Apom Berkuah… A Pictorial Guide
Apom Berkuah is one of my favorite kuehs and I try to make it whenever time avails. Despite being a Peranakan signature “cuchi mulot“, I believe that it has its roots in Indonesian cuisine where it is known by another name Kue Serabi, and variations likening surabi or srabi. Even amongst Peranakan communities in Singapore, Malacca and Penang, the pronunciation also differ slightly from Apom Berkuah, to Apom Bokwa and Apom Bengkua. To the Malays from Kedah, Malacca and Sabah, it is called “Kuih Serabai“，with a slightly phonological shift in the terminal syllable, where it transits to become a diphthong in place of the short monophthongal vowel, a linguistic nuance we commonly observe across many Bahasa Melayu to Baba Patois lexicographical pairs. The word “Apom” which was derived from “appam“, a south Indian pancake popular in Kerala and Tamilnadu, is sometimes spelt as “apong” instead. Despite the numerous names, one thing remains the same for this kueh, and that is how delicious they are! So let’s see how we make them!
The recipe used is pretty much the same as the one I’d shared in my previous blog post which I find highly reproducible and the results very gratifying. As with most kuehs made by the Peranakans, it takes a bit of practice to get it right. But Apom Berkuah is most certainly not fiendishly difficult to make as some have claimed. That is just all “scare talk” to deter those who might be interested to try but unfamiliar with the know-hows. If Peranakan cuisine is indeed as nerve-wrecking and mind-boggling as some folks have described, many of these dishes would have ceased to exist on the dining table a long time ago. Perhaps it is within the vested interests of these people to keep the methodology exclusive within their own pack whom they deem to be the only ones privileged enough to act as custodians of the cuisine and hence the culture. I choose to think otherwise. For a heritage and all its historical and cultural bearings to grow, improve and proliferate, nothing beats sharing it with the rest of the community and even to those who are not part of it. It is only through so that the culture may thrive, perpetuate and prosper. Should one choose to remain close-minded or small-hearted, that only speaks, in no uncertain terms the death of a community and with it, the beautiful and glorious culture it was bestowed and entrusted with. Many old recipes have already been lost and forgotten, brought along and buried into the graves with those tight-lipped bibiks from yesteryears. Let not this mentality be allowed to continue, for it would only bring about further attrition to whatever fragmented pieces of the heritage that remains.
Apom Berkuah, as with many snacks and sweet desserts from this region, is characterised by the liberal use of familiar local ingredients such as santan, gula melaka, daon pandan. The way Apom Berkuah is made nowadays differs quite drastically from how it was done in the past. Rice was first soaked for a few hours before being ground, after which ayer klapa (coconut water) was added together with toddy. For some folks, ragi was added but for others, practically nothing else was added, for fermentation would occur on its own, capitalising the air borne wild yeast which are naturally available in the environment. The results are not predictable, and much less to say reproducible as sometimes, the batter would not “huat” and in other occasions, fermentation occurs so quickly causing the batter to turn sour when one is not careful enough. Nowadays, active dry yeast is used, readily available in little sachets for one to use whenever required and the end product is much more reproducible and dependable.
In spite of using active dry yeast, the incorporation of ayer klapa remains a tradition for many when making Apom Berkuah. Though it is lesser relied upon now for the actual fermentation process, the natural and subtle sweetness it imparts adds on to the delicate flavours of the apom. However, one should also be told that the kueh can be made with just water in place of coconut water and the recipe works equally well!
For the southern Peranakans in Malacca and Singapore, many of the kuehs we make are beautifully embellished through the use of natural blue coloration extracted from “bunga telang“, Clitoria ternatea commonly known as butterfly pea or blue pea. This is especially so in those which have a pulot (glutinous rice) component in it, like Kueh Sarlat aka Gading Galoh (aka Seri Muka）, Pulot Tekan aka Pulut Tai Tai, Pulot Inti (sometimes spelt as Pulot Enti) and of course the renowned Kueh Chang Babi.
Apom Berkuah is made with a special acuan (mould). In the past, they are made from copper or brass as seen in the first photo of this post, but the ones we get in bakery shops nowadays are made from aluminium instead. Some swear by copper or brass ware, which is probably true given that copper is a better thermal conductor than most other metals but the aluminium mould works very well for me as well. What is important is for the mould to be seasoned. For a new mould, numerous coats of oil have to be applied continuously over the cavities while the mould is heated in the seasoning process. This helps to prevent the batter from sticking to the mould subsequently. Some folks advocate frying omelettes in the cavities first to test but this is no longer necessary when the mould becomes progressively seasoned after a few attempts of making this kueh.
Nonetheless, for good measure the cavities need to be greased slightly with every batch of apoms made. I make my “oil brush” out of a piece kitchen paper napkin folded and secured to a disposable chopstick using a rubber band. The whole contraption can be conveniently thrown away once all the apoms are made, without the hassle of washing.
The make or break is the batter for apom berkuah of course but even that is not difficult to do. I have seen several ways of preparing the batter. The one which Florence Tan and some others like Amy Beh used includes an “ibu” component which supposedly makes the apoms softer and more fluffy. Another is of the “direct method” where the apom ingredients are mixed in all at once and left to ferment. I’d yet to try the latter but most definitely would, when I make it again, using Mary Gomes recipe probably. But I would leave the experimentation to the next time.
The rate of the fermentation depends very much on ambient temperature as well as the activity rate of the yeast. The 2 hours specified in the recipe is only a gauge. Test the enzymatic activity of the active dry yeast with warm water and some sugar to make sure that the yeast culture is still alive and going after being reconstituted with warm water, before mixing in the rest of the ingredients. The yeast-sugar-warm water mixture should begin to froth and bubble around 10 min after mixing. The mixture should begin to smell alcoholic, mildly scented but apparent nonetheless. As long as the yeast is working, the actual fermentation (proofing) time of the batter is practically at their mercy. Check on the batter periodically to make sure that the yeast is working well. After 30 min or so into the proofing time, the batter should begin to elevate and increase in volume. At the same time, bubbles would begin to form on the surface. The frothing would become more apparent and vigorous over time as the proofing reaches its final moments. Do not be tempted to add more than the one and a half teaspoons of yeast in attempt to accelerate the process as the apoms would have an overpowering taste of the yeast making them less palatable. Make that quite unpalatable! One can however, place the bowl of fermenting rice batter out in the sun to speed things up a bit. Cover the bowl with cling film or a piece of cloth as yeast do require an anaerobic environment to act.
Flame control is of critical pertinence here in the cooking of the apoms. Traditionally, a charcoal stove was used, but it has become largely obsolete in conventional cooking methods today. My family has long discarded ours, though much regrettably so. Yes it would probably be used very infrequently if not at all, but still the sheer presence of it invokes much nostalgia. A very low flame is used, providing sufficient heat to expand the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast during fermentation so as to provide the “lift” necessary for the apoms to raise. At the same time, the mould should not be too hot or the bottom of the kueh could burn too quickly. At the end, the base of each apom should be very lightly browned with a slight crisp texture but most definitely not charred in any way.
The blue colouring is obtained by first boiling around 15-20 blue pea flowers in about 1/4 cup of water under low heat. Upon simmering, the water is allowed to evaporate for the juice to concentrate and colour to intensify. The spent flowers are then drained and the juice set aside to cool down. About 1/4 cup of fermented apom rice batter is scooped into a bowl and the bunga telang juice being slowly added, a tablespoonful at a time until the desired tone is achieved. It is then tested by drizzling on the first batch of apoms to be cooked in the moulds.The colours may be intensified with further additions of bunga telang juice but do not over do it as the diluted coloured batter would make the top too wet, thus prolonging the cooking needed unwittingly.
I drizzle the coloured batter shortly after pouring the main batter into the cavities. This helps to make the cooking time more or less concerted. As the apoms cook, they will start to fluff up and raise slightly, a good sign that the carbon dioxide trapped within the batter as uber tiny bubbles is expanding with the heat and the yeast had done their work. As the carbon dioxide bubbles reach the surface and break free from the batter, they would create small little pockmarks on the surface, starting from the rounded perimeter of each apom before developing towards the centre. By this time, the apom should also have risen its maximum height attainable. This is when the mould is covered with a lid.
We have a brass lid which fits nicely over the aluminium apom mould. It comes another set of kueh baulu mould. The lid is heated face down over another hob on the stove, also over low flame. Covering the mould facilitates more even heat distribution during the cooking, and allows the surface to dry faster as well. Traditionally, hot charcoal are placed on top of the mould for the same purpose but we do it over the stove now for greater convenience.
Cover the top only when the bubbles started to develop over the surface of the apoms. That would make the final product more attractive. If the mould is covered prematurely, the apoms would have a smooth surface instead.
The lid is then removed after one to two minutes or so and the base of the apoms can be checked by lifting them up with a satay skewer. They can be removed once the apoms are cooked through. The cavities are then greased gently again before the next round of batter is poured in. The lid is returned to the top of the other hob where it continues to be very very gently heated, ready for the next batch of apoms.
For me, good apoms should be very soft, fluffy and well risen. Break one into half and there should be countless small holes and “tunnels” bore through by the expanding carbon dioxide. These holes are crucial as they are ready to soak in the Kuah Pengat Pisang which the apoms chelop in!
Keep the apoms covered if they are to be consumed immediately. Leaving them to expose to air would cause them to dry up rather quickly and become kerak (hard). But reassure that they will be devoured with much vivaciousness, especially when shared amongst appreciative friends and family. The recipe yields quite a substantial amount of apoms, so if you ain’t gonna be feeding a lot of people, it is best to half the recipe. The Kuah Pengat Pisang can be easily prepared, using the time when the apom batter is fermenting. But once made, it is important to keep the kuah warm or it would thin out and become watery as the starch concoction breaks down as it cools. Bananas, either pisang rajah or pisang emas are added only when the apoms are about to be served. Prolong cooking would cause the bananas to become too soft and soggy.
So here is the breakdown for the making of apom berkuah as I know it. It would not have been possible if not for the exchanges I’d had with some of my Peranakan friends, like Nya Melanie Wee, Nya Dot Wee and Nya Tan Poh Lin on this kueh. I thank them with all my heart for their generosity and spirit of sharing, especially to Poh Lin whom we had countless discussions on this kueh, amongst other things, on Peranakan food and culture. It is hoped that with this sharing, many more would be able to make apom berkuah more easily, demystifying the process that it is difficult to make when it is actually not.
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On the Trail of the Phoenix – Apom Berkuah
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Kueh Sarlat aka Seri Muka
Kueh Dadar – My First Video Tutorial Guide