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.
Penang Lok Bak is one of those dishes which had intrigued me for the longest time. Being in Singapore, we are more accustomed to the cuisine and cooking styles of the southern Peranakans at home and in Melaka. I practically grew up eating chap chye, kari ayam and ngoh hiang. My grandma, together with my aunts and my mother would whip up a whole table full of mouth-watering dishes whenever there is a family gathering and these three dishes would definitely make their dutiful appearance on the dining table. Sometimes one, sometimes two and if we are lucky, all three! So a large part of my growing up experience is made up of “food memories”, from eating to observing and finally to cooking.
When I first came across the term “Penang Lor Bak” a couple of years back, I had thought that it would be rather similar to the Tau Yew Bak which was frequently cooked at home as well. But prima facie, it looked no different from the ngoh hiang which I’m familiar with! Utterly confused, I took my first bite and received an even greater shock, only to realise that despite the somewhat familiar flavours, the textural profile was utterly different from ngoh hiang! And to make things “worse”, I actually liked it!
Penang Straits Chinese cuisine is heavily influenced by Thai cuisine owing much to its geographical proximity. About 500 years ago, Penang was part of the Kedah Sultanate which was ruled by the Siamese overlords. So the exertion of cultural and hence culinary imperialism stemmed back long and far. The earliest Peranakans in Penang were said to have been from Phuket, further ascertaining and strengthening the inseparable links between Penang Peranakan cuisine and Thai cuisine. This is very apparent in Penang Otak Otak, which bear uncanny resemblance to the Thai Hor Mok Pla. But the one culinary discipline in Penang Peranakan cuisine which is truly exemplary of Thai influence is the art of “Kerabu” making.
Otak Otak is one of my favorite snacks and it can be enjoyed in so many ways! It is one of the dishes I must have with my nasi lemak and I love those old school “otak buns” from neighbourhood confectioneries for breakfast or tea. They are also good on their own, eaten directly off the leaves. But one thing that has intrigued me for the longest time is its name. “Otak” literally means “brain” in Bahasa Melayu. I’d often wondered what the link between the dish and the jelly-like organ in our heads… very very “mind-boggling”, with no pun intended! It was not until I discovered Penang Otak Otak that this “mystery” is finally solved!
Penang is literally a food paradise! And for many, one of the main highlights of Penang cuisine is its street food. A walk down some of the roads and alleys in Penang and one would be easily led by the nose quite literally, to a hawker stall or two showcasing some of the finest which Penang has to offer. Many of these hawker stalls are not permanent fixtures within a certain kopitiam or kedai, but merely makeshift carts driven around by motorcycles they are attached to, as their “chefs on wheels” peddle their signature dishes from place to place. Seemingly nomadic but in fact, true Penang foodies are in the know of the precise whereabouts of some of these famous stalls, i.e. at a particular junction between a certain “Lorong” and a certain “Jalan” in the daytime, or at which corner of a particular “pasar malam” by night. It could be rojak, laksa, or hokkien mee, but one thing remains a common trait amongst these street food stalls. They rely not on media publicity to draw attention and create awareness on their existence, but solely by word of mouth, through folks who share their gastronomic experiences at these stalls to their relatives, who in turn told their friends, who in turn told their neighbours. Many of them have only one item on their menu, bearing sharp contrast to what hotel buffets and established restaurant joints boast about. But for that one thing they do, they do it best.
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.