On the Trail of the Phoenix – Apom Berkuah
I love watching cooking shows on TV when I was young. Apart from learning through observing my grandmother, mother and aunties cook and helping them in the kitchen, part of what I know on traditional cooking came from these wonderfully made TV programmes, especially those on Channel 12 which later became Art Central. That was way before the time of reality cooking shows like Masterchef where drama seems to take centrestage instead of the food. And it was easily 10-15 years ago as even Arts Central has now become part of history to make way for “Okto”. That was when my TV watching days were over.
Almost 10 years ago, there was a series of TV programmes featuring Peranakan culture and cuisine. Most memorable were “The Ways of the Matriarch”, “The Cook, His Food and the Dishy Nyonyas” as well as “On the Trail of the Phoenix”. It is the last after which the Peranakan dishes presented in this blog were named as It was through these TV programmes that I’d learnt much about the intricacies of Straits Chinese cuisine and its preparation. One of the most impressionable dishes being showcased was Apom Berkuah, I remembered vividly the contrasting swirls of blue from juice extracted from bunga telang against the ivory colored fluffy rice cakes. After all these years, I’d finally gotten a chance to make them myself. Truly sedap!
“Apom Berkuah” literally means “pancakes with an accompanying sauce” . “Apom” has its origins in traditional Indian cooking to mean “Appam“, a pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk that is very popular in the Southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. To some, Apom Berkuah is pronounced a little differently, as “Apom Bok(k)wa” or “Apom Bokkuah“. This was highlighted to me by Nyonya Melanie Wee. I had initially thought that the difference in pronunciation stems from a variation between Northern and Southern peranakans as Nyonya Debbie Teoh’s book on Penang Peranakan cuisine uses the name “Apom Bokwa” while the recipe from Chef Florence Tan, a Malaccan Nyonya has it as “Apam Berkuah” in her book. But Nyonya Melanie was quick to point out to my mistake as her hubby Baba Rapheal Koh’s family recipe clearly dictated it as “Apom Bokkwa” as well. And they are true blue Malaccan peranakans. So clearly it is not a case of geographical variation as I had initially imagined. Could it be a case of the standardisation of Bahasa Melayu against the Baba patois then? The motivations behind the phonological shifts is not entirely clear. Whichever the case might be, as Baba Rapheal had beautifully quoted from Shakespeare’s R&J, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. And I couldn’t agree more…
Traditionally, Apom Berkuah is made with a brass acuan (mould) with four shallow cavities. The old brass mould in the foreground of the above photo was on loan to me from Nyonya Tina Tan for the shoot. My not-so-new one made from aluminium sits in the background. These are also the same moulds for making Nyonya Apom Balek, which is distinctively different from the chinese 面煎粿 or the Malay version of Apam Balik which are paper thin and crisp. Though the aluminium one works wonderfully as well, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I would be able to chance upon an old brass one for Apom Berkuah and Nyonya Apom Balek in future to add to my collection of old moulds.
Apom Berkuah is traditionally made with coconut juice which had been left to stand and ferment for a yeast culture to cultivate. This old way was narrated to me by Auntie Kim Choo from Katong Antique House and she dubbed it as being really laborious and not always foolproof. She said that it takes a discerning bibik to know her ways to making good apom and even then, success is not always guaranteed with the traditional method. Nowadays, the process is simplified through the use of readily available sachets of yeast from the supermarkets. The choice of rice flour seem most particular as well. Nyonya Florence Tan stated to use the “finest rice flour” available in her recipe while Mary Gomes, a Portuguese-Eurasian or more commonly known as “Kristang/Cristang” specifies in her recipe book “The Eurasian Cookbook” that she insists on “Elephant Brand from Thailand” as she has “tried making this kueh with other rice flours but have not obtained the same results as she does when she uses this particular brand”. I followed Mary’s advice and used the same brand of rice flour as well.
This brings about an interesting notion, that Apom Berkuah seems to be made and enjoyed not only by the Peranakans, but also the Eurasians/Kristangs as well. Interestingly, there is a kueh similar, if not the same as Apom Berkuah, made by the Malays known as “Kuih Serabai” that is popular in Kedah, Melaka and Sabah. Back to the Eurasians, Mary Gomes’ Apom Berkuah are one of her signature dishes at her little deli, Mary’s Kafe located within Kum Yan Methodist Church at Queen’s Street Singapore. In fact, Chef Florence Tan’s recipe for Apom Berkuah in her book “Recipes from the Nyonya Kitchen” was given to her by Chef Celine Marbeck, a very prominent doyen of Kristang cuisine in Melaka. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising as the historic city after which the Straits of Malacca was named was not only the heart of Peranakan culture, but also an enclave of the Kristang-Eurasian community for a very long time, since the arrival of the Portuguese more than 500 years ago and subsequently the Dutch. As cultures intermingle, so do the cuisines, and Apom Berkuah is merely one of the many dishes that are common to both ethnic groups, part of a shared heritage between these two closely knitted communities.
Apom Berkuah being cooked over a gas stove, Traditionally, a charcoal stove would have been used but seems quite impractical nowadays. The mould have to be greased repeatedly over a medium heat for the first time. This was taught by Auntie Kim Choo as well. I did 3 coats of oil to prevent the batter from sticking onto the base. Subsequently, only one coat of oil needs to be applied before each batch of batter was poured into the cavities. I’d improvised the oil brush by simply fastening a piece of folded kitchen paper napkin onto a disposable chopstick using a rubberband. The makeshift oil brush can be discarded subsequently without the hassle of washing it later. Use a light-coloured and flavourless oil if possible. I’d used rice bran oil but I think canola works as well. Olive oil and peanut oil are “no nos”. The former has a rather low smoke point while the latter has too much character and flavour which would distort the flavours of the apom. A lid that is separately heated is used to apply heat to the top and cook it. I’d used an old brass lid from my acuan kueh baulu for that.
This is what the base of an apom berkuah would probably look like. Very lightly browned with pockmarks perpetuating all the way to the bottom creating that “holey effect” which characterises this kueh. Traditionally for the southern Peranakans, a dollop of batter had been coloured with the juice extracted from bunga telang and drizzled onto the apom as it cooks to create lovely colour contrast, a practice that seems not to be observed by the Penang Perankans.
The photo below shows the cross-sectional view of the apom berkuah, reasonably fluffy and light, which reminds me of honeycomb structure of very well made 白糖糕 (Pak Tong Koh) which incidentally also uses rice flour with yeast and also one of my favorite Chinese kuehs as well.
makes 50 pieces of Apom Berkuah to serve 10
Apom Berkuah Ingredients
5g instant yeast
5 g granulated sugar
60 ml warm water
300 g finest rice flour
1/2 tbsp glutinous rice flour
1/2 tbsp tapioca flour
1/2 tsp salt
500 ml coconut milk
1 1/4 tsp concentrated juice of bunga telang or blue food coloring
60 g rice flour
415 ml ayer kelapa (coconut water) or just water
3 pandan leaves, shredded and knotted
Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water (around 40 degrees Celsius) and stir well.
Set aside for 10-15 min until frothy.
Sift all flours together with salt into a mixing bowl.
Gradually stir in coconut milk. Mix well to form a smooth batter and set aside.
Bring to boil the “Ibu” ingredients over low heat stirring constantly. Remove pandan leaves.
Slowly add to the main batter and stir until smooth. Set aside until lukewarm.
Stir in yeast mixture. Cover with towel and set aside for 2 hours until batter doubles its size.
Scoop 2 tbsp of batter into a small bowl and mix well with bunga telang juice. Set aside for later use.
Heat an apom berkuah mould and its cover separately over medium heat.
For the first time, coat the mould lightly with cooking oil 3 times. The process only needs to be repeated once for every subsequent addition of batter. Leave the cover on the stove at all times to keep it heated.
Stir batter each time before pouring into mould. Pour batter to fill three-quarters of mould.
Cook, uncovered, until bubbles appear. Put a drop of blue pea flower batter on each apam and swirl gently with a wooden chopstick.
Lower the heat and cover. Apam is cooked when it is firm and not sticky to the touch.
Serve with kuah pengat pisang (coconut sugar and banana sauce).
Kuah Pengat Pisang (sufficient for 25-30 pieces of apom berkuah)
100g chopped gula melaka
1/2 cup of water
5 pandan leaves, shredded and knotted
30g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
450 ml coconut milk
6 ripe pisang emas or pisang rajah, peeled and sliced diagonally.
Bring chopped gula melaka, water and pandan leaves in a saucepan to a boil. Strain the syrup into bowl.
Mix flour, salt and coconut milk into the gula melaka syrup to make a smooth batter.
Strain and pour back into the rinsed saucepan.
Cook the sauce over a medium-low heat until bubbles begin to form on the sides.
Add sliced bananas and cook for another 30 seconds.
Turn off flame and allow the residual heat to continue cooking the pisang.
Serve warm with freshly made Apom Berkuah.
The recipe by Chef Celine Marbeck featured in Chef Florence Tan’s book works really well for me. I would have to try Mary Gomes’ recipe next. The amount of gula melaka used for the kuah pengat pisang has been cut back from the original 150g to 100g and the level of sweetness was well-balanced. Though the batter did increase in volume and became really bubbly, it did not really double in size as described in Chef Florence’s book. Though I think the apoms could be a tad fluffier, I am quite happy with the results from my first attempt at making Apom Berkuah. But this would not have been possible without the generosity of the bibiks who imparted their knowledge and encouraged me along the way. Thank you very much Nyonya Melanie Wee, as well as Auntie Kim Choo for sharing your experiences in making Apom Berkuah with me, and Nyonya Tina Tan for the loan of the brass acuan.
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