This is one of my favorite dishes to cook. The sauce is so flavourful, one would probably find it too salty to be eaten on its own. But I can down two plates of rice just with it and nothing else. It is usually cooked with regular tamarind, but when the belimbing trees are fruiting wildly in my estate, we turn to these sourish morsels instead for the job, for a salivating-worthy plate of Babi Asam Belimbing.
Mention squid ink infused food and Mediterranean dishes like the Venetian Pasta al Nero di Seppia from Italy or the Catalan-Valencian Arròs negre from Spain immediate comes to mind for many of us. Lesser known to most is Sotong Masak Hitam, a classic dish from Malay cuisine which also celebrates the use of squid ink which lends the dish its dramatic appeal and subtle flavours of the sea. This dish is also a favorite amongst many Peranakans who spell it as “Sotong Masak Itam” instead, though like Rendang, remains a peripheral and never really properly assimilated into Baba-Nyonya cuisine proper. Not by definition of Straits Chinese cooking for most at least. It is nonetheless enjoyed by many, Malays, Peranakans and even Chinese alike, for its piquant flavours make this dish all the more moreish.
Unlike Thai cuisine, I got to know Vietnamese food fairly late. I didn’t have my first pho or bahn mi until only a couple of years back. It may seem strange but Vietnamese cuisine to me is strangely familiar and yet very alien at the same time. I love the liberal use of greens and herbs in their soups and dishes, as well as the subtle spiciness in their food. A good bowl of pho bo makes a really satisfying lunch and me a very happy man. But that is only because I always make sure there is a glass of da me dau phong on standby at the side, and sometimes two! Dau me dau phong is Vietnamese for “Iced Tamarind and Roasted Peanuts”. It is so addictive and an absolute must order for me in a Vietnamese food joint. And it is so incredibly easy to make at home!
Ikan Pari Kuah Lada is a typical dish for everyday meals in a Peranakan household in Melaka and Singapore. It is essentially stingray cooked in a peppery sauce. The piquant flavours carried through the liberal use of white peppercorns and tamarind (asam jawa) makes the sauce (kuah) an excellent drizzling onto some piping hot steamed rice. Being spicy and tart at the same time makes it really moreish for more helpings of rice!
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!