Literature and publications on the Peranakan community are far and few in between, so when a new book on this unique group to the Malay Archipelago becomes available, it is always met with much excitement and anticipation, and the new “Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum – Home of a Peranakan Family since 1861” is no exception . Fresh and hot from the publishers just a couple of weeks back, many of us await gleefully for a glimpse and surely, it did not disappoint.
In conjunction with the ongoing festivities and jubilation to celebrate our 50 years of nation building, Concorde Hotel Singapore located right in the heart of the Orchard Road shopping belt has specially chosen and recreated a selection of Peranakan dishes as part of the spread for the buffet available at their Spices Cafe. Two weeks ago, the hotel specially invited Baba Jolly Wee, together with some of his family members and close friends, for a luncheon organised as a tribute and appreciation for putting together some of the Peranakan staples on the menu and coaching the chefs who helm the kitchen at the Spices Cafe during his stint as their culinary consultant. Baba Jolly, a doyen of Straits Chinese cuisine in Singapore who is now well into his eighties, is held in great esteem and highly regarded here for his work on promoting baba-nonya culinary culture to fellow Singaporeans, as well as the rest of the world.
Peranakan desserts and snacks are such a large and colourful collection of delectables that they warrant special attention on their own. Being a unique group with members from such different backgrounds and rich heritage, the sweet and savory treats which signify the Peranakan community are exemplary of this wonderful diversity. Look closely, and one would be able to identify easily the cultural elements from the origins of forebears where the Peranakan roots developed from. Just to name a few, we have Kueh Koo Merah and Popiah from the Chinese, Rempah Udang, Pulot Inti with Malay-Indonesian influences, Pang Susi and Kueh Blanda with Portuguese-Dutch origins and of course Roti Babi from the proximal colonial links, and these are only a teeny tip of the iceberg of the repertoire affectionately known as “Kueh Chuchi Mulot” to the babas and nyonyas.
Many of these kuehs apart from tasting really good, are symbolic with their cultural significance tightly woven into the customs and practices of the Peranakan tapestry of life in the yesteryears. Some are prepared specially for specific occasions, like kueh bakol for the Chinese New Year, and were enshrouded with much mysticism through a relay of “patangs” (taboos) which had to be observed to strict accordance for guaranteed success in their making. Some like kueh koo itam were made almost exclusively for ancestral worship and serving them during other joyous or celebratory events would only invite “koosmangat!” from the nyonyas with their overtly animated and dramatised “terpranjat” look, not forgetting a string of gossips that would soon follow and before long the extended family or even the whole community would know who “kentot“. Many of these kuehs, like kueh koo, kueh sarlat (gading galoh), kueh lapis beras (kueh genggang) are “colour coded”, so it mattered to many Peranakans “what” to serve “when”, to “whom” and in “which colour”. Like many of the earlier mentioned kuehs with specific “functions”, apom balek is no exception.
Bubur Cha Cha or “Bubor Cha Cheir” as it is known to some Peranakans, is a dessert soup which comes close to heart for my family. My mum loved it immensely and made it often enough for us to develop a liking for it as well since young. It is a chuchi mulot which she would exercise her creativity in the ingredients to be added depending on the amount of time she had at hand and of course what we loved to eat. Kept minimalistic, it would simply be just a sweet coconut milk broth base with diced kledek (sweet potato) and keladi (taro) cooked in it. More elaborated, an assortment of other “accessories” like bijik sagu kechik (small sago pearls), and legumes like kacang merah (red beans), kacang ijo (green beans) or kacang mata itam (black-eyed peas) can be cooked separated and added. Our favorite condiment must surely be sagu gunting, chewy morsels made from either sago flour or tapioca flour that look like gems sparkling in a pool of ingredients coated with a riot of psychedelic colours. Sometimes fruits will be added, mostly pisang (bananas), occasionally nangka (jackfruit) or even cempedak, and of course whenever it is in season, durian!
“What is a chuchi mulot?” , a common question I get from friends who see me use the phrase over and over again on Facebook, especially recently with all the desserts like “Sago Gula Malacca“, “Pengat Pisang” and “Bika Ambon” I’d been making. “Chuchi mulot” is the way “cuci mulut” is written in Baba Malay，with the latter term to literally mean “mouthwash” in standard Bahasa Melayu. This is probably the equivalent of the western concept of a “palate cleanser” in haute cuisine, though chuchi mulots are customarily served at the end of a meal, or as a tea-time snack on their own.
What constitutes a good chuchi mulot then? For me, it has to have several things. Firstly, it must bear contrast to the dishes served earlier in the meal, both in texture and flavour, often the now-sweetness against the then-savory, or the cooling to soothe and tame the earlier spice and heat. Secondly, the components in a chuchi mulot, ideally should also show distinctive variance amongst one another, being multi-dimensional, flavours layered, each building upon the other. Yet despite the seeming differentiation, the chuchi mulot should remain concerted as a harmonious conglomeration, bringing the meal to a resounding finale. Seemingly difficult to achieve, there are many a chuchi mulots within the vast repertoire of Peranakan desserts and kuehs that do precisely as I’d described, when carefully executed and finely made that is. Kueh Sarlat is one such fine example. And as if it is not exciting and enriching enough as it is, Kueh Sarlat Durian, with the twist of the much-loved tropical fruit incorporated, takes it up a notch and brings the chuchi mulot to the next level.
The weather has been somewhat erratic and unforgiving of late, tormentous heat wave for the last 2 weeks or so making the days go by in an utmost unbearable manner and then came the torrential rain yesterday afternoon. Despite the downpour, the cool-down it provided was only short-lived and temporal as it is back to another stuffy and hazy day. In need of something cold and refreshing, I made another favorite Peranakan chuchi mulot of mine for some instant relief. Looks like I’m on a dessert making spree! Sago Gula Melaka is incredulously easy to prepare and can be made way ahead. Just barely 30 min of work last night before going to bed and I’m ready to indulge in all that santan and gula melaka goodness this afternoon!
Peranakan cuisine is well-known for its assortment of kuehs and sweet dishes, otherwise known as “chuchi mulot“. Most appropriately known as “palate cleansers” as many of these desserts, packed with much of their rich and sugary goodness break the monotony of the earlier main course dishes which are already imbued with much piquant flavours in spicy, savory and tang. The balance they provide brings about much contrast to the earlier dishes in a meal, and at the same time adding more experiential dimension and depth to the overall palate sensation, not to mention a resounding conclusion to an often hearty meal.
Bubor Cha Cha, Chendol and Pulot Itam, just to name a few, are some of the favorite chuchi mulots around, but my absolute “to cook the soonest and enjoy the fastest” so as to to curb that sweet tooth craving, has to be Pengat Pisang.