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!
Sambal Jantong Pisang is an interesting dish, and one which is uniquely Peranakan. I love it for its kerabu-like freshness and crunchy textures, intermingled with the richness and spiciness of the coconut milk dressing. It used to be commonly served as a dish on the Tok Panjang banquet on traditional weddings, for its tedious making process seems most befitting of the grandeur and scale of this solemn once-in-a-lifetime event. More importantly as I was told by an old Baba, the dish is particularly meaningful for the occasion as bananas are symbolic for one to be bountiful blessed with many children, the wish for the newly weds to bear so, hopefully as many as the elongated flowers one would find in each unopened banana bud, layer after layer, generation after generation.
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!
It had been a long and eventful month for MFF Penang and it is with mixed feelings that it has finally come to an end. The few weeks prior to June was particularly gruelling, having no clue on what to cook and what to present. Like the other MFF events, whipping up dishes for Penang MFF provided an opportunity for me to get to know more, not only about the food in Penang but also the people behind them.
A big thank you to one and all who has taken the time to come up with these delectable dishes. Many of you like Cynthia, Amie, Lena, Phong Hong, Cindy, Doreen, Mary … etc shown great support by whipping up multiple dishes. The event also drew the attention of several Penangites who had expressed interest or shown concern over the authenticity of the dishes prepared. Well, the objective of MFF is to promote the awareness of some of these localised dishes, some of which are already dying in the trade as we speak. While staying true to the originality of the actual dish is important, it is not of utmost priority… at least not for me. What was more important, is the effort put in and willingness to try, despite the need to venturing into unfamiliar and undulating terrain to prepare dishes which one has never tried before, both in cooking and in eating. So kudos to you all! Now you can really say that you’d been there and done that!
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.
This month’s Malaysian Food Fest brings us to Penang! To date, MFF has brought us on a virtual culinary tour to almost all the states in Malaysia. As we come almost to an end of this long journey, it is time for us to pay a long due visit to this beautiful island found on the northern tip of the Straits of Malacca.
“Modern” history of Penang stretches back almost half a millenium ago when it was part of the Kedah Sultanate that was ruled by the Siamese overlords who named the island Koh Maak to mean “Areca nut palm Island” in Thai. Admiral 郑和 Cheng Ho from the Ming Dynasty then pinned this place as 槟榔屿 on his maps, the Chinese equivalent of its Thai name, when his entourage passed through the Malay Peninsula as they set sail for the west. This formed the basis of its name in Malay “Pulau Pinang” which was later anglicised to become “Penang” as we know it today.
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.