On the Trail of the Phoenix – Putugal aka Putu Tegair
Making Malay and Nyonya kueh is a really colourful game of mix and match. Using a standard list of ingredients, one could come up with a large variety of these sweet delectable snacks and desserts which are so immensely popular and enjoyed by many. For example, gula melaka is commonly used in traditional Malay, Indonesian and Peranakan desserts and its employment into these snacks is literally endless. If it is chopped finely and used as a filling with a dough made with sweet potatoes and glutinous rice flour, it becomes ondeh ondeh as it is known in Singapore and Malaysia or Klepon in Indonesia, but when it is wrapped and steamed in a rice flour batter and banana leaves, it becomes Kueh Bongkong. Another steamed variation with barely reconstituted rice flour which remains grainy gives us Putu Piring. If the gula melaka is cooked with freshly grated coconut, it becomes the filling for Pulut Inti if steamed glutinous rice is used, and Kueh Kochi if it is wrapped into a glutinous rice flour dough over banana leaves. It becomes a variation of ondeh ondeh which some folks call Buah Melaka if the glutinous rice dough is rolled into balls and cooked over boiling water instead of being wrapped and steamed with banana leaves as with Kueh Kochi. Finally it becomes Kueh Dadar or Kuih Ketayap if the grated coconut and gula melaka filling is wrapped with a thin pancake into a roll instead. All variations of the same theme. This reminds me of the paper dolls which my sister and cousins used to play when we were all young, with “switchable” dresses, hats and whatnots latched over a generic paper mannequin. And this is pretty much the same for Putugal, a lesser known kueh shared between the Peranakan and Eurasian/Kristang heritage in Singapore and Malaysia.
Most folks are familiar with the commonly available kuehs mentioned above but Putugal or Putu Tegair hardly resonate in many unless you have eaten it before. Unlike the other popular snacks like Ang Koo Kueh and Bingka Ubi Kayu, Putugal is hardly sold as part of the typical “Nyonya kueh” fanfare. I first got to know the name of this kueh almost 10 years back from the TV series “The Cook, His Food and the Dishy Nonyas”, just like how I learnt how to make Apom Berkuah. However, unlike Apom Berkuah which left a lasting impression, I’m afraid Putugal somehow did not. It was not until recently that I begin to “recollect” all these old kuehs from yesteryears that Putugal resurfaced again. It reminded me very much of something which my grandma made before when I was young, and it remained as a kueh that had no name. Until the TV show that is.
Known also to the Peranakans as Putu Tegair, Putugal is essentially made up of a banana encased a grated cassava (ubi kayu) and coconut milk concoction before being wrapped and steamed over banana leaves. The kueh is then cut and rolled over freshly grated coconut, a shared “trademark” with many other kuehs like kueh kosui, ondeh ondeh, kueh lopes etc. Green and blue food coloring extracted from pandan leaves and bunga telang are added into the grated cassava, and these are incidentally colours often associated with funerals and mourning in traditional Peranakan culture. According to Quentin Pereira aka “The Skinny Chef“ who in turn learnt the recipe from Mrs Lena Fox, Putugal despite being a favorite among the Eurasians, was traditionally served during funeral wakes, so those who came to pay their last respects would have something to eat, and as a result, stay on to keep the family of the deceased company a little longer. Unlike the Peranakan version of Putu Tegar, the Eurasian version is not wrapped into a roll with banana leaves, but steamed in a baking tin instead. I wonder if the ”pantangs” (taboos) of Putugal as being dubbed as a dessert related to funerals had prevented it from becoming popular like the others. Interestingly in Indonesia, there is another “kue” (as it is being spelt over there) known as “Putu Tegal” (note the difference in spelling), which uses glutinous rice flour and sago flour instead of grated cassava, purportedly from a place known as Tegal in Central Java. But I’m not about to open a can of worms through justifying its origins. Let’s just enjoy the kueh as it is. 🙂
Why did I mention mix and match for Putugal? Just as with gula melaka, there are many variations of the same theme with banana-filled kuehs. The mostly popular is Nagasari, which is also known simply as Kue(h) Pisang. It has its origins as a Kue from Indonesia, known to the Bugis as Kue Bandang-Bandang. Unlike Putugal, Nagasari uses a flour batter which is made of rice flour, and/or tapioca starch, sago flour and even tepung kacang hijau which is otherwise known as “tepung hoen kwe”. Another similar dessert is Pulut Dakap where the banana is encased in soaked glutinous rice instead. So all of them are essentially variations of the same theme. All similar but yet distinct at the same time.
The recipe I’d used is adapted from Chef Florence Tan’s “Recipes from a Nyonya’s Kitchen“ where it could be found alongside her recipe for Apom Berkuah. My grandma didn’t leave behind a recipe. Not one which was written down at least. But I remember the flavours of the kueh vividly because she made it often, whenever she had orders. Florence Tan’s rendition is a gorgeous jadite green as only the juice extracted from pandan leaves was used. She’d used regular daun pandan as well as daun pandan serani for colour. I’d made the recipe a couple of times, the first time following Bibik Florence’s version to use only pandan juice extract. But I remembered we made it blue and white instead. My initial trials at wrapping were sloppy as the ubi kayu did not produce a perfect ring around the pisang rajah within. Then I made it with a juxtaposition of colours in green, blue and white, as in the Eurasian version from Quentin Pereira’s book “Eurasian Heritage Cooking”. What a riot of colours it was! I’d also made this during a cooking demonstration to the wonderful ladies from the Indian Women’s Association, where it was showcased together with other nyonya delights like Popiah, Ondeh Ondeh, Kueh Dadar, Bingka Ubi Kayu and Penang Otak Otak.
The banana variety used for this recipe is important. It has to be a “cooking variety” and not one favoured for eating. Pisang rajah is traditionally used as the default cooking banana but other varieties like Pisang kapok and Pisang tanduk (plaintain bananas) which are usually used for frying can also be used. Eating varieties like Pisang emas, Pisang berangan or Cavendish bananas may soften too much after steaming to allow the kueh to hold its form. But trust me, if you want the true Putugal experience, hunt down Pisang rajah by hook or by crook…
The technique for processing the grated cassava is pretty much the same with making Bingka Ubi Kayu, Talam Ubi etc. The grated cassava has to be squeezed to extract the sap, which is left to stand for the starch to separate from the water. The water is then carefully decanted and the sedimentary starch is recombined with the grated cassava together with coconut milk, sugar, tapioca starch etc.
I’d divided the batter into three portions and coloured two of them green and blue with the juice from pandan leaves and butterfly pea flower respectively. One part is left white for contrast. When this is all done, all that is left is the wrapping, yet again another game of mix and match of colours!
Putugal aka Putu Tegair Recipe (makes 6 rolls)
15-20 pandan leaves, can be replaced with green food colouring
water for extracting pandan leaves
10 fresh or dried bunga telang, can be replaced with blue food colouring
water for extracting bunga telang juice
600g grated cassava, from about 700-750g of whole cassava tubers
200 ml thick coconut milk
1-2 tsp of tapioca flour (This acts as a binding agent and is optional if the cassava used is sufficiently starchy)
2-4 generous tbsp granulated sugar (amount of sugar can be adjust to sweetness of bananas used and personal liking)
6 pieces of ripe bananas of cooking variety, preferably pisang rajah
6 pieces of banana leaves (25cm squares)
100g grated young coconut
salt to taste
First, prepare pandan extract by cutting pandan leaves into small pieces and blending with as little water as possible (adjust to individual model of blending machine). Squeeze as much juice from the pulpy concoction and strain 2-3 times over a fine-wired sieve or muslin cloth.
Set aside the juice in a clear container for 4-6 hours at room temperature or overnight in the fridge for the extract to concentrate and settle at the bottom of the container.
Carefully decant and remove the top clear layer leaving behind the concentrated pandan juice extract. Set aside for later use.
To prepare bunga telang juice, add dried or fresh butterfly pea flowers with 1/2 cup of water into a saucepan and heat over medium-high flame. Press down the flowers with a spatula or spoon to help with the leaching of blue pigments from the petals into the water. Turn to medium-low or low flame and leave to simmer with lid on for about 5 min. Remove lid and allow excess water to evaporate and concentrate the extract. Should be left with 1-2 tbsp worth at the end. Leave to cool slightly and squeeze as much liquids out of the petals as possible. Set the extract aside for later use.
Omit the above steps for natural food colouring extract if commercial food colouring are used.
To prepare grated cassava and tapioca starch, first rinse the cassava tubers to remove any debris. Cut a shallow slit along the length of the “skin bark” and proceed to peel it off. It should come off quite easily.
Grate the cassava but avoid the tough fibre that runs along the length of the tuber. Factoring attrition of tough fibre and skin, the remaining grated tapioca should come up to 800g.
Squeeze grated cassava with a muslin/cheese cloth or over a fine-wired sieve and collect the juice in a bowl beneath the sieve. Set the dehydrated cassava pulp aside for later use.
Leave the starchy juice in the bowl to settle for 15-20 min for the tapioca starch to settle to the bottom of the bowl.
Carefully pour and decant the bitter sappy juices, leaving behind a layer of tapioca starch at the bottom. Discard juice and retain the tapioca starch.
Recombine tapioca starch with dehydrated cassava pulp, coconut milk, a generous pinch of salt, sugar and tapioca flour in a mixing bowl.
Divide into 3 portions. Add the pandan juice and bunga telang extract to two portions respectively, leaving one portion white.
Wilt banana leaves over boiling water or open stove flame until soft and pliable.
Place a piece of banana leaf on a flat surface and place 2 tbsp of cassava mixture (any colour) over it, spreading out the mixture to be slightly longer than the length of the bananas used.
Place a peeled banana over the mixture and add another 2 tbsp of cassava mixture of a different colour over the banana.
Bring the two lengthwise sides of the banana leaf upwards and nudge the cassava mixture to form a cylindrical ring over the banana, covering it completely.
Roll the banana leaf into a tubular form and twist one of the open ends to enclose the mixture and fasten with toothpicks.
Proceed to do the same with the other end.
Steam the rolls over rapidly boiling water for 15-20 mins until cooked.
Leave to cool, meanwhile, steam the grated coconut mixed with a small pinch of salt and some shredded pandan leaves.
Unwrap the cooled putugal and slice diagonally.
Coat the slices with grated coconut and serve.
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