On the Trail of the Phoenix – Pengat Durian
The warm drafts of heat that overwhelms one has reached a point of becoming unbearable. Its almost impossible to be outdoors without breaking out in sweat, which at times can escalate levels of discomfort that makes surviving each dawn til dusk under such a turmoil a daily miracle. On a lighter and more positive note, not all about the heat is bad. Summer is the time for sunshine, blue clear waters, sandy beaches and bikini babes. But my mind is set on a different “catch”. The scorching months of late May to September bring with them a plethora of fruits, i.e. mangoes in all sorts of varieties, stone fruits of every thinkable species, but most importantly, it is the durian season again!
Durians…either a blessing or a curse to so many, but never quite both at the same time for one. Its either that you love it or you loathe it. I’d yet to meet someone who prefers to sit on the fence on a notion for what’s often dubbed as the “King of Fruits”. To be in its presence is ethereal heaven for some, but pure living hell to others. Thankfully, I love it! And this year the season is timely, for me to bask in all its creamy custardy golden glory!
Just like how those who have easy access to the summer berries would use them to whip up a whole recipe book worth of tarts, pies, cakes, cobblers and crumbles thinkable, folks around this region also use durian in an assortment of dishes, mostly sweet, but also savory! Be it blended into a pulot, layered within a seri muka or taken to its extremities and fermented into a tempoyak, durian takes centrestage whenever they are in season. And to think of a dessert which celebrates this fruit to its fullest, it has got to be Pengat Durian. A “pengat” is in essence a culinary style, which involves cooking fruits or root vegetables in a concoction of coconut milk and sugar. This style of dessert making is immensely popular within the Malay Archipelago, with each state or province having their own unique way of preparation. The pengat I’m accustomed to preparing has its roots in Straits chinese cooking and still remains today, a very popular dessert on the menu of many Peranakan restaurants. Many Nyonya dishes have their roots deep in Malay cuisine and Pengat Durian is surely no exception. Unlike those prepared in the northern states of Peninsula Malaysia which use gula putih (plain white sugar), the peranakan Pengat Durian is acccentuated by robust flavours and a thick custardy texture created by the marriage of two quintessential ingredients in Straits Chinese cooking, coconut milk and gula melaka palm sugar. It is hardly a secret that Peranakans love desserts, especially after a hearty meal, often describing the soupy desserts that comes after as “cuci mulut” (palate cleanser) in a half-jokingly manner. Though quality durians are good to be eaten as they are, to cook them in the thick coconuty syrup brings about a whole new dimension to enjoying this fruit, surely a pièce de résistance to an elaborated feast. And trust me, the Peranakans sure know how to eat.
Pengat Durian (6-8 servings)
500g durian pulp
125g gula melaka (raw palm sugar)
100g sweet potato (I’d used a mixture of orange and yellow varieties)
8 pandan leaves (washed and tied into a knot)
100 ml thick coconut milk
150 ml double/whipping cream
A pinch of salt
durian pulp for topping, a tbspful for each serving
Peel and cut yam and sweet potato into 1 cm cubes. Soak in water to remove excess starch.
Arrange sweet potato and yam cubes in a single layer on a metal dish and steam at medium high heat until they are soft. It should take appro. 10-15 min.
While waiting for the root cubes to steam, prepare gula melaka syrup by placing gula melaka block and knotted pandan leaves in water over low heat. Allow the gula melaka to melt completely but stirring gently.
When the gula melaka has completely melted, strain the syrup to remove any debris or impurities. Pour syrup into a bowl and set aside.
In a pot, bring coconut milk and cream to a boil. Lower flame and pour in gula melaka syrup. Add salt and durian pulp.
Stir gently until everything becomes a homogenised and thickened consistency. Turn off flame and set aside. The pengat is now ready to be served.
If a chilled version is preferred, simply leave it to cool to room temperature before transferring to the chiller. Just before serving, give the pengat a quick whisk to emulsify everything to a smooth concoction once again.
Place some yam and sweet potato cubes at the bottom of a dessert bowl and ladle a generous portion of pengat over the cubes. Garnish with more fresh durian pulp and sweet potato/yam cubes.
Like many Peranakan dishes, pengat can be cooked with an assortment of ingredients. The traditional pengat uses banana (Pengat Pisang), thus making the durian version a more lavish one in comparison. Other fruits like jackfruit (Nangka) or root vegetables like tapioca (ubi kayu) are also widely used. Boiled sago pearls can also be added for texture but its entirely optional. I left it out as its the creamy mousse texture which I am after.
The level of sweetness is kept low with only 125g of gula melaka being used. This can be tweaked, depending on personal preference and the sweetness of the durian pulp used. And the pinch of salt is an absolute necessity, to draw out the unami of the dessert. In other words, the recipe acts only as a guideline and should not be taken as carved in stone. In the first place, cooking ain’t exactly a very precise science.
Albeit being rather unconventional, I’d used double cream to lighten the custardy mousse. Traditionally, this dish is made almost entirely with freshly squeezed coconut milk which may turn out to be a tad too rich for most, leaving a somewhat cloying “jelat” aftertaste. I’d substituted it with a same amount of cream to perpetuate the creamy textures without the heft from the coconut milk. Single cream or milk may also be used for a thinner consistency.
The traditional school of thought has it that what’s best eaten as it is, should be eaten as it is. Good durianas are usually eaten fresh while lower quality harvests were used to make pengats. But we see a turn of the tide in recent years as restaurants boast to use premium quality varieties like D24, D10 and 猫山王 Mao Shan Wang in their durian pengat. I subscribe to the use of quality fruits for pengats, and have an idiosyncratic preference for bittersweet varieties for a more complex flavour profile and to allow the sweetness of gula melaka to shine through.
Using a ball whisk to mix the ingredients is to kill two birds with one stone. It is effective in breaking up any lumps whch can affect the overall texture. It also helps to “coil” the fibrous strands in the pulp for those who find the fibre too jarring or simply prefer a wholesome creamy texture. And if that’s not enough, a handheld blender would be excellent for this purpose, ensuring everything is well homogenised. The air incorporated also makes the mousse lighter for the palate.
Some would have been quick to notice that this recipe is “modestly” set for 6-8 servings, and not 6-8 people. Be forewarned that its highly addictive and you wouldn’t usually just stop at one!
I’m submitting this post to Aspiring Bakers #20: Asian dessert buffet! (June 2012) hosted by Moon of Food Playground.