There are many kuehs which we grew up eating and enjoying, often not just because they taste good but also the other dimensions of the gastronomic experience that surpass that from just the palate that makes each bite memorable. Like lapis sagu or kueh lapis beras, which can be made more fun by peeling the kueh layer by layer, or in the case of ondeh ondeh, the sheer joy one receives as every one of these sticky and chewy balls explodes with each mouthful to unleash an avalanche of sweet and savory juices from within…
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.
Don’t let your eyes deceive you. This is not the much coveted rempah udang, a Peranakan cuchi mulot which is a favorite amongst non-Peranakans as well. These are fashioned to look like rempah udang, the glutinous rice is coloured and cooked just like that in rempah udang, the wrapping is done exactly as how one would make rempah udang. So what is it that sets what you see in the photo apart from the real McCoy? Some of you would have guessed it by now, it is the filling…instead of using an “inti rempah udang“, I’d used a portion of the sambal lengkong I made just before Chinese New Year. It tastes vastly different from the inti used in rempah udang, but I assure you that it is no less delicious!
We enjoy homecooked food a lot. And because of that, we enjoy cooking at home a lot. What seemed to be a chore in the past, helping my mum wash the vegetables, cut the ingredients, tumbok the rempah in the past became what I missed the most now that mum is no longer with us. The dishes are usually very simple, spanning across a good range of Peranakan fare, not forgetting dishes from Chinese cuisine which she’d learnt from my grandmothers, our neighbours, her colleagues-turned friends at work, our old neighbours, and even from the vegetable sellers, fishmongers, butchers and hawkers from whom she will steal a recipe or cooking tip from. From them, she expanded her culinary repertoire that stretched across other cuisines to cook dishes from these dialectal groups when she didn’t even know how to speak those tongues! Amazing how fast and effortless it was for her to learn new dishes, sometimes indirectly from just tasting it once or twice would she be able to decode the recipe or figure out the cooking methods. Those were the days when experimentation was the fun thing to do and authenticity was never a question in mind.
My Facebook updates these few days are crawling with feeds and photos of friends who are out and about with their CNY baking. The festive mood seems to have really kicked in with many friends busy with churning out CNY goodies from their kitchens, for “a thousand and one reasons” as I was joking with a friend, be it for friends and family to snack on and enjoy, to really get into the festive mood, to sell and earn some pocket money, to polish one’s pastry making skills and most importantly, because one simply feels like making! In other words, there really isn’t a need for a proper impedus that gets one going with all the CNY cooking and baking. Just follow your heart.
As with many, one of the absolute quintessential Chinese New Year “kueh” which we definitely must have on the table are the pineapple tarts. I bake it every year and this year, I’d decided to make the Peranakan pineapple tarts aka “kueh tair” which is slightly more elaborated than the standard ones we get outside. It is quite laborious but I’m glad I did it. Lots more room for improvement for sure and I thank my Peranakan friends who had taught me some of the “tricks to the trade” and also given me much support and encouragement along the way. So here is my first batch of “kueh tair” for 2016.
Chap Chye is a quintessential dish for anyone who takes an interest in Peranakan food to learn to cook . It has its roots in Chinese cuisine of course but has since become deeply ingrained and naturalised into the Straits Chinese way of cooking. For us, Chap Chye is a dish which never fail to make its appearance on the dining table whenever we celebrate a major festival at my Grandma’s. Like I’d mentioned before, this dish together with kari ayam and ngoh hiang are hailed as the “holy trinity” which reminds me much of my grandma’s cooking even until today. It is her speciality, which she faithfully prepared the day before, in full knowing that the dish takes a good overnight rest for the flavours to develop and mature. Traditionally, chap chye is a must whenever there is ancestral prayers, alongside other dishes like pongteh but as the generations evolved, the rule for chap chye as a laok semayang has relaxed over time as it is now commonly enjoyed even over simple family dinners.
Literature and publications on the Peranakan community are far and few in between, so when a new book on this unique group to the Malay Archipelago becomes available, it is always met with much excitement and anticipation, and the new “Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum – Home of a Peranakan Family since 1861” is no exception . Fresh and hot from the publishers just a couple of weeks back, many of us await gleefully for a glimpse and surely, it did not disappoint.
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.
Peranakan desserts and snacks are such a large and colourful collection of delectables that they warrant special attention on their own. Being a unique group with members from such different backgrounds and rich heritage, the sweet and savory treats which signify the Peranakan community are exemplary of this wonderful diversity. Look closely, and one would be able to identify easily the cultural elements from the origins of forebears where the Peranakan roots developed from. Just to name a few, we have Kueh Koo Merah and Popiah from the Chinese, Rempah Udang, Pulot Inti with Malay-Indonesian influences, Pang Susi and Kueh Blanda with Portuguese-Dutch origins and of course Roti Babi from the proximal colonial links, and these are only a teeny tip of the iceberg of the repertoire affectionately known as “Kueh Chuchi Mulot” to the babas and nyonyas.
Many of these kuehs apart from tasting really good, are symbolic with their cultural significance tightly woven into the customs and practices of the Peranakan tapestry of life in the yesteryears. Some are prepared specially for specific occasions, like kueh bakol for the Chinese New Year, and were enshrouded with much mysticism through a relay of “patangs” (taboos) which had to be observed to strict accordance for guaranteed success in their making. Some like kueh koo itam were made almost exclusively for ancestral worship and serving them during other joyous or celebratory events would only invite “koosmangat!” from the nyonyas with their overtly animated and dramatised “terpranjat” look, not forgetting a string of gossips that would soon follow and before long the extended family or even the whole community would know who “kentot“. Many of these kuehs, like kueh koo, kueh sarlat (gading galoh), kueh lapis beras (kueh genggang) are “colour coded”, so it mattered to many Peranakans “what” to serve “when”, to “whom” and in “which colour”. Like many of the earlier mentioned kuehs with specific “functions”, apom balek is no exception.
The weather has been somewhat erratic and unforgiving of late, tormentous heat wave for the last 2 weeks or so making the days go by in an utmost unbearable manner and then came the torrential rain yesterday afternoon. Despite the downpour, the cool-down it provided was only short-lived and temporal as it is back to another stuffy and hazy day. In need of something cold and refreshing, I made another favorite Peranakan chuchi mulot of mine for some instant relief. Looks like I’m on a dessert making spree! Sago Gula Melaka is incredulously easy to prepare and can be made way ahead. Just barely 30 min of work last night before going to bed and I’m ready to indulge in all that santan and gula melaka goodness this afternoon!
A short post to document an experiment as I was trying out a recipe for the Peranakan version of “apom balek“. Unlike the crispy and thin “apam balik” we typically see at the Malay food stalls in pasar malams, or the thick Chinese version called “min chiang kueh” we eat for breakfast, this version favoured by the Peranakans in Malacca and Singapore are much smaller and more dainty. Despite using the same mould, I don’t make apom balek as often as I do for apom berkuah, simply because I very much prefer the latter, especially with the irresistible kuah pengat pisang to go along. Nonetheless, I feel I do need to practice making this kueh which is important in many aspects of the Peranakan culture. So on goes with the experiment!
Yes it is that time of the year again to golek some kueh ee. A year went by just like this and we have all become a year older, and hopefully wiser. As the holiday season arrives, mood relaxes as one winds down for a period of festivities and celebrations, as it is just a couple more days to Christmas and shortly after, the New Year. Like what was mentioned during last year’s Tang Chek, the coming of Winter Solstice marks the beginning of the spring cleaning and preparatory work that leads up to the Lunar New Year. So its time to get busy as well!
As I’d mentioned on several occasions on this blog, Penang Peranakan cuisine differs quite significantly from their southern counterparts in Malacca and Singapore. The babas and nyonyas from the island state near the northern end of the peninsula has their own menu of dishes which are unique to their own culture. Perut Ikan, Inche Kabin, Jiu Hu Char and Kari Kapitan are just some examples. The art of kerabu making, inherited from Thai cuisine plays a significant part of the culinary repertoire of the Penang Peranakans. Kerabu Kacang Botol, Kerabu Hai Tay, Kerabu Bok Hnee are amongst my favorites. They are refreshing sides which can be served along with more hearty dishes, or good with just some ikan goreng and sambal belacan as part a simple meal. Speaking of simple meals, there is even Kerabu Beehoon which is perfect as one-dish meal on its own!
Kari Ayam is a familiar favorite to most of us here at home. Different communities have their own versions, be it the Malays, Indians, Peranakans, Eurasians or the Chinese. Even within each ethnic group, one could easily find a plethora of variations to the which this dish is being prepared, differing by the concoction of spices or other ingredients used, and sometimes even with the process which the curry is being cooked. I remember reading someone exclaim that the number of ways we know of today to cook curry is as plentiful as the stars in the sky. Well, that is a lovely literary exaggeration if you ask me, but that said the piquant flavours which this dish is beautifully imbued with is by no means any less stellar.
Apom Berkuah is one of my favorite kuehs and I try to make it whenever time avails. Despite being a Peranakan signature “cuchi mulot“, I believe that it has its roots in Indonesian cuisine where it is known by another name Kue Serabi, and variations likening surabi or srabi. Even amongst Peranakan communities in Singapore, Malacca and Penang, the pronunciation also differ slightly from Apom Berkuah, to Apom Bokwa and Apom Bengkua. To the Malays from Kedah, Malacca and Sabah, it is called “Kuih Serabai“，with a slightly phonological shift in the terminal syllable, where it transits to become a diphthong in place of the short monophthongal vowel, a linguistic nuance we commonly observe across many Bahasa Melayu to Baba Patois lexicographical pairs. The word “Apom” which was derived from “appam“, a south Indian pancake popular in Kerala and Tamilnadu, is sometimes spelt as “apong” instead. Despite the numerous names, one thing remains the same for this kueh, and that is how delicious they are! So let’s see how we make them!
Like Kangkong Masak Lemak, Pong Tauhu and Ikan Pari Kuah Lada, there are many Peranakan dishes do not require time-consuming or laborious preparation. Neither are they fiendishly difficult to prepare as some had claimed them to be. One such dish is Ayam Tempra. What is essentially chicken cooked in a sweet and sour sauce, there is a hint of heat in Ayam Tempra as well from the red chilies used which very subtly they lend their flavours to this dish.
Peranakan cooking is often thought to be complicated, elaborated, time-consuming and difficult to learn. Well, this is what many people think and some, expound or expect others to think. Yes there are indeed dishes in straits chinese cooking that have long ingredient lists and/or require more time to prepare and cook than others. But that is also true for most other cuisines which I know of. So the concept of the cuisine being “complex” and troublesome is to me much of a fallacy, perhaps used to instill some sense of apprehension or anxiety to newbies and the unwary, those who are approaching it for the first time. But this is often what I hear others describe Peranakan cooking to be. Sadly so, because in order to lead one to better appreciate the cuisine and hence the colourful culture underlying it, the last thing one wishes to hear is how intimidating and unapproachable it is. How should one embrace something which is so unachievable and intangible? So that the preparation of Peranakan dishes be left only to the exclusive who have inherited their ways of making from the grandmothers and bibiks of the faded past? It is a perpetuated thought by some that only through so, would the dishes remain “authentic”? Well， I choose to think otherwise…
There are a lot of simple dishes in Peranakan cooking, many which require much less time and effort to prepare than what had been described as being atrociously difficult. These would include dishes like kangkong masak lemak, ikan tempra, pong tauhu, udang masak nenas etc. Many of these simple dishes are cooked on a daily basis, and not just for the much-revered Tok Panjang. Afterall, how often does one hosts or attend a Tok Panjang at home? But surely one’s gotta eat everyday yeah? In fact, the ability to cook with ease, a table of dishes what may impress upon others to be difficult and painstakingly prepared, is what many would hope for. Minimal efforts to reap maximal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Now that, is a true blue bibik’s secret if you ask me…
Breadfruit is one of those things which I have been curious about for the longest time. It grows in the tropics but yet remains highly elusive in Singapore. For one, no one sells it in the markets, so it really takes quite a bit of looking around to find a tree. Yes there are a few trees around on our island but they remain in the “rare” category. I have encountered two trees so far, one near my place and other near a friend’s place in the east. Despite its wide distribution range from the Polynesian and Oceania Islands all the way to Kerala on the southern end of continental India, breadfruit doesn’t seem to have been widely incorporated into local cuisines very much. It remains much in the “exotic” category, far from being a staple for most. So it got me very curious as to what it tastes like, how it should be prepared and what it could be used to cook.
I practically grew up eating laksa lemak, amidst other local delights and I’m quite sure there are well many others like me. The laksa which I remembered first eating was not any of those “branded” names along Katong . In fact, I had my first “Katong laksa” when I was much older in my 20s, and it is not even at Katong but the now defunct Jackson Kopitiam in Macpherson area. The very first bowl of laksa I had when I was really young was from an unassuming looking neighbourhood stall near my old place. This was way before the times when people were aware of Hepatitis B and way before it became fashionable to buy coconut milk in terapaks off supermarket shelves. In other words, it was the time when cockles were really large, fresh and bloody, and one could almost be certain that fresh coconut milk was used to ensure all the “lemak” awesomeness! This is the type of laksa which I grew up eating. How about you?
Kueh Bingka Ubi Kayu seems to be a favorite amongst many of my friends and family. Even my neighbour bakes it and we’d been exchanging our kueh bingka ubi kayu amongst other kuehs! Yes I’d blogged a recipe from Rohani Jelani just last year and it worked really well. After some discussion with fellow baking kakis and friends, I’d modified the recipe and settled with something which I think works really well. For my most recent kueh bingka ubi kayu, I’d used Thermomix to aid in the process and it most certainly helped to save lots of time and elbow grease. Thus in addition to the conventional recipe, I’d also included on specially for Thermomix users. Hopefully this would inspire me to develop more recipes with this convenient kitchen tool in future.
After my night account to the Intan in January, I had the privilege of visiting this private museum again twice over the last two months under the kind invitation of its owner, Baba Alvin Yapp. I had the chance to experience the guided tours led by Alvin and even interact and share with some of the tour participants what little I know about the Peranakan culture. So it was quite an experience for me on many accounts!
Peranakan culture is often described as a colourful culture. From the juxtaposition of vibrant hues and motifs that adorn the ravishingly beautiful kebayas and kasot manek, to the amalgamation of flavours and aromas from various ethnicities present in the plenitude of dishes both savory and sweet which defines what we know of today as Peranakan cuisine, the Baba-Nyonya heritage has often astound and impress upon many as one which is lavishly extravagant and vivaciously decorated. And speaking of being decorated, one cannot help but be in awe of the exemplary levels of intricacy and craftsmanship found in Peranakan jewellery, especially amongst old antique pieces. From the sanggols (hair pins) to the gelang kakis (anklets), Peranakan ladies in the past, be it the young nyonyas to more matured bibiks were often found “embellished” from head to toe quite literally. Yet so little of it has been documented in printed literature. As such, Nyonya Lilian Tong’s “Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery” is timely, in quenching a thirst long endured since the last publication written on this important aspect of Peranakan material culture. And for those who are unfamiliar with the genre of Straits Chinese jewellery be it in style or form , this book must surely be an eye-opener as well!
About a month back, I had the pleasure of visiting The Intan, a privately owned Peranakan themed museum located in the heart of Joo Chiat, one of the enclaves of Nyonya-Baba culture and heritage in Singapore. It was my second visit to the Intan, the first being a collectors’ sale organised more than 2 years back. The visit was held in conjunction with the release of this year’s Lunar New Year angbaos by the National Heritage Board (NHB). What made the visit special was the fact that it was held at night. Not your regular run-in-the-mill visits to a museum I’m sure. But the dim light conditions did pose a “challenge” to photography. After all the hustling and bustling in the kitchen during the Chinese New Year period with all the cooking and baking to be done, I finally had time to sit down and sort out the photos and write a bit about the visit. So here’s a small collation of some shots I took. Enjoy!
Making Malay and Nyonya kueh is a really colourful game of mix and match. Using a standard list of ingredients, one could come up with a large variety of these sweet delectable snacks and desserts which are so immensely popular and enjoyed by many. For example, gula melaka is commonly used in traditional Malay, Indonesian and Peranakan desserts and its employment into these snacks is literally endless. If it is chopped finely and used as a filling with a dough made with sweet potatoes and glutinous rice flour, it becomes ondeh ondeh as it is known in Singapore and Malaysia or Klepon in Indonesia, but when it is wrapped and steamed in a rice flour batter and banana leaves, it becomes Kueh Bongkong. Another steamed variation with barely reconstituted rice flour which remains grainy gives us Putu Piring. If the gula melaka is cooked with freshly grated coconut, it becomes the filling for Pulut Inti if steamed glutinous rice is used, and Kueh Kochi if it is wrapped into a glutinous rice flour dough over banana leaves. It becomes a variation of ondeh ondeh which some folks call Buah Melaka if the glutinous rice dough is rolled into balls and cooked over boiling water instead of being wrapped and steamed with banana leaves as with Kueh Kochi. Finally it becomes Kueh Dadar or Kuih Ketayap if the grated coconut and gula melaka filling is wrapped with a thin pancake into a roll instead. All variations of the same theme. This reminds me of the paper dolls which my sister and cousins used to play when we were all young, with “switchable” dresses, hats and whatnots latched over a generic paper mannequin. And this is pretty much the same for Putugal, a lesser known kueh shared between the Peranakan and Eurasian/Kristang heritage in Singapore and Malaysia.