On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya Chap Chye
In the past when my maternal grandma was still around, there were some dishes that made rather frequent appearances on the dinner table during family gatherings and Chinese New Year meals. Ngoh Hiang (Chinese five-spice pork and prawn rolls) is an absolute must, and preparation usually started days before, given the number of dishes she has to whip up on the event itself. My grandma modified the conventional style of making ngoh hiang and made them rather petite, each about 2 inches in length, almost bitesize to be gobbled up in quick sucessions. I remember how my cousins and I would sneak into the kitchen as the unmistakable aroma of ngoh hiang frying permeated the house, to grab a piece or two when they were freshly out of the oil wok, even if it meant to risk scalding our tongue and palate, and a probable spanking and tongue lashing from our mothers who were helping out with the feast, for being “ill-mannered” as our misbehaviour were referenced with beggars’!
Then there was always a gigantic pot of kari ayam, quintessential to all meals at my grandma’s. It was very very lemak, just the way I love it, and full of kentang which were two of my cousins’ favorites! Together with it was a large rice-cooker which was never empty, an assuring sign that there is always food in the house no matter what time whomever visited. Finally of course, there is an equally large pot of chap chye, cooked the day before to allow the flavours to fully develop overnight. There would be other dishes on the table of course, like Udang Masak Kicap, Tau Yew Bak (braised pork belly in rich soya sauce), or Hee Peow Tng (fish maw soup) on the stove but the trinity of Ngoh Hiang, Kari Ayam and Chap Chye was always there with their unfailing presence. Though the spread was simple, it was the very essence of traditional home-style cooking which kept everyone well fueled and watered, which in turn kept my grandma happy, knowing that her dishes are thoroughly enjoyed by her children and grandchildren!
Chap Chye is a dish which epitomises the frugality of traditional Asian cooking where nothing is wasted. It calls for quite a number of ingredients to be used, with the “staples” being chinese cabbage, carrots and some dried sundries like chinese mushroom, black fungus, lilybud, beancurd sticks, glass noodles etc. During Chinese New Year, this everyday dish would be “atas-fied” with roast pork, prawns, fish maw etc. While sticking to the few main ingredients, the rest can be improvised to suit your family’s liking, often with whatever is in the kitchen, often times leftovers. Be it kept simple or made lavish, the versatility of the dish is what allows it to be on the menus of Peranakan restaurants, as well as neighbourhood mixed vegetable rice stalls! Literally a dish for all walks of life, the Asian equivalent to the French pot-au-feu.
Chap chye is a dish common to quite a number of Chinese ethnicities and dialectal groups, especially from Southern China. What sets the Nyonya version apart from the other chap chyes or chop sueys around, is the liberal use of taucheo, fermented soya bean in place of salt. And of course, good taucheo is important for this dish, as it not only elevates the savoriness but also provides the additional dimension and imparts the wonderful flavours from the soya. It is interesting to note that Nyonya Chap Chye was traditionally not found on the dining tables, but as an offering dish for ancestral worship. Serving it during celebratory festivities like Chinese New Year was considered a taboo, and having it on the dinner table for an elder family member’s birthday would liken to cursing him or her an early death! While a very very small handful of pantang bibiks may still frown upon the sight of this dish on the dinner table, this custom had long been forgotten, let alone being observed or practised. Moreover, it is too delicious a dish to deprive us of, and only allow those who’d passed on the sole privilege of enjoying it!!
Nyonya Chap Chye (serves 8 – 10)
500g of Chinese cabbage Khor Lay Chye
250g pork belly San Zan Bak
1 bulb of garlic bawang putih
6-8 dried chinese or shiitake mushrooms Heo Gor
6-8 rosettes of dried black fungus Bok Gee
A handful of dried shrimp Hae Bee
A handful of dried lily bud Kim Chiam
60g dried bean curd sheets Tau Kee or aka Kiam Tek Ark Kee
3 pieces of dried sweet bean curd sticks Tee Tak Ar Kee
2-3 bundles of Chinese glass noodles Tang Hoon
2 tbsp of preserved soy bean paste Taucheo
Pork bone stock (I used a portion of the stock I’d obtained from blanching pig trotters in Itek Tim
salt and sugar to adjust taste
fried beancurd skin Tau Pok
firm beancurd Tau Kwa
fresh prawns, shelled
deep fried fish maw Hee Pio
roast pork Sio Bak in place of pork belly
Soak dried mushrooms, black fungus, dried lily bud separately til soft. Retaining soaking liquids of mushrooms.
Chunk cabbage and carrot into bitesize pieces and set aside.
Halve soaked mushrooms into bitesize pieces. Quarter if mushrooms used are big.
Remove hard and fibrous stalks from soaked black fungus and lily bud.
Cut black fungus into bitesize pieces.
Tie each lily bud into a knot.
Rinse dried shrimp under tap water, drain and set aside.
Mash preserved soya bean paste coarsely in a small bowl with the back of a spoon and set aside.
Break dried beancurd skin sheets into bitesize pieces.
Using a pair of scissors, snip sweet beancurd skin sticks into 1-cm wide strips.
Peel and mince garlic finely.
Heat up wok until smoking. Add cooking oil. And turn down flame to medium low.
Add dried beancurd skin sheets and slowly fry until they crisp and blister slightly. Remove and drain oil. Set aside
Repeat frying process with sweet beancurd sticks which had been cut into strips. Fry until crisp and surface begins to blister. Do not overfry these as they would become too brown aesthetically and bitter to taste. Remove and drain oil. Set aside.
Pour away most of the frying oil until about 2 tbsps left. Add garlic and dried shrimp, and stir fry until it exudes aroma. Add mashed preserve bean paste and stir-fry, followed by carrots, cabbage until well-coated. Add mushroom soaking liquids, pork stock and bring to a boil.
Lower flame to a simmer, add pork strips, black fungus, chinese mushroom, lily buds, the two types of beancurd sticks and sheets, any optional ingredients and finally chinese glass noodles.
Mix the ingredients with spatula until everything is well incorporated. Top up with water if necessary. Cover with lid and allow to simmer until cabbage and carrots soften.
Adjust the flavours with salt and sugar if necessary.
As mentioned, the versatility of the ingredients incorporated creates endless possibilities for variations. If a vegetarian version is desired, simply omit the pork belly and dried shrimp and use water or vegetable stock in replacement of the pork stock. Then, tau kwa and tau pok would become somewhat obligatory to jazz up the dish to make it more wholesome. Gluten based vegetarian foodstuff like mock duck or mock intestines can also be incorporated.
While its tasty when its freshly cooked, I prefer the taste of Chap Chye which had been cooked the night before and reheated the next day. The kuah (gravy) becomes so flavourful that its good enough to be eaten with just plain rice on its own! But be sure to have the chap chye refrigerated to prevent it from going rancid.
For variety, a number of other peranakan dishes can be served with Nyonya Chap Chye for good contrast in texture and flavours. Crispy and flavourful Ngoh Hiang as well as a very pedas (spicy) Kari Ayam are the choices de facto in my house. Itek Tim is another popular option, as the blanching liquids for the pig trotters in the latter is used as the pork stock base for Nyonya Chap Chye. Alternatively, Tau Yew Bak is another dish which is commonly “paired” with Nyonya Chap Chye, not only are both dishes equally delectable, but more practically, the the blanching liquids for the pork belly or pig trotters is carefully skimmed and used for Nyonya Chap Chye. Like I’d said, nothing is left to waste!
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya Apom Balik Durian
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Itek Tim
Makanan in Melaka 2011 – a Delightful Sampling
Melaka Getaway Dec 2011
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Pengat Durian
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Sambal Jantung Pisang
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Sambal Udang Belimbing
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