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.
The blog’s moving really slowly these days. In fact, I’d not blogged about anything for almost 2 weeks. Been kinda busy lately with quite a couple of things. First is of course to help Vonne and her family with their major move from Singapore to UK. That spanned over quite a number of days and it has been massive on many accounts. First is the number of things we’d needed to pack, which took us quite a while. Wouldn’t have been possible without the help of her good friends Linda and Cecilia. It is really through times when we are in need, that we see true friends indeed. Couldn’t have said it better. Then there is of course the emotional dimension of it. The initial stages were overwhelming with stress and anxiety if we could finish packing in time before the movers came and if there was enough cargo space to fit everything. And when everything’s finally loaded up onto the trucks, the feeling of the inevitable parting begins to hit hard. As the day draws nearer to the eventual departure, the sense of loss sets in. In fact, she and her family are leaving for UK today. I won’t be sending them off, for the sadness would have been too overwhelming. I’m not good at holding back emotions, and emotions it would seem too painful to bear. Its better off that way. But I’m going to miss Vonne and her family so much. Her lovely children Emily, Jasmine, James, Anabel and of course cute and chubby little Daniel. I pray that she and DQ would be blessed with a fresh start in UK. It would indeed be challenging for both of them. But there is also a promise of new opportunities and possibly new adventures for both of them and their family. It is not goodbye forever of course as we would definitely still be in touch. We’ll see her when we see her.
I don’t know about you guys, but from where I live, no one could resist a good rendang. Thick slabs of meat which had been stewed in a rich and spicy coconut-based sauce over a prolonged period of time is simply to die for. Rendang is the pride and joy of Indonesian cuisine from the Minangkabau people in Sumatra but owing to trade routes and migration patterns, it spread to other parts of Asia, most notably Malaysia and Singapore where it is widely enjoyed and savoured. It has become much of a staple in Malay cuisine, served at festivity gatherings and wedding feasts. Just like many dishes from Malay cuisine, rendang has also found its way onto the dining tables of the Peranakan community. Ask any Baba if rendang is part of the standard laok embok embok, or what is commonly known as Peranakan cuisine, and one would immediately be met with a deep frown as if one has suggested the unthinkable. But ask further if he and his family enjoys rendang and cook it often, that stern look would quickly mellow and dissolve into a sheepish smile. The ingredient of choice for rendang is beef, which is stewed over hours at length until the meat becomes so tender that its fibres could easily be pulled apart with the slightly nudge with the fork. Otherwise, mutton is also good or in this case, chicken! And that is precisely what I cooked this time, Rendang Ayam!
This month’s Malaysia Food Fest brings us to Johor, the nearest Malaysian state to us. Despite being just across the Causeway and so frequently packed with Singaporeans especially over the weekends, I must admit that I know very little about the true blue Johorean fare. Well, there are some really popular local delights, like otak otak from Muah, Ogura Cake from Batu Pahat, Fishballs from Yong Peng, Railway bread from Kluang and durians from Segamat. Wait, the last one doesn’t count! LOL
I begin this month’s exploration with Ayam Masak Merah, a purportedly popular dish throughout the Peninsula (judging by the number of times this dish has actually being cooked and blogged) which has its roots from the southern state. Not quite a fan of tomato ketchup, I was rather curious about how it would taste when I saw it being featured in Wendyinkk’s blog last August. The combination of a simple rempah, together with coconut milk and a generous dousing of tomato ketchup… very curious indeed.
Babi Ayam Pongteh is very old-school cooking from the Peranakan home. It usually manifests as the pork, or the chicken version and never quite the both of them together. But then, their flavours compliment each other very well. If pork bones and an old hen are the quintessential ingredients to good stock making in Chinese cuisine, I don’t see why it cannot be extended to this dish as well!
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!
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!
Ask for recommendations to local delights from Singapore and surely a couple of familiar names would pop up! Chilli Crab, Katong Laksa, Rojak, Bak Kut Teh and of course Hainanese Chicken Rice comes immediately to mind! Despite its name, Hainanese Chicken Rice actually has its roots in Singapore. Well, others may fervently swear by Malaysia as the point of origin but we ain’t gonna bicker about that because it would be utterly pointless and no one really cares! And could someone please drill that notion into Ng Yen Yen? Anyway, one thing we know for sure is, Hainanese Chicken Rice did not come from Hainan Island! Well, there is a version there callede 文昌鸡 Wen Chang Chicken, which bears a remote resemblance to what we are accustomed to seeing and eating over here. This is just one of the very many food-naming idiosyncrasies, much like how 星洲炒米粉 Singapore-styled Fried Bee Hoon (rice vermicelli), a very popular 大排档 roadside hawker dish in Hong Kong, characterised by the liberal use of curry powder, is quite virtually non-existential here in the city state!
We used to have an eathern stove at home when I was young, fueled by charcoal that could be kept warm for hours, as the hardened chunks of ebony slowly wasted away to become a crumbly ivory, until all that’s left was a disintegrated heap of cinder and ash. But using it could be quite a hassle to use, especially to kickstart the burning. But me ain’t no boy scout, so it was usually my father who “did the honours” to get the fire started. Once started, it served for a myriad of purposes, i.e. toasting belachan (fermentted shrimp paste) to make sambal, maintaining a large pot of broth for steamboat refills, or simply transferring out the charcoal pieces from that stove into a longish rectangular metal trough which was used to prepare kueh belandah (nyonya egg rolls) for chinese new year . In fact, steamboats in the past where fueled by charcoal which were “preheated” using the earthern stove as well! While some of the uses of an earthen stove were somewhat ritualistic, others remained very practical, and for me, the most practical and personal favorite “use” of the earthern stove has to be cooking 煲仔鸡饭 Cantonese Claypot Chicken Rice!
Having made a rustic bread like the focaccia, I needed a stew to go along with it. A simple italian fare like Pollo alla Cacciatora couldn’t have been a more apt choice.