As I’d mentioned on several occasions on this blog, Penang Peranakan cuisine differs quite significantly from their southern counterparts in Malacca and Singapore. The babas and nyonyas from the island state near the northern end of the peninsula has their own menu of dishes which are unique to their own culture. Perut Ikan, Inche Kabin, Jiu Hu Char and Kari Kapitan are just some examples. The art of kerabu making, inherited from Thai cuisine plays a significant part of the culinary repertoire of the Penang Peranakans. Kerabu Kacang Botol, Kerabu Hai Tay, Kerabu Bok Hnee are amongst my favorites. They are refreshing sides which can be served along with more hearty dishes, or good with just some ikan goreng and sambal belacan as part a simple meal. Speaking of simple meals, there is even Kerabu Beehoon which is perfect as one-dish meal on its own!
Roti Jala is much of an icon in Malay and Straits cuisine. Though it is said to have originated from Johor, its popularity stretches northwards to practically all states along the Peninsula. While they are largely found at Indian Muslim foodstalls in most place, there are extremely popular amongst the local Malay community in Penang. “Roti” means bread in Malay as well as the Indian languages, while “Jala” means “fishing net”, these fishnet crepes are otherwise also known as “Roti Renda” which some have translated to become “lacy pancakes”.
Yes, MFF Penang Month may be over but I still miss the flavours of their kerabus, one of the highlights of Penang Straits Chinese cuisine. Heavily influenced by Thai cooking, the northern Peranakans create an assortment of toss-in salads that are light and refreshing yet so flavourful and wholesome, many of them are good as a meal on their own. The combination of sambal belacan with lime juice and sugar in the dressing is classic, creating a medley of flavours that makes the dish all the more moreish! Last month, I’d made Kerabu Kacang Botol (winged bean salad) and Kerabu Bok Hnee (wood ear fungus salad) last month for MFF Penang. Here I “reprise” the experience with another interesting Kerabu from Penang Peranakan cuisine that incorporates a lesser known ingredient – jellyfish in Kerabu Hai Tay.
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!
Roti Babi is a Penang Peranakan dish which I have been quite curious about since I read the recipe in Debbie Teoh’s book. Bread slices coated generously with an egg batter reminds me much of traditional French toast, a childhood delight for my sister and I, only that in Roti Babi the bread is much thicker and stuffed with an “inti” (filling) made up of minced pork and onions. What is more intriguing is the “rempah” (spice paste) used in the filling, which consist of ketumbar (coriander seeds), buah pala (nutmeg) and cekur (lesser galangal aka “sand ginger”). I can already imagine how wonderfully perfumed the inti will be just from reading the recipe and yet at the same time, wonder how cekur actually tastes like as I’d not used it in cooking before!
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.
One of the things which interest me the most about localised cuisines is the desserts which they have to offer. More often than not, the selection of sweet dishes available at a particular place reflects and mirrors the likes and preferences of the people there. The Japanese are noted for the art of 和菓子 wagashi making, which exudes a transcedental zen-like beauty in form, while in the Canton region of southeastern China as well as Hong Kong, sweet broths with an assortment of ingredients in the form of what the locals call 糖水 tong shuei are enjoyed, not only for their wonderful taste, but also the beneficial effects to health they are supposedly imbued with.
In Singapore and Malaysia, desserts take many forms, owing much to the amalgamation of cultures and heritage backgrounds of the various ethnicities living together. Likening a large melting pot, the culinary practices of various races and ethnic groups continually influence each other, creating a wide variety of dishes unique to this region. And Nyonya kuehs must surely be one of the most iconic amidst the vast repertoire of dishes in Straits cuisine. From Kueh Angku to Kueh Lapis, these peranakan sweets which bring together elements from various components like Chinese, Malay and even Thai cooking with an explosion of both colours and flavour. In Penang, apart from the standard spread available also in other parts of the region, one “kueh” variety seems to be found almost uniquely here and despite its simplicity, is much loved by the locals.