On the Trail of the Phoenix – Itek Sioh
Yes my writing and blogging mojo is back and hopefully it would last a tad longer this time round. It is afterall nearing the end of the year and the festive mood is kicking in, with Christmas in just a couple of weeks’ time and Deepavali tomorrow! My Hindu neighbours are already cooking up a storm in their kitchen and I can smell the aromas of mustard seeds and other spices blistering in the oil as they are used to cook an assortment of yummy dishes! I’m busy in my own kitchen too, after getting a new hob gifted by Turbo-Italia. Lovin’ it totally! So spacious and the heat is so strong to the point of roaring! I can almost smell the wok hei as I was stir frying, or so I thought! Yet another homecooked meal yesterday to satisfy my cravings, and this time round, I am cooking Itek Sioh, a really old Peranakan dish. I checked my old photos and realised that the last time I’d cooked it was more than 2 years back. A timely revisit indeed!
This was dinner yesterday, 3 dishes and a soup. Very very satisfying as they contain flavours I so love. Udang Masak Belimbing, sourish and spicy at the same time. I cook this a lot at home whenever the trees are laden with fruits as it goes so well with just rice! Then there was Kuah Kacang Tanah aka thor dau thng, which is just a simple peanut and pork ribs soup with dried cuttlefish added. The soup is so incredibly easy to make yet packed with so much flavours, umami based glutamates from the seafood and nucleotides from the prime ribs and knuckle bones I’d used! Hardly anything else needed, except for that pinch of salt to round up the flavours and time of course. Then there was sayor ubi kledek cooked with sambal udang kering aka hae bee hiam, reminiscent of the times when we would be choking and coughing like mad as my mum fried sambal in the kitchen. And finally Itek Sioh, duck cooked in a tamarind and coriander sauce. It is so simple to cook I should really do it more often, and include it as a dish to feature in my Tok Panjang!
The ingredient list is relatively short for a Peranakan dish, and even more so since it is a laok ari besair cooked for special occasions like weddings, Chinese New Year or birthdays. But time is of essence in the making of good itek sioh, first the marinating and then the waiting… Yes this dish doesn’t end with the cooking, but one has to allow it to steep in the thick broth for couple of hours, preferably overnight for the flavours to work their way into the duck, mature and mellow. As such, the dish can be cooked way in advance of course before they are presented on the dining table. For those who do not believe in or are adversarial against eating “overnight food”, this may not be the recipe for you!
The two “main cast” in this dish apart from the duck of course. The combination of coriander powder and asam paste, together with the sweetness from the shallots is what lends the dish its unique flavours. This dish is definitely not “love at first sight” or in this case, “taste” for me. I remember not liking this flavour combination very much previously, tasting like “rempah chin” but with a sourish and sweet taste, though I must say I’m taking a really different view of it now, able to down two plates of rice easily with just the sauce alone!
One crucial step in its making is the preparation of the coriander powder. As much as possible, toast the seeds yourself and you will be rewarded with a much fresher and stronger tasting and smelling coriander powder compared to the storebought ones. Simply grind the toasted seeds in a food processor. Don’t worry that the powder isn’t gonna be fine enough. It doesn’t really matter in this case as everything would nicely amalgamate together when the stewing and steeping is done! And don’t get taken aback by the amount of coriander powder that goes into the marinade. It is necessarily so for the flavours to build up!
Traditionally, the dish takes 3 days to complete, first day to leave to marinate overnight, one day to cook and then finally a day to steep for the flavours to develop. It sounds a bit daunting yes if you want the full itek sioh experience. Otherwise, you can cook and eat a portion on the first day, like me and leave the rest to be slowly enjoyed throughout the week.
Itek Sioh – Stewed Duck with Coriander and Tamarind Sauce Recipe (serves 6)
1 duck, appro. 1.4 kg or whole duck thigh and drumsticks
300-320g shallots, peeled and blend into a coarse paste
20g coriander seeds, rinsed, toasted until fragrant and milled into powder
40g sugar, adjust to personal preference of sweetness
30g gula melaka
80g tamarind pulp
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground white pepper
1 tbsp dark soya sauce
2 tbsp cooking oil
water as needed
Place all the ingredients except duck, water and oil in a large bowl and mix well to form a slurry.
Place the duck chunks in the bowl and rub the pieces evenly with the marinade paste.
Set aside to marinate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
To cook, add oil to a heated wok.
Gently pour the marinated duck chunks and paste into the wok and carefully fry until fragrant.
Pour just enough water to cover all the ingredients.
Bring the mixture to a boil before lowering heat to simmer for 1 to 1.5 hours,depending on the size of the meat chunks , until the meat is JUST fork tender and ready to come off the bone. The duck chunks should be stirred and rotated periodically for even cooking.
Carefully remove the duck chunks into a bowl and set aside.
Continue to simmer the sauce and reduce it until a rich and thick consistency is achieved. Adjust the flavours at this point if desired.
Return the duck chunks back into the wok and stir around to coat evenly with thickened sauce.
Simmer for another 5-10 min and the dish is cooked.
Leave the duck to steep in the sauce for another couple more hours, or overnight if possible before reheating briefly to serve.
Enjoy with rice and other dishes.
(1) the dish can be prepared in advance and is best not to cook it the same day as it is to be eaten.
(2) if preferred, chicken can be used as a substitute for duck, but the cooking time would shorten considerably.
(3) for those who are not familiar with the taste of a “sioh“, it should be aromatic, tangy, sweet and savory all at once. the taste of coriander powder should be assertive but not overpowering. All the flavours should balance and compliment each other in harmony. That is what a good sioh to me, should taste like.
（4） The Penang version of this dish has taucheo added as well. We generally don’t add that in Singapore.