In conjunction with the ongoing festivities and jubilation to celebrate our 50 years of nation building, Concorde Hotel Singapore located right in the heart of the Orchard Road shopping belt has specially chosen and recreated a selection of Peranakan dishes as part of the spread for the buffet available at their Spices Cafe. Two weeks ago, the hotel specially invited Baba Jolly Wee, together with some of his family members and close friends, for a luncheon organised as a tribute and appreciation for putting together some of the Peranakan staples on the menu and coaching the chefs who helm the kitchen at the Spices Cafe during his stint as their culinary consultant. Baba Jolly, a doyen of Straits Chinese cuisine in Singapore who is now well into his eighties, is held in great esteem and highly regarded here for his work on promoting baba-nonya culinary culture to fellow Singaporeans, as well as the rest of the world.
Rawon is a classic East Javanese dish which either you’re gonna love or loathe. It extracts its unique flavours from the use of the “Indonesian black nut” commonly known as “buah keluak” or “kluwak/kluwek“, or more scientifically Pangium edule. In Singapore and Malaysia, buah keluak is better known as part of a signature dish in Peranakan cuisine “Ayam Buah Keluak” to which it lends its name. In fact, the recipes are so similar that I would like to think that one is necessarily evolved from the other! So if you love Ayam Buah Keluak and like to give it a little twist by using beef instead of chicken, Rawon is definitely the dish for you.
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!