Those who know me well will know that I am an advocate of Peranakan home-cooking being approachable and simple, unlike what is typically heard and said about Straits Chinese cooking being laborious and tedious. While there are indeed dishes in the Baba Nyonya cuisine which are more painstaking to prepare, there is a repertoire of Peranakan dishes which require little time to cook and even less time to enjoy as they are so delicious, they are gobbled down in no time!
When I run out of ideas for what to prepare for a simple dinner, the ” tempra” sauce is my to-go-to style of Peranakan cooking which could be used with a wide variety of ingredients, all delicious and simple to prepare. No rempah to pound, no long hours of stewing, it usually manifest as “ikan tempra” or “ayam tempra” in our household but when I want something really fast and furiously done, “telor tempra” is most definitely the dish I would whip up as it requires just a bare few minutes from the chopping board to the dining table.
Ondeh Ondeh is a traditional “kueh” which many of us grew up snacking. I remember first having it in primary school during recess time at the school canteen which we called “tuckshop” then. The “makan melayu” food stall, operated by an old Malay couple sold mainly local Malay delights like nasi lemak and lotong. But my eyes are always glued to the assortment of homemade”kuih muih” in psychedelic colours, almost a dozen of varieties that rotated down the week, with 2-3 types available daily. Most of my classmates and friends love to buy their kueh lapis beras, and for obvious reasons. They would peel and eat them by the layer, just like what we would do at home with my mum and sister. While I love to eat their kuehs, it was more of an indulgence rather than a necessity, given the limited amount of pocket money we had. But I’d always looked forward to the day when mee rebus was on the “Special of the Day” menu, because I know that one of my favorite kuehs would also be available, and that is of course, ondeh ondeh.
Ayam Buak Keluak… such a love-and-hate relationship with this classic Peranakan dish. As much as I love eating it, I loathe making it. The preparation work that precedes is so much more laborious than the actual cooking of the dish itself! So so much more laborious! Work starts days ahead with the soaking and daily scrubs of the black nuts imported from Indonesia. While most recipes call for prep work three days in advance, I make it a point to soak for a minimum of five days, sometimes up to seven! And to make things “worse”, I do water changes and scrub not once but twice, literally day and night, making sure that they are good to use and safe for consumption. Not taking any chances here. Perhaps it has come to a point of being obsessive. What to do?! Most Peranakan restaurants charge them by the nut nowadays, how else can one enjoy the unique flavours of this dish without having to empty my pockets. Yet to enjoy this dish periodically is a dire need and not a mere want! Now you know why I love it to bits but hate it to the core at the same time!
ToTT ran a series of demonstration cooking classes by some of the guest chefs which they’d been working with over the last year or so. This is in conjunction with their 2nd Anniversary since they opened their mega store in Sime Darby Centre along the prime stretch of District 10. Despite being “only” demo classes priced within a range of SGD 28 to 38 for most classes, they are a steal! Not to mention that it also comes with a SGD 20 ToTT return shopping voucher! Wasted no time in checking out the schedule and blimey, they have exactly what I was looking for, a cooking class by Chef Malcolm Lee of Candlenut Kitchen which specialises in Peranakan (Straits Chinese) cuisine! And top it all, it was a signature dish in Nyonya cooking, Ayam Buah Keluak.
When I shared this information with fellow foodies and makan enthusiasts in hope of some company to attend the class together. Most of them came back with comments like “Oh my goodness, must be very tedious and time consuming!” and ” Don’t you know how to cook Ayam Buah Keluak already?” Well, yes I do technically and in fact, I’d already blogged about it during the MFF Melaka month last August. But I’m always curious with how the others would prepare it. More often than not, different peranakan families have their own unique ways and “secret recipes” for preparing even the most common of all nyonya dishes like Hee Pio Soup and Ikan Gerang Asam. These ways of the past are often fiercely guarded by the old bibiks and carried to their graves. So here lies a chance to learn it from a true blue baba, and I’m not about to let it slip away!
Ask any food lover for the Peranakan cuisine and they would surely babble ceaselessly and incessantly about their “favorites”! From simple kerabus like Sambal Belimbing Timun Nanas to the more elaborated Sambal Jantung Pisang, from the delicately flavoured Bakwan Kepiting, to the robust and full-bodied Buah Paya Masak Titek, from the popular Babi Pongteh, to the elusive Babi Tohay, from the healthy Nyonya Chap Chye to the not-for-the-faint-hearted Hati Babi Bungkus… the list just runs on and on, and I’m sure the rattling would too! And this doesn’t not even include an equally, if not even more comprehensive list of sweet and savory desserts, snacks and nyonya kuehs! Clearly one could not settle with just one, and I’m pretty sure he would not bear to, but instead, produce a collective “menu” , often macam panjang panjang, of dishes close to one’s heart. Sounds like much of an oxymoron I know, but that’s just one of the many dilemmas of a Nyonya foodie!
Ask again, for one single signature nyonya dish, and the options often narrow down to an invariable small range of dishes. And the name that would pop up most frequently has to be Ayam Buah Keluak!
Peranakans love cooking with fruits, spanning from the usual tropical varieties like pineapple in Sambal Nanas to durian in Apam Balik and banana in Pengat, to using more exotic varieties in lesser prepared dishes like young jackfruit in Sayur Nangka Masak Lemak, banana blossom in Kerabu Jantung Pisang and unripe papaya in Buah Paya Masak Titek. Some fruits are used almost exclusively in culinary cuisines from this region, and buah belimbing is one such fruit.
As you guys probably know, I’m thoroughly intrigued and in awe with the heritage and culture of the Peranakans. From furniture, to beadwork and embroidery, to jewelery and silverware, the nyonyas and babas of the not-too-distant past decorated their lives to such levels of luxury and extravagance, it is almost unthinkable, put in today’s context. This royalty-like lavishness is perpetuated in everything that they ate and used. For me, nothing speaks more about a culture than its food. Peranakan cuisine is most certainly a sparkling jewel amongst Southeast Asian culinary delights, a melting pot of many others with the Chinese and Malay cuisines as their primary influences, alongside others like Portuguese, Thai, Indonesian and even Dutch, depending on the region. What’s more interesting is the Peranakans developed and maintained different types of porcelain ware that’s been used for every family dining occasion, from the every day lunch and dinner, to eleborated fanfares like Tok Panjang. Even ceremonial ware for offerings to the deities, ancestors and mourning for a newly deceased have their own unique set of crockery, differentiated largely by motifs and color. Made primarily from Jingdezhen 景德镇 in Jiangxi, China, nyonya porcelain ware are largely influenced by the “famille rose” 粉彩 coloring style during the Kangxi period, accentuated by the bold use of colors. The favorites amongst the Peranakans include fuchsia pink, turquoise green, yellow, cobalt blue and purple. The Peranakan Museum located along Armenian Street houses a lovely collection of peranakan porcelain ware especially the colored ones, is a good place for one to begin to get to know more on what and how the Peranakans eat.