On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya Apom Balik Durian
One of the highlights of Straits Chinese cuisine is the wide selection of little bite-size steamed sweetcakes known as “kueh“, and like many other signature dishes in peranakan cooking, many of these kuehs are heavily “borrowed” from the culinary heritage of other ethnicities within the region, nyonya kueh is no exception. While Kueh Angku is uniquely chinese, others like rempah udang, pulut inti and seri muka have distinct roots in Malay and Indonesian cuisine. Some of them, like pineapple tarts have become fully adapted and so immensely popular as a nyonya delight that one would have easily forgotten their true origins.
Apom balik is a popular snack in many Asian cultures. And it comes in so many forms, shapes and sizes. Malays make a crispy and paperthin version no more than 6 inches wide, filled with shredded coconut cooked in gula merah, or chopped peanuts with granulated sugar. Chinese folks call them 面浆粿 ban chiang kueh or min chiang kueh depending on the dialectal origins, and make them lebih besar, using pans sometimes as wide as 2 feet in diameter! The folded pancake can be filled with a paste with chunky peanut butter-like consistency, or another chinese favorite, red bean paste. In recent years, we also see a version containing cheese! Whichever the version might be, I enjoy them all, especially for breakfast, to go with a warm glass of soya bean milk or teh tarik! But the version that remains close to my heart is nyonya apom balik, something which I’d enjoyed very infrequently as a childhood treat. It is the one traditional kueh which was most neglected, but not entirely forgotten as I still crave for them til today.
Unlike the other forms mentioned above which are cooked using a somewhat flat-based saucepan, Nyonya apom balik is made using a heavy metal mould with four cavities, each no more than 2.5 inches wide. Hence when the cooked pancakes are folded back in a taco-like fashion, thus giving rise to their name “balik” to mean “going back”, as they transform into bitesize sweet delights which are very dainty to be enjoyed together with a wide selection of other nyonya kueh, over a cup of tea. We used to have an old brass mould, but it was very very rarely used. Being a working mother, time is a luxury for her, so I guess she’d rather devote her time to whip up some “real food” rather than to indulge in the tedious and painstaking process of preparing apom balik. As the kuehs are rather small, huge quantities were usually made each time to warrant the effort, but that would invariably mean a prolonged period of time, squatting in front of the old charcoal stove, as like many traditional delights, like kueh belandah, were traditionally made with. Each “seating” could be an “easy” 2 hours in front of the heat, breaking out in all sweat, and probably even tears, as the heat has to be very carefully controlled for the charcoal to remain hot, but never ablazing in flame. The cooking process has to be scrutinised intently to prevent the kueh from burning, a skill which required experience, initially through trial and error and gradually over time of observation and mistakes, to finally master. This marks one of the very many intricacies of traditional peranakan cooking, where patience is really an obligated virtue, one which I am still learning to incalcate…
Alas like our old batu lesung which I’d helped to prepare rempah and crumb cream-crackers with on many occasions, the old brass apom balik mould was discarded when we moved house, much to my oblivion then, and subequently disgruntlement of course, when I later found out. That was the last nail on the coffin, and nyonya apom balik “vanished” from our household over the last 15 years or so. In fact, I’d already forgotten what it tasted like…
This month’s Malaysia Food Festival organised by Wendy of Table for 2 or More provided the perfect opportunity to rediscover for myself this kueh which had been long forgotten. Unlike some of the other peranakan dishes which I’d learnt to prepare over the years, I don’t have a working recipe for Nyonya Apom Balik. Alas all is not lost, as there’s always Bibik Florence Tan’s reliable recipes to fall back on when all fails. And true enough, she has a recipe for Nyonya Apom Balik in her book!
Nyonya Apom Balik Durian (makes 36 – 40 pieces) adapted from Florence Tan’s “Recipes from the Nyonya Kitchen”
300g plain flour
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
200 ml water
200g gula melaka
2-4 pandan leaves, rinsed, slightly crushed and tied into a knot
30g beaten egg (apro. 1/2 of a grade “A” egg)
400ml thick coconut milk
2 cups of water
150g durian pulp
Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl and set asidee
In a heavy saucepan/pot, add water, gula melak and knotted pandan leaves. Bring to a boil and then gently simmer with lid on until all the gula melaka has completely melted. Strain into a bowl and set aside to cool down.
Once the gula melaka has cooled down to room temperature, pour it into dry ingredients mixing bowl and mix thoroughly.
Add beaten egg, followed by coconut milk, durian pulp and finally water, mixing very thoroughly between successive addtions. Run a handwhisk through the batter to remove any loose diroa
Prepare the apom balik mould by first heating it under hot. Reduce flame until very low and grease the cavities thoroughly.
Pour batter to fill three-quarters of the cavities on the mould.
When bubbles began to form on the surface, cover the whole mould with a lid.
When the batter on the surface begins to dry out, carefully use a toothpick to dislodge the kueh from the perimeters.
While propping up an edge of the pancake with the toothpick, carefully fold it into half with the back of a fork.
I’d made several modifications to Bibik Florence’s original recipe. Firstly, her recipe called for Air Kelapa (coconut juice), but I simply used water as a replacement. Also, on top of gula melaka, her recipe also includes demerara. I found that to be an overkill and omit it completely. And I’m glad I did! Cos the final product is already quite sweet as it is. Instead of freshly squeezed coconut milk, I’d used Cara tetrapak thick coconut milk and thus increased the amount of water from the initial 1 2/3 cups to 2 cups. Thankfully, the batter turned out to be of manageable consistency, neither too watery nor was it too thick.
The batter is fairly straightforward to prepare but I think the key to making good apom balik is really to have good control over the heat, allowing the top surface to be sufficiently cooked and dry for the pancakes to be “balik” easily without oozing too much batter, while ensuring that the base does not brown too much to the extent of burning. Judging from the photos of this very first batch of Apom Balik Nyonya which I’d ever made, this is definitely a skill which I’d yet, and in dire need to master, requiring both time and patience. Nyonya Apom Balik are traditionally made with brass moulds, which are better thermal conductors than aluminium ones. Alas brass ones are rarely seen nowadays, largely vintage or even antique ware.
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Makanan in Melaka 2011 – a Delightful Sampling
Melaka Getaway Dec 2011
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Pengat Durian
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On the Trail of the Phoenix – Ikan Gerang Asam
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya porcelain ware @ the Peranakan Museum
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Babi Pongteh