On the Trail of the Phoenix – Ayam Buah Keluak
Ask any food lover for the Peranakan cuisine and they would surely babble ceaselessly and incessantly about their “favorites”! From simple kerabus like Sambal Belimbing Timun Nanas to the more elaborated Sambal Jantung Pisang, from the delicately flavoured Bakwan Kepiting, to the robust and full-bodied Buah Paya Masak Titek, from the popular Babi Pongteh, to the elusive Babi Tohay, from the healthy Nyonya Chap Chye to the not-for-the-faint-hearted Hati Babi Bungkus… the list just runs on and on, and I’m sure the rattling would too! And this doesn’t not even include an equally, if not even more comprehensive list of sweet and savory desserts, snacks and nyonya kuehs! Clearly one could not settle with just one, and I’m pretty sure he would not bear to, but instead, produce a collective “menu” , often macam panjang panjang, of dishes close to one’s heart. Sounds like much of an oxymoron I know, but that’s just one of the many dilemmas of a Nyonya foodie!
Ask again, for one single signature nyonya dish, and the options often narrow down to an invariable small range of dishes. And the name that would pop up most frequently has to be Ayam Buah Keluak!
Of all the dishes in the vast repertoire of dishes within Straits Chinese cooking, Ayam Buah Keluak for those who’d tried it before must surely be the most impressionable. First those curious-looking black nuts, with shells so hard, making first-timers crack their heads (pun intended!) on how to pry them open, only to discover that the hard-shelled fortress is virtually impenetrable, save for a small narrow belt of “weakness” along its perimeter, the only sliver of hope for its contents to be possibly revealed. Of course when served on a Tok Panjang, the nuts are already “processed”, cracked open along the “soft spot” to form a crevice, not unlike a dark abyss. The “hands on” dining experience continues with the contents of the nut being carefully scooped out, and just when the “first-timers” thought that they have succesfully conquered the buah keluak, they come face-to-face with the pasty black mess, ominous looking. A “tit for tat” moment for the black nut with the second “barrier” erected, this time a psychological one. Now comes the challenge and begs the questions, to eat or not to eat…
Eating buah keluak is one thing, cooking it is another. It is a rather time-consuming process which begins a week before the day of cooking. The nuts have to be soaked for a week or so, with daily water changes and scrubbing. This is to help get rid of any traces of cyanide which may still linger. Yes, in the raw form, the nuts are toxic, even more so than gingko nuts. Talk about living (and eating) dangerously! Though the nuts have already gone through a round of processing, which involves boiling them in water and burying them in ash, before they hit the market, I am not taking any chances. Some folks like Baba Philip Chia suggests soaking them for 3 days while some others like Bibik Florence Tan suggested 2 weeks! Wanting to prepare them fast but yet not wanting to put anyone’s health at risk, I’d soaked them for a week or so. Daily water changes and scrubbing is a must. The undulated surface on the hard exterior is the perfect haven for water-logged anaerobic bacteria to manifest, so the nutty outer cover though meticulously scrubbed each time, would still invariably cause the soaking water to turning yellowish-brown, not to mention produce a somewhat unpleasant odour. So this is the painstaking process. If time permits, I would actually recommend 2 water changes accompanied with scrubbing a day. This daily episode takes about 5 mins each time, a small time sacrifice for well washed nuts later.
Finally on the night before cooking, the nuts were given a final rinse and scrub before they are being ceremoniously cracked with the narrower end of the pestle on the mortar. At this point, the nuts have to be check for their viability. Any nut which gives off an unpleasant odour, or with very fluid contents that spurts or oozes out should be discarded. The contents are then carefully scooped out and transferred into a bowl for further “processing” while the shells are being boiled and cleansed. I did warn you about the whole process being extremely manual and laborious.
Next comes the preparation of the filling and it can be done in several ways, the simplest of which is to blend the nut contents with a pinch of salt and some sugar into a smooth viscous paste before stuffing it back in again. The traditional method calls for incorporating minced meat (pork, fish or chicken) together with minced prawns as well to make the dish more wholesome. Then there is the elaborated method as introduced in Mrs Wee Kim Wee’s recipe book which involves the preparation of a rempah titek to be blended together with pork and prawns and the nut paste contents. I opted for the middle method as preparing one rempah is already tedious enough, let alone two!
Speaking of rempahs, I’d adhered to the traditional means of using a batu lesung, a very rustic and Asian version of a mortar and pestle. We used to have one many years back but it was thrown away when we moved to our current home. I missed using that to make rempahs so much that I went all over town and searched high and low for one! Unlike a food processor where anything can be thrown in all at once, the ingredients have to be lined up for pounding, starting from the hardest i.e. candlenuts buah keras, to the softest i.e. soaked dried chillies. The ingredients have to be individually pounded to uniform consistencies before being melanged together for a final round of tumbuking.Yes, the rempah paste produced is probably not going to be as smooth as that produced by a commercial blender. That would probably also mean getting lemongrass fibres stuck between the teeth once in a while, or encountering the occasional chilli seed here and there, but I just love the “tumbuk” experience. Extremely therapeutic if you ask me! The only possible risks involved are getting a tennis elbow as a result, as well as angry neighbours!
1.3 – 1.5 kg chicken
100-150g asam pulp (tamarind)
2 stalks of serai (lemongrass), lower white portion only
8-10 daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves), optional
2 tsp salt
Sugar to balance flavours
4 tbsp of oil for frying rempah
For buah keluak
20-25 pieces buah keluak
50g minced meat (pork or chicken)
150g prawn meat
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp oil
7-10 buah keras (candlenuts)
25-30 cili merah (dried red chilli)
300g bawang merah (shallots)
1 bulb of bawang putih (garlic)
5 cm piece of kunyit (tumeric) thumb-length
5 cm piece of lengkwas (galangal), thumb-length
5 stalks of serai (lemongrass)
2 tsp toasted belacan (fermented shrimp paste) powder
Start a week ahead of the date to cook the dish.
First and foremost is the selection of the nuts. A good buah keluak should be bear some heft when held within the palm and does not rattle very much when shaken. If it does, the kernel has probably dried up too much for it to be of any good to be made into a smooth paste subsequently. If the contents “sounded” and “felt” very fluid-like, there’s probaby a crack somewhere in the nut for bacteria to infiltrate and decomposition/fermentation has also kicked in.
Scrub buah keluak nuts very thoroughly to get rid of any dirt and debris using a hard-bristle brush.
Repeatedly rinse and scrub until the soaking water remains clear.
Place the nuts in a deep bowl and fill up with water. With another plate or bowl to press down on the nuts to keep them completely submerged.
Soak nuts completely in water for about 1 week, with daily changes and scrubbing. MUST SCRUB THOROUGHLY WITH EACH WATER CHANGE!
On the day before cooking, give the nuts one final thoroughly scrub and pronk them into a pot of boiling water for 3-5 mins. This basically exterminates any nasties which might be still clinging onto the shell.
Drain the nuts from the pot of water and rinse them with water. When they have cooled down sufficiently, crack the cap of the nut using mortar and pestle or the handle of all-steel chinese cleaver (No, your expensive Henckels heavy duty chopper with a plasticky handle would not do the job).
Carefully remove the broken pieces of shell from top, taking note of any little bits which might have fallen through the newly created crevice.
Using a teaspoon or pastry fork, carefully nudge and scrape to remove the contents of the nuts. Discard any nut which are no longer viable, i.e. contents producing a repulsive odour. Taste a bit of each kernel and discard those which taste too bitter.
Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, pound or blend the oily kernels roughly to break up the lumps. Scoop and remove 1/3 of the kernels, transfer into a plastic bag and set aside for refrigeration. To the remaining 2/3 portion of the kernel still in the mortar/processor, add minced meat and chopped up prawn/shrimp meat as well as salt, sugar and oil and continue to pound/blend until the filling becomes a smooth and glossy paste.
Using a dessert knife or small spatula, carefully pack the filling back into the buah keluak shells, ensuring that each is very compact and almost filled to the brim. The filling shrinks slightly during cooking, Packing it tightly helps to prevent the filling from dislodging from the shells during cooking.
Soak dried red chillies in water for about 1/2 h to reconstitute them. Deseed if necessary.
Process the rempah ingredients with either a mortar & pestle or food processor. If a batu lesung is used, start with the hardest ingredient i.e. buah keras, followed by the gingers, i.e. lengkwas and kunyit, as well as serai, and then the bulbs, i.e. bawang merah and bawang putih and finally the soaked dried chillies. For me, the belachan powder is added at the point when the serai is pounded. The salt in the fermented shrimp paste aids in osmosis and cause the lemongrass, and subsequently, the shallots and garlic as well, to soften more quickly. When a smooth paste is acheived, transfer rempah into a bowl and set aside.
While the dried red chillies are soaking, cut chicken into pieces, slice serai longitudinally into halves.
In a large bowl, prepare asam juice by rubbing asam pulp into water. set aside
Heat wok until smoking, add oil followed by rempah paste and halved serai. Stir-fry until fragrant.
Add chicken pieces and mix until each piece is well coated with rempah. Pour asam juice over chicken. Add more water over remaining tamarind seeds and pulp and rub into water to produce more juice. . Pour over chicken pieces until completely submerged. Add filled buah keluak and stir-fry until thoroughly mixed.
Bring the water to a boil, add salt and daun limau purut if using, lower flame, cover with lid and simmer until chicken pieces become tender and soft (appro. 20-30 min). Adjust the taste of the gravy with sugar and more salt if necessary.
Serve with rice, sambal belachan and other peranakan dishes.
The choice of buah keluak is the make-or-break factor for this dish. Always spoon the kernels into a small dish to check on their taste and aroma before transferring them into a large bowl. Never spoon kernel contents directly from the nut into the large bowl. One misjudgement on the viability of the nut could spoil the whole batch of already processed kernels. The choice of meat to accompany the filling is versatile, be it chicken, pork or fish. I prefer a higher ratio of prawn meat and less minced pork or chicken as the latter two, when used too much will cause the buah keluak filling to develop a somewhat dry and powdery aftertaste. If fish meat is used, go for meaty fish like ikan parang (Wolf Herring). The ratio of prawn to fish can be brought up to 1:1. The remaining one-third of the buah keluak kernel can be frozen for future use. Nasi Goreng Buah Keluak or Nasi Rawan, an indonesian dish are just some examples.
The versatility of the dish lies in the ability to tweak the ratio of ingredients to suit one’s own liking. For example, the level of spiciness can be adjusted based on the amount of chilli added, and whether to deseed them or not. Despite being a “kuah pedas” dish in a Tok Panjang, I prefer to the heat of the dish to be secondary, with more of the tang from the asam and flavours of the buah keluak to shine through. Hence, I tend to deseed most of the chillies, leaving one a small lot with the seeds intact.
The thickness of the kuah (gravy) is dependent on the rempah, or more specifically, the amount of buah keras added. If a thicker gravy is desired, simply pound 1-2 more buah keras into the rempah. Do not be tempted to add more. A few buah keras goes a long way. And of course, tart flavours are derived from the asam added. Despite being an “asam pedas” dish (sour and spicy), it is quite different in terms of flavour, compared to the typical nyonya gerang asam. The flavours built into Ayam Masak Buah Keluak are far more complex than gerang asam, which is what make this dish so iconic in the vast repertoire within the Straits Chinese cuisine.
I am submitting this to Malaysian Food Fest, Melaka Month hosted by Cindy of Yummy Little Cooks.
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya Chap Chye
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Makanan in Melaka 2011 – a Delightful Sampling
Melaka Getaway Dec 2011
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On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya porcelain ware @ the Peranakan Museum
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