On the Trail of the Phoenix – Penang Jiu Hu Char
Straits Chinese cuisine is a conglomeration of many other culinary disciplines, bringing together elements from traditional Malay, Chinese, Indian and even Thai cooking to create the eclectic spread of visually stunning and mouth-watering dishes, both sweet and savory, which bear testimony to the glorious cultural heritage and lavishly colourful lifestyles the Babas and Nyonyas of the yesteryears were so well-known for. Many Peranakan dishes are characterised by their rich and robust flavours, be it the tingling sourish hues from asam-based dishes, to the fiery heat from sambal belacan-inspired creations, or the collagen-packed soups. This is usually perpetuated through the liberal use of spices, herbs, condiments and seasoning, all aimed at pushing the limits of one’s palate sensations and experience. Once in a while, we come across a dish seemingly more “subtle” when compared to the others amongst its ranks. A pearl in tranquil elegance amongst the bedazzling glittering of the other gems. Jiu Hu Char must surely be one such dish.
Jiu Hu Char literally stands for “cuttlefish stir fry” in Penang Hokkien. Despite its name, it is one of those dishes which had been well assimilated into Penang Peranakan cuisine to be become a signature of it in many ways. Firstly, it is representative of the northern Straits Chinese as this dish is neither found in Singapore nor Melaka. Also, unlike many other traditional Peranakan dishes, Jiu Hu Char void of the use of any strongly flavoured or pungent elements. The flavours are down-to-earth and uncomplicated. But do not get me wrong, this is not a bland dish by any means. It is good food down to the simplest elements with very little seasoning added, allowing the natural sweetness of the vegetables used to shine through. And of course. shredded dried cuttlefish, which is customarily used in preparing soups and broths, lends much of its umami goodness, making this dish a favorite amongst Peranakan foodies! This is precisely why some folks would deliberately leave a generous portion of the dish behind, to be enjoyed the next day in the form of “Kiam Chye Buay” as it becomes richer after flavours were allowed to develop and mature.
Jiu Hu Char is also a very versatile dish. Not only is it being enjoyed over regular daily meals, it is also served during “important days” like “jee gau meh” Chinese New Year’s Eve family reunion dinners as well as “cheng beng” ancestral worship. Peranakan food culture which also includes food prepared solely for deity or ancestral worship clearly demarcates the dos and don’ts with a long list of taboos and pantangs. For example, Nyonya Chap Chye is a dish to be cooked only for ancestral worship for the very traditional Peranakans in the past, while Kueh Sarlat aka Seri Muka with its jadite green kaya layer and blue and white glutinous rice layers are strongly associated with funerals and thus a taboo to serve as cuci mulot after a Loak Tok Panjang and most certainly not at birthdays or wedding celebrations. But yet, Jiu Hu Char can be found on the dining tables at both weddings and funerals making it one of the very few dishes being awarded “special status” to be served at both “red” and “white” events.
Reconstituted shredded dried “Jiu Hu“. Shredded dried cuttlefish can be found in Giants Supermarket which saves one the hassle but as always, I like to do things from scratch. It is much much much easier to “shred” by snipping with a pair of scissors than to use a Chinese cleaver. Use the sides of the body nearer to the ends of the body and avoid the middle which is thicker and thus more difficult to cut. Save the remainders of head and body for soup!
Jiu Hu Char (adapted loosely from “Grandmothers’ Recipes – Tales from Two Peranakan Kitchens” by Rosaline Soon)
4 medium sized dried cuttlefish shredded (about 50g)
1 (about 500g) medium sized yam bean (bangkwang) , peeled and julienned
1 large carrot or 2 medium sized ones julienned
1/2 a Beijing Chinese cabbage, julienned
5-8 dried chinese mushrooms
1 large Bombay onion
250g pork belly (chicken may also be used)
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
2 shallots, peeled and chopped finely
2-3 tbsp of cooking oil
2 tbsp light soya sauce, to taste
1 tbsp fish sauce, to taste (optional)
dash of pepper, to taste
water as needed
Garnishing of chopped spring onions and chinese parsley
Chinese lettuce, rinsed and set to drain and dry in a colander
Place pork belly in a pot of boiling water. Leave to simmer for about 10 min. Drain pork belly and set aside to cool. Cut into very thin strips. Separately reserve the stock for later use.
Reconstitute dried cuttlefish shreds for about 10 min. Drain, discard soaking water and set aside.
Reconstitute dried chinese mushrooms until completely soften. Drain, squeeze out excess water and cut into very thin strips. Reserve the soaking water for later use together with pork stock.
Julienne all the vegetables finely into thin strips.
Add 3 tbsp of oil to a pre-heated wok. Add cuttlefish strips until they begin to crackle. Drain and set aside.
To the same cooking oil, add pork strips and fry until the skin begins to blister and crisp up slightly. The meat should be slightly brown. This helps to render some fat into the oil. Push to one side of the wok.
Add sliced bombay onions and stir-fry until soften to turn slightly translucent. Push to one side with pork.
Finally add chopped shallots and chopped garlic and stir fry until fragrant. Combine with pork and onions.
Add light soya sauce and pepper with mushroom strips. Mix well with the other ingredients until the pork slices are evenly coloured.
Add carrot and stir fry quickly for about a minute, followed by yam bean for another minute and add finally cabbage. Stir fry until cabbage soften slightly.
Pour mushroom soaking water and some pork stock until it covers about half of the vegetables. Add the shredded jiu hu at this point and mix well.
Leave to simmer with lid on for about 10-15 min, stirring once in a while. Adjust taste with more soya sauce or fish sauce if necessary. Add pepper.
Stir fry until most of the water has evaporated, but the ingredients still remaining very moist.
Garnish with chinese parlsey and spring onions if using.
Serve with Chinese lettuce and sambal belacan.
Remember to cook the vegetables starting from carrots, then yam bean and finally cabbage as they have different cooking times. The dish in its final stage should remain rather moist but not laden with stock and soggy. Also the vegetables should still retain some bite. Seemingly simple, Jiu Hu Char is a test of a nyonya’s knife skills, being able to julienne all the ingredients finely to be of homogenised thickness. Bigger mushrooms have to be halved longitudinally before slicing to ensure that everything is of uniform texture and thickness. But I like my vegetables to be on the crunchy side, especially the bangkwang. Hence, the vegetables were not julienned as finely to what a bibik Masterchef would have approved off!
Jiu Hu Char is traditionally enjoyed with Chinese lettuce as a wrap accompanied by sambal belacan. Unfinished Jiu Hu Char if there is any to begin with, is mixed with other leftovers of the feast to form what the Penang Nyonyas call “Kiam Chye Buay” which is loosely translated as “salted vegetable ends”. This also includes any duck, chicken or pork be it roasted, steamed or braised, as well as the customarily Peranakan soup “Kiam Chye Ark“, which is also known Itek Tim to the southern Peranakans and of course Jiu Hu Char. If other soups like Hee Pio Soup was prepared instead, salted vegetables would be deliberately added amidst more vegetables like cabbage, carrots, yambean or bamboo shoots, which are basically ingredients used to cook Jiu Hu Char itself! All this goes to show that the Penang Nyonyas love Jiu Hu Char so much, that they would find ways to “reprise” the flavours even after the feast is over, and in the process of doing so, exercise their creativity into it! Curries and other spicy dishes are omitted as they are usually good on their own, especially after leaving to mature overnight!
Sambal belacan, an important condiment in Jiu Hu Char and totally indispensible in Peranakan cuisine altogether.
I am submitting this post to Malaysian Food Fest, Penang Month hosted by Alan of Travellingfoodies
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