The “summer heat” in Singapore on most days these few weeks have reached the point of being unbearable. Save for the last few rainy nights which lent to breezy mornings and cloudy days, the rest of the time is basically hot hot hot! This kinda weather calls for something spicy and provocative to work up one’s appetite. Chanced upon some beautiful pucuk paku pakis on my most recent trip to the wet market and it is time to whip up a quick kerabu which is perfect for a homecooked meal!
When we were young, we met up a lot with our other relatives at my grandparents’ place. My parents moved out after they got married but always made it a point to go back and visit whenever we could. It was the same with our uncles and aunts who had moved out. Gatherings were a noisy, but also joyous affair, playing with cousins and also neighbours’ children whom we all grew up with. Apart from the regular weekend visits, what was particularly worth looking forward to were the “important days”. Usually it was the numerous marked Chinese-related festivals and celebrations, from Chinese New Year, and Chap Goh Meh at the beginning of the lunar calendar year, through Cheng Beng and dumpling festival right up to “bulan tujoh“, mooncake festival and finally Tang Chek. Apart from my own grandparents’ birthday celebrations, there were the birthdays of deities and of course the “ari see kee”, i.e. death anniversaries of our ancestors. Most of these “ari besair” were marked with an elaborated prayer session in the late morning or early afternoon and of course a pig out session that followed, enjoying the laok semayang that were prepared to honour the gods or ancestors first before being devoured by us. Many of the dishes were eaten as it is, but some were “transformed” into other delectables, and sambal timun was one of them.
Weather has been really cranky of late and many around me seems to be down with something. I was suppose to show my “moral support” for a friend Catherine whose hubby and kiddos had fallen sick by cooking porridge for yesterday’s meals but as I was at a local supermarket getting some ”porridge supplies” like century egg, the uber fresh stingray steak at the seafood section was calling out at me!!! I knew I had to bring them home and seems like fate has it that I should have some bunga kantan and daun kesum bought just over the weekend, still hibernating in the fridge. Ikan Pari Asam Pedas it seems destined to be!
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!
I’m usually not a big fan of fusion food. Call me archaic but I prefer to keep the flavours of the dishes I prepare “clean” and true to their roots and origins. French is kept as French as possible while Chinese remains distinctively Chinese. Save for a few exceptions in pastry making, crossovers ain’t exactly my thing. That said, the devil’s advocate in me would sprout the occasional what ifs, curious what the dish would be like when it is totally taken out of context or juxtapose with another cooking genre. And of late, these previously occasional episodes of what ifs are beginning to haunt me more frequently.
Kerabu making is part and parcel of Penang Peranakan cooking, owing much to the influence from Thai cooking. I love love love Kerabu Kacang Botol for the crunch which the winged beans have, on top of the freshness they render without any hint of the harsh rawness which some vegetables have. It is for the same reasons that I like Kerabu Bok Hnee as well! 木耳 Bok Hnee is the Hokkien anglicisation of “cloud ear fungus“, to literally mean “wooden ear” owing much to its appearance. It is a very common ingredient used in Chinese cooking and typically comes in two forms. The “white” form 白木耳 which is actually more translucent is softer and has an almost jelly-like consistency, thus making it very suitable for desserts. The “black” form 黑木耳 is more resilient to cooking and thus lends textural contrast to accompany vegetables dishes like Nyonya Chap Chye where the rest of the vegetables are cooked until very soft.
I bought quite a number of packets of these coral seaweed last year at a food fair. Touted as “sea bird’s nest“, these wobbly translucent branches immediately caught the attention of many
housewives aunties ladies, thanks to the high content of carrageenan, which has textural properties likening collagen. Well, truth be told, it isn’t the real deal as collagen is found only in animals, specifically vertebrates. But its pretty yummy and I’m sure being a seaweed, it has many beneficial qualities as well!
We cook asam fish all the time at home. In fact, whenever the belimbing trees are laden with fruits, those few days are asam fish days. For us at home, Ikan Gerang Asam is the default way of cooking asam fish. But of course there are geographical variations to how asam fish is cooked. Ikan Gerang Asam, the Melakan peranakan of preparation depends heavily on the use of daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves) amidst other fresh ingredients like lengkwas (galangal ginger) to work up the aromatics! And that most certainly helped to work up an appetite! When I was preparing Laksa Belut Perlis, the famous eel laksa from the most northern Malaysian state in the Peninsula, all the rempah (blended ingredients) were basically boiled together with the broth base without any sautéing. But yet, it was still very delicious. And this month’s MFF brings me down all the way to the far south, to the bordering state of Johor for Ikan Pari Asam Pedas.
October brings us to the 3rd month of the Malaysian Food Fest and this month, we visit Terengganu! I’d never been the the eastern coast of Peninsula Malaysia, i.e. Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan but I do know that the eastern coastal line is famous for its white sandy beaches with swaying coconut trees against the clear blue skies and idyllic sea. Pulau Redang and Pulau Perhentian are famous snorkelling and scuba-diving spots comparable to Manado and the aussie reefs! Where there’s sea, there’ll be lots of seafood and Terengganu cuisine is characterised by the liberal use of it! Laksam Terengganu is a recipe which had me very curious for quite some time already when I started reading up on the signature dishes of the various Malaysian states for MFF. It is intriguing in many respects, firstly the use of a homemade rice-based noodle which reminded me much of the cantonese chee cheong fun and a gravy thickened with fish meat! I knew instinctively that this has to be on my no. 1 to-try list for Terengganu. So here I go!
Alas the trip to Melaka was only a 2-day-1-night affair. With such a short time to make do with, I had to make the best out of it! Melaka, like Penang and Singapore are strongholds along the Straits of Malacca and thus custodians of the Peranakan culture. Melaka, having a longer developing history and slightly more leisurely set pace of life possibly mean that Straits Chinese heritage is much better preserved over there than here in Singapore, making it the ideal place to immerse oneself in the nyonya baba culture. And what better way to start with than food!
Geylang Serai is a place that reminds me much of my childhood. Apart from the Orchard Road shopping belt, the stretch around City Plaza and Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre was one of the earliest built-up shopping areas in the eastern part of Singapore, more affectionately known as “Yokoso” in the past. It is also the major stronghold for the Malay community in Singapore, likening Chinatown and Little India to the Chinese and Indians respectively. Long before Geylang Serai became the infamous weekend rendevous spot for Pinoy domestic helpers and their Bangladeshi boyfriends, this place was the hub of the Malay culture and heritage in Singapore. Apart from visits during the month-long pasar malams (night markets) during the pre-Hari Raya Ramadan (fasting) period to soak in the festivities, my mother, together with her sisters visited this place frequently throughout the year to shop and makan(feast), since Orchard Road was often deemed as being too “atas” (haute couture) and out-of-place for heartlanders like us. My cousins and I would simply tag along, usually an ice-cream or a paper cone of kachang putih at hand. So “Yokoso” became the port-of-call de facto for all our shopping needs, from fabrics for making curtains and cushion covers from Joo Chiat Complex, to clothes from “2nd Chance” at Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre and not forgetting shoes and Casio watches from shops at City Plaza. And no trip to Geylang Serai is complete without a visit to its wet market and food centre, where one can sample the essence of Malay as well as Indian Muslim culinary delights, from an assortment of kuih-muihs (sweet pastries) and light snacks, to more robust Sup Kambing and Tulang Merah. The wet market section was also fantastic, where one could find a wide variety of fresh ingredients from the usual produce of fruit, fish and meat, to the more exotic, like to garner a whole entourage of herbs for Nasi Ulam.
Truth be told, I haven’t been there for eons, despite passing by the area ever so frequently. I often wonder how the place is like now, or if my favorite Indian Rojak stall was still in business. But I’d never really felt compelled to go in. Strange I know, don’t ask me why. Alas as fate has a funny way of coming around, my ventures into Peranakan cooking has brought me back here again, to buy buah keluak, or source for the freshest petai beans still in their pods. And thus when I have a craving and was looking for ingredients to make Sambal Jantung Pisang, I knew the perfect place to start hunting.