made very frequent appearances over our dinner table and I’d learnt to cook it as well.
4-5 stalks of long beans, coarsely chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed and finely chopped
pinch of salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp of oil
1) Heat wok until it begins to smoke. Add oil, followed by chopped garlic and stir-fry over low flame until fragrant.
2) Add chopped long beans and pinch of salt and pepper. Stir-fry until aromatic over medium flame.
3) Beat eggs in a bowl and pour over long beans. Swirl the wok gently ensuring that egg covers all long beans.
4) Cover the wok and reduce to low flame. Cook until the egg just begins to set.
5) Remove cover and add a small amount of oil around the perimeter of the egg.
6) Using the spatula, break the egg into 4-6 pieces, flipping each piece along the way.
7) Bring to medium-high flame to allow the bottom side to crisp.
8) Remove from heat and drizzle with a bit of dark soya sauce before serving.
Chai dau neng is indeed a very simple dish to prepare but difficult to perfect. The key to this dish to ensure that the long beans maintain their crunch but yet removed of the “raw taste” which undercooked greens would have. Overcooking the beans would void the texture of the dish. For that extra crunch, french beans may also be used.
The fish of choice for me is either ikan batang or ikan tenggiri, two species under the common name “Spanish mackerel”, one spotted and one striped but both equally tasty! Do not overcook the fish slices as the meat would become too flaky and disintegrate into the gravy. But on the whole, they are rather “hardy” and “stew-tolerant” varieties. Stingray aka ikan pari can also be used if preferred and so can udang or sotong. If the latter two invertebrates are used, they must be added AFTER the vegetables have stewed for sometime as shrimp or squid cook fairly quickly. In the case of fish, the fish slices are added BEFORE the vegetables. Overcooked shrimp and sotong causes them to lose their succulent textures. The former becomes “powdery” while the latter aliken to chewing rubber if overcooked.
Vegetables also need to be “filed” into a queue, with brinjal going into the asam concoction first, followed by lady’s finger as the latter takes a much shorter time to cook and would lose the much sought after crunch and become soggy when cooked for too long. If the okra slices begin to disintegrate into shreds with the seeds popping out, you know you had them swimming in the kuah for too long. For me, tomatoes go in JUST BEFORE the flame is turned off while pineapple slices JUST AFTER. This is strictly a matter of personal preference as I like my tomatoes to be on the slight soft side while the pineapple retain much of their fruity qualities. Feel free to experiment and finetune to suit your tastebuds and tongue.