Nasi Ulam, or pronounced as “nasik ulam” in Baba Malay is a classic Peranakan dish which has its roots in Southeast Asian cooking. Comprising of essentially a variety of chiffonaded herbs tossed in steamed fragrant rice, it is painstaking to prepare and thus usually served on “ari besair” during weddings, birthdays or other celebratory events.
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.