On the Trail of the Phoenix -Revisiting Ayam Buah Keluak
There are many dishes which one can immediately draw parallelism to Peranakan culture, signature dishes which form the core of what is understood by many as “Straits Chinese cuisine” today. Babi Pongteh, Sambal Jantong Pisang, Ikan Gerang Asam, Kuah Hee Pio or even simple day to day dishes like Telor Tempra and Pong Tauhu just to name a few. But the one true dish which is quintessentially Peranakan must surely be Ayam Buah Keluak. It is THE one dish which many have heard of, being curious about, tried before and perhaps can even relate to. I’d wrote about it twice on this blog, here and here, and also a masterclass I’d attended before out of curiosity, not to mention talk about it on countless occasions, so here is it again, a refresher discussion on this “ambassador dish” that bridges and opens the gateway for anyone who seeks a more in-depth understanding into the culture.
Ayam Buah Keluak is an important dish for the Peranakans on many accounts. Besides being iconic and synonymous to the culture, it lies right within the hearts of many babas and nyonyas, as well as afficionados of the cuisine. In the past when long table banquets called Tok Panjang were still a common sight in traditional Peranakan homes during weddings and festive celebrations, Ayam Buah Keluak was an invariably must-have on the dining table. Even now that the occurrence of such feasts are far and few in between, the popularity of this dish has not waned the slightest. On the contrary, it is gaining recognition and fame, as Peranakan cuisine being an integral part of this unique culture is being touted as a vehicle for tourism. Buah keluak finds its way into the hands of proponents in experimental and fusion cuisine, much to the lamentation of the hardcore traditionalists and purists who still cling on to the old ways dearly, in fear that their much-loved nut would be defiled and bastardised in the name of modernity, not realising that Ayam Buah Keluak too, as a traditional dish did not start off as being exclusively Peranakan to begin with.
Ayam Buah Keluak is so immensely popular, even amongst the non-Peranakans that it is now one of the most ordered dishes in any Peranakan restaurant in town in Singapore and Melaka. I last heard from a friend that some Peranakan restaurants in Penang are also serving up this dish even when it is not generally thought to be part of the Penang Peranakan culinary repertoire in the first place. This likens finding “salmon sashimi” in a traditional Japanese sushi deli in Tsukiji market say 15 years ago, i.e. virtually unheard of for salmon wasn’t even a fish of choice for sashimi to the local Japanese to begin with. But as more gaijins began asking for it, driven by invisible market forces to grab the tourist dollar, it appeared on the menus, just like how Ayam Buah Keluak did in those restaurants in Penang.
The dish is so named after the famed nut which is native to Indonesia where it is used in the cooking of yet another popular dish in Indonesian cuisine called Rawon. It is by no coincidence that the popular Peranakan dish cooked with chicken and sometimes pork ribs, i.e. Tulang Babi Masak Buah Keluak bears such uncanny similarities to the Indonesian counterpart which prefers to use beef or buffalo meat instead. It doesn’t take much for one to put the two together and derive at an irrevocable conclusion that the Peranakan dish had in fact evolved from the Indonesian Rawon, just like how many of the other Peranakan dishes like Chap Chye, Babi Pongteh have their roots in traditional Chinese cooking.
To want to buy buah keluak, one must first learn how to choose them. I prefer to go to stalls which allow buyers to choose the nuts individually rather than to sell them bagged in bulk. Take each nut in the palm and feel the weight. A good nut should feel hefty and are of a good size. Shake each nut a bit by clasping it between the thumb and the fingers. One shouldn’t feel anything when doing so. If the contents rattle upon shaking, it means that the kernel has already dried up and detached itself from the inner walls of the nut. These are no good to go. Choosing good buah keluak nuts is already half the battle won in the preparation of this dish for all the subsequent efforts would be futile if the nuts had already gone bad to start with.
To get to the kernel inside the hard shell, one must first process the nut. That is the devil of the details, an arduous task of soaking the nuts for a couple of days with thorough scrubbing of the shells on a daily basis. The soaking process is more like a safety prevention as these black nuts are toxic at the point when they were harvested. But they have already been treated in Indonesia by burying them in ash. And when the nuts are finally deemed “safe” for eating, they have to be cracked open to retrieve the oily black kernel within, a process requiring much dexterity as the nuts are extremely hard, save for a point of weakness where the rough textures gives way to a narrow smooth strip known as the “lip” of the buah keluak which cracks quite easily with several sharp knocks from a hard and heavy object. I habitually use the narrower end of the granite pestle from a traditional batu lesong for the task. Once the nuts are cracked, the kernel can be extracted from within. Take a whiff of each kernel to make sure that they smell “right”. Nibble a bit of the thick and paste-like kernel as well if you wish. Experience from smelling and tasting will tell you if the nuts are good to be used or has already gone bad. Discard the nuts if they smell foul, the kernel is too dry, has gone mouldy, or even taste really bad. That said, eating buah keluak is much of an acquired taste to begin with. Some has equated the taste of buah keluak to smoky mushrooms, black truffles, pure cocoa, black olives etc.
Ayam Buah Keluak is essentially a “rempah gerang asam” dish, where a basic rempah is worked into a tamarind pulp base to produce an interesting flavour profile. It shares the same recipe in cooking Ikan Gerang Asam as far as the rempah is concerned. But what makes it unique is the incorporation of the pulp of the buah keluak into the cooking sauce itself. Just this additional ingredient is enough to transform the dish to look and taste so wildly different from Ikan Gerang Asam.
I had previously made a large batch of rempah gerang asam when I was cooking Ikan Gerang Asam for friends last week. Freezing them in portions saves me the trouble of making rempahs every time I need to cook a dish. I like to used chopped chicken thigh and drumstick for the dish. Chicken breast becomes too tough and hard after prolonged stewing for the dish to be enjoyed properly whilst chicken wings and drumlets may become too soft instead. Otherwise, this dish is also traditionally cooked with pork ribs as well. The cooking time would be slightly longer than what is needed for chicken but some have claimed tulang babi masak buah keluak to be much more yummy than the chicken version. Modern Peranakan restaurants also serve up the beef versions, using specific parts like “beef cheeks” which have a more robust texture from the “oral exercise workout” these ruminants get from chewing all day long. Some roll out the techies and play out a “72 hour sous vide” gimmick instead. I think it would still essentially taste very Rawon-like though I must say for the one I’d tried before, the beef cheek was really uber tender and super yummy.
Getting the contents of the nuts is one thing, dealing with them is another. The buah keluak kernel is then seasoned with salt, pepper and sugar before being blitzed quickly with a food processor to homogenise the textures of the pulp. In the old days, they are pounded with the batu lesong but blitzing is way faster now of course. Now comes the interesting bit. The pulverised buah keluak pulp is then pressed through a fine wired sieve. This helps to remove any bits of shell which had gone into the pulp. The pulp becomes considerably softer and smoother after being “tamized”, much like eating a soft serve. Some families bulk up the buah keluak pulp by mixing it with minced pork or prawn but I don’t do that as the meat textures override that of the buah keluak’s to the extent of even hardening the filling. It is the 100% smooth and pure ‘black gold’ experience I am after.
After the nuts are “refilled” with the processed pulp, all that is left with is the cooking. Yes, the most tedious part is already over. One just needs to saute the rempah, get the chicken in for a good coating of rempah, add kaffir lime leaves before pouring enough asam water to bring everything to a simmer. A portion of buah keluak pulp is reserved for the sauce. The number of nuts you buy won’t be the number of nuts you get to serve and eat at the end. Usually 1 kg of meat would be cooked with 20-25 nuts or so with around 8 to 10 nuts worth of pulp going into the cooking of the kuah. So if you are planning for a dinner for 8, be sure to buy up to 40 nuts instead, factoring in attrition from bad nuts as well.
And this is what the dish looks like when it is done with cooking. But it is not ready to be served yet. The dish tastes best served a couple of hours later, to allow the chicken meat to thoroughly soak in the flavours from the sauce. Traditionally, the dish is cooked a day before the actual feasting day but I reckon half a day of maturation is enough. So if the dish needs to make its way onto the dinner table say tonight, try to process the nuts the day before and cook the dish on the same morning at least.
Ayam Buah Keluak – Peranakan Black Nut Stewed Chicken (serves 8 to 12)
For the rempah
25 shallots, peeled and sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
thumb knob length galangal, peeled and sliced
thumb knob length tumeric, peeled and sliced
20 dried chilies, soften in boiling water
5 fresh red chilies, chopped
2 tbsp belacan
4-5 stalks lemongrass lower white part only, sliced
1/2 cup cooking oil
2kg chicken, preferably thigh and drumstick, chopped into large chunks
30 buah keluak
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
dash of pepper
100g tamarind pulp, rubbed with 500ml water and strained
8-10 pieces of buah belimbing, optional for a more asam edge, sliced in halves
6 kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces
Water as needed
To process the buah keluak, first soak them in a basin of water for 3 days, with daily shell scrubbing and water changes.
On the third day, break open the shell at the lip and extract the contents. Check for the viability of the kernel and discard those bad ones. See description above for details on choosing and processing buah keluak nuts.
Season the buah keluak pulp with sugar, salt and pepper. Add 2 tbsp of water and pulverise the pulp with food processor. Strain the pulp by pressing the thick paste through a fine-wired sieve to remove any shell or unpulverised bits.
Stuff around 2 tsp of processed buah keluak pulp back into each shell, pressing down firmly onto the sides of the inner walls. Set aside for later use. Remember to leave behind around 3-4 tbsp worth of pulp for cooking the sauce.
To prepare the rempah, first blend or pound all the shallots and garlic into a paste.
Blend or pound the remaining rempah ingredients into a thick paste as well.
To cook the dish, first add cooking oil into a heated wok.
Saute the shallot and garlic paste until fragrant and the paste turns translucent.
Add the remaining rempah paste and saute until the oil separates from the rempah.
Add chicken chunks and kaffir lime leaves. Saute the chicken until each piece is well coated with rempah.
Add the 3-4 tbsp of buah keluak pulp set aside earlier followed by strained tamarind juice and finally enough water to cover all the pieces of chicken. The belimbing can be added at this point if using.
Give everything a good stir and bring to a boil before lowering to a gentle simmer for 40 min or until the chicken parts are nicely tender and soft. Remember to add the stuffed nuts around 20 minutes into the simmering.
Check the seasoning and adjust with more salt if necessary.
Set aside for the dish to mature for a couple of hours before serving.