Yesterday was Cheng Beng, traditionally a day when prayers would be made to our ancestors. Some folks would take the opportunity to visit and pay their respects at the graves of those who have passed on, a custom which is known as “teh chuah“. Those who “piara abu” i.e. house ancestral tablets at home may also prepare offerings of food and welcome their “nenek moyang” for a feast. And that was what I did. Traditionally, chap chye is one of the staple dishes prepared in our home for ancestral worship but this year I’d decided to go for something similar yet different, and cooked Jiu Hu Char instead.
煮炒 “tze char“ is a very common culinary concept in this part of Asia. Analogous to the makeshift stir fry and noodle stalls in Bangkok and 大排档 Dai Pai Tung in Hong Kong, the term “tze char” is a kind of street food culture unique to Singapore and Malaysia. In Singapore, the popularity of “tze char” rose gradually after the post-war years and thrived all the way up to the 1980s when these pushcart stalls could be seen in practically most living quarters as well as areas known for night entertainment like amusement parks and cinemas. With the popularising of “HDBs”, these makeshift “tze char” stall owners abandoned their practice to deck out foldable formica-plastered tables and wooden chairs for al fresco dining every evening, and of course the need to brave through bad weather, pit their wits and avoid harassment from the “teh gu” 地牛, a colloquial term for government officers in charge of raiding illegal street hawkers, not to mention the collection of “protection money” from triads who were “in charged” of the “turfs” the stalls were located in. They made their way into the heartlands, and became “anchor tenants” of kopitiams while some of their names grew so big, like 肥仔荣 Fatty Weng and 香港珍记 Hong Kong Chun Kee that they were able to own the entire coffeeshops for themselves, while others went on to open their own restaurants. Depending on the culinary background of the 总铺 chong po or head cooks, one could order a wide range of dishes representative of different dialectal communities from these “tze char” stalls, from the more standard dishes like pai guat wong 排骨王, frog legs with ginger and scallion stir-fry 姜葱田鸡腿, braised fish head 红烧鱼头 for communal family dinner eat-outs, or opt for takeaways of one-dish meals like mui fun 烩饭, yuet kwong hor 月光河, fried rice vermicelli “Singapore style” 新州炒米, and of course my favorite 煮炒福建面 Tze Char Hokkien Mee.
Homecooked lunches are usually kept very simple and fast, often with whatever ingredients there are in the kitchen. For today’s lunch, I’d basically prepared a simple Chinese fried noodles using the leftover ingredients I had from yesterday’s Peking Duck Pizza. It was super fast, all done within 20 min or so, minus the time I had to rush out to get another packet of noodles. Thank goodness I’d discovered that this during the mise en place and not when the ingredients are already in the wok. So here’s a super easy, super fast Chinese fried noodles. Always a lifesaver for a quick meal.
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.
Since young, we learnt to eat simply. Not only were the dishes whipped up in our kitchen simple, but more importantly, we are taught to be contented with whatever is provided on the dining table. Thankfully, mom and grandma were both excellent cooks, able to conjure up a range of yummy food with the simplest of all ingredients. Eggs, the cheapest source of protein are a common sight for our meals but despite being so common, the dishes were never boring. From an assortment of omelettes to sunny side up soups, my mom knew exactly what makes us happy and our tummies filled. Sometimes our dinners were just a simple one-rice cooker or one wok meals, simplified versions of claypot rice, cabbage rice and even chicken rice all done within the comforts of one pot. One wok meals were also something worth looking forward too, first sending aromatic wafts from char kway teow, mee goreng, SPAM fried rice from the kitchen that permeated our small flat, whetting our appetites as we rushed to finish our homework, before tickling our palates. One particular one-wok dish stands out being most memorable, so simple to cook yet so immensely gratifying, and that is Mom’s 猪脚罐头炒米粉 Canned Braised Pig Trotters Bee Hoon.
Peranakan cooking is a classic example of an amalgamation of the culinary cultures from many ethnic groups who have lived closely together in this region for hundreds of years. It likens a ”Creole Cuisine“ of the East, blending together influences from Malay, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian and Thai cooking all into a unique genre which we know today as “Straits Chinese cuisine”. Out of these influences came a myriad of dishes which have now become signatures of Straits Chinese cooking, whose names run analogous to the cuisine now. Ayam Masak Buah Keluak, Itek Tim, Babi Pongteh and Ikan Gerang Asam are some of the more iconic ones. Like many other Peranakan dishes, he Hee Pio soup has its origins in traditional Chinese cooking, particularly those from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. For many lovers of the cuisine, Hee Pio Soup is a simply must-have on the dining tables at family dinners, important gatherings, wedding celebrations and other joyous occasions where the “Tok Panjang” was served. While the concept of Tok Panjang has kind of waned and disappeared from the modern lifestyles of most Peranakan households, Hee Pio soup still makes its customary appearance whenever folks get together just to dine together in the company of one another.
上海生煎包 Shanghai Sheng Jian Bao Shanghainese Pan Fried Steamed Buns is a local snack that originated from Shanghai in the 1920s. The novel way of pan frying the mildly proofed buns before steaming them directly in the same flat pan over a stove became extremely popular as a street food and remains so in Shanghai today, alongside 小笼汤包 Xiao Long Steamed Dumplings and other delectables in Shanghainese cuisine also known as 沪菜 or 本帮菜. Cuisines from other places in China like the neighbouring Zhejiang (浙菜), stretching northwards to Shandong (鲁菜), or southwards to Guangdong and Hong Kong （粤菜） also have very similar versions, where these buns may also also known as 水煎包 Shui Jian Bao. The culture of eating these Pan Fried Steamed Buns spread to Taiwan during the mass exodus of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT army from China to the island state in the late 1940s. A large portion of Chiang’s troops are from the Yangtze region, especially those from his hometown, 奉化 Fenghua in the Zhejiang Province 浙江省. These soldiers, together with those from Shandong, Szechuan and even Yunnan, forms up a large part of Taiwan’s migration population in the last century to become what the locals grew to call 外省人 Wai Sheng Ren. The influx of these soldiers and their families from Mainland China greatly diversified the social habits and culinary cultures in Taiwan. Many of these dishes brought along and introduced by these migrants became so deeply rooted, that they are now enjoyed by the tourists, as well as the Taiwanese, be it the locals 本省人 Ben Sheng Ren, or the 外省人 alike. 上海生煎包/水煎包 is one of those popular snacks.
Straits Chinese cuisine is a conglomeration of many other culinary disciplines, bringing together elements from traditional Malay, Chinese, Indian and even Thai cooking to create the eclectic spread of visually stunning and mouth-watering dishes, both sweet and savory, which bear testimony to the glorious cultural heritage and lavishly colourful lifestyles the Babas and Nyonyas of the yesteryears were so well-known for. Many Peranakan dishes are characterised by their rich and robust flavours, be it the tingling sourish hues from asam-based dishes, to the fiery heat from sambal belacan-inspired creations, or the collagen-packed soups. This is usually perpetuated through the liberal use of spices, herbs, condiments and seasoning, all aimed at pushing the limits of one’s palate sensations and experience. Once in a while, we come across a dish seemingly more “subtle” when compared to the others amongst its ranks. A pearl in tranquil elegance amongst the bedazzling glittering of the other gems. Jiu Hu Char must surely be one such dish.
In the past when my maternal grandma was still around, there were some dishes that made rather frequent appearances on the dinner table during family gatherings and Chinese New Year meals. Ngoh Hiang (Chinese five-spice pork and prawn rolls) is an absolute must, and preparation usually started days before, given the number of dishes she has to whip up on the event itself. My grandma modified the conventional style of making ngoh hiang and made them rather petite, each about 2 inches in length, almost bitesize to be gobbled up in quick sucessions. I remember how my cousins and I would sneak into the kitchen as the unmistakable aroma of ngoh hiang frying permeated the house, to grab a piece or two when they were freshly out of the oil wok, even if it meant to risk scalding our tongue and palate, and a probable spanking and tongue lashing from our mothers who were helping out with the feast, for being “ill-mannered” as our misbehaviour were referenced with beggars’!
Then there was always a gigantic pot of kari ayam, quintessential to all meals at my grandma’s. It was very very lemak, just the way I love it, and full of kentang which were two of my cousins’ favorites! Together with it was a large rice-cooker which was never empty, an assuring sign that there is always food in the house no matter what time whomever visited. Finally of course, there is an equally large pot of chap chye, cooked the day before to allow the flavours to fully develop overnight. There would be other dishes on the table of course, like Udang Masak Kicap, Tau Yew Bak (braised pork belly in rich soya sauce), or Hee Peow Tng (fish maw soup) on the stove but the trinity of Ngoh Hiang, Kari Ayam and Chap Chye was always there with their unfailing presence. Though the spread was simple, it was the very essence of traditional home-style cooking which kept everyone well fueled and watered, which in turn kept my grandma happy, knowing that her dishes are thoroughly enjoyed by her children and grandchildren!
Dinner time and we found ourselves back along shinsaibashi suji 心齋橋筋. Not wanting to travel far out, after a long and tiring day at Osaka Castle and Umeda, Dotonbori seemed like the best option, and 鶴橋風月 大阪焼 Fugetsu Okonomiyaki located just next to Dotonbori-bashi was ideal. It’s authentic and its piping hot for the freezing cold weather!
Cute pinky piggy on the menu whom i’d affectionately called “buta-san”.