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.
I’d not updated the “On the Trail of the Phoenix” series on this blog for quite some time now so perhaps it is a timely reminder. I was really fortunate and beyond happy to receive a big bag of durian blossoms from a friend’s tree. Truly a blessing of the season as it only occurs for a really short period of time each year between the flowers blooming to those which would fall if they were not pollinated by bats and bees. With these blossoms, I’d whipped up two traditional dishes to enjoy them as quickly as possible, the truly Peranakan way…
One of the highlights of my recent trip to Melaka was to be able to preview the Sajian Desa Buffet Dinner hosted at the River Grill Cafe of the beautiful Casa del Rio Melaka. It was one of the numerous things I was looking forward to…
There are many new restaurants and cafes springing up all over Melaka each showcasing their own interpretation of Melakan Peranakan cuisine. For me, that is a heartening thing as it allows us to sample more of how each dish may have slight nuances and variations when they are cooked by different folks. In my last trip to Melaka, I brought some of my friends to my friend Ruby Song’s restaurant, “Nyonya Taste Cuisine” located at the end of Kota Laksamana, just a stone’s throw away from the Jonker Walk shopping district. We were in for a treat!
This is one of the many a times when a craving becomes too strong for one to withstand or hold back for another day. One of those I just have to “make and take a bite” moments. Saw my good friend Poh Lin’s mum Nyonya Guek made kueh bongkong just the other day and I wanted a bite of it so so badly. It is yet another kueh which I don’t make as often as I should. Then again, there are simply too many kuehs to make often to start with. It is not a difficult kueh to make, but for me, it is one which is difficult to master. Read on to find out why…
After a long hiatus from blogging, I’m finally getting my engine started again. So much has happened over just a blink of an eye. “Sekelip mata” we say in Baba patois, both good things and bad things. While I slowed down on blogging this period of time, I have not stopped cooking, baking or making kueh. In fact, I’d finally picked up the courage of taking orders and help people make kuehs and cook traditional Peranakan dishes for their friends and family to enjoy. It is a win win situation for me as well, as not only does this provide me with the opportunity to hone and sharpen my cooking and kueh making skills, it also helped to supplement the expenses of the cooking and baking hobby. Alas, I’m glad to be back on the blog again, with one of my favorite kuehs, Pulot Inti.
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.
Ikan Gerang Asam is one of the first Peranakan dishes, or what is known to the babas and nyonyas as “laok embok” I’d “learnt” to cook when I was young, after getting to know the tricks to frying sunny sideups with runny yolks and crispy edges for telor tempra and braising tauyew bak until the collagen-packed babi sam cham become wobbly soft that is. “Cooking lessons” were never formal or formative, save for the times when I was taught how to use a “pisoh chye toh” , a Chinese cleaver that is, to do a wondrous list of things with it, to potong, to iris, to bukak, to persiang, to kupair a wide variety of ingredients. Otherwise it was always learning through observing how my mum and grandma worked around the kitchen while helping out with the tasks along the way and of course tasting the yummy dishes they’d prepared. And it was the same with “learning” to cook Ikan Gerang Asam”…
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.
For many of us, food is not just something we consume merely to sate our physical needs for survival. Extending far beyond that, food is what we enjoy with our loved ones, friends and family, as a vehicle to promote solidarity, camaraderie and togetherness. Food is what invokes and invigorates our senses, establishes a communal experience which evolves irrevocably into a shared memory, or an identity that eventually gets woven into a group’s rich history and cultural heritage. In short, food provides for many of us, a glimpse of our past and acts as an intangible extension into our future. Often times, such food are likely to be signature dishes unique to a cuisine or synonymous to a community. Yet food that possess such prowess and bestowed with such a mission isn’t necessarily elaborated or complicated. It is often the simplest things that leave a lifelong impression and sometimes, even an everlasting legacy.
One of the main “highlights” of Chinese New Year has always been the making of traditional cookies and snacks which are otherwise seldom prepared throughout the rest of the year. About two or three weeks before Chinese New Year, usually a week or so after Tang Chek, my aunts would “assemble” at Grandma’s place to make a big batch of these CNY goodies, roping in some of her good old neighbours for the tedious task as well, with whom the goodies would be shared around with at the end. The familiar New Year delicacies include the ever popular kueh tair (pineapple tarts), kueh belanda (Nyonya love letters), kueh bangket, kueh bolu, peanut cookies, almond cookies etc. They work fastidiously round the clock with much precision like a factory production line, but yet being able to maintain a cheery banter, packing the entire kitchen with not just that annual indulgence of buttery and nutty aromas but also filled with much laughter and loud chatter. However, there is that one kueh which Grandma would prepare single-handedly all the while, until age eventually catches up with her and the task was “inherited” by one of my aunts but not without the ever watchful eye of Grandma. This is kueh bakol, the most important of all these festive kuehs which are continuously churned out over that fateful hectic weekend, for it is food not made for the mortals, but for the gods.
Life is basically about a sequence of happenings and experiences, episodes that unfold around us all the time. It can be as uneventful as queuing for one’s favorite nasi lemak or mundane as waiting for the bus or MRT. Yet there are things which leave an everlasting imprint in us, conjuring a powerful memory which we may not even revisit for the longest time, carefully stowed away deep within each of us until one fateful day when the memory is retrieved and unbound from the abyss of our consciousness, invoking a wave of emotional recollections, often accompanied by a profound sense of nostalgia. As I grew older and hopefully wiser, I find myself walking down the proverbial “memory lane” more often than before. Sometimes the smallest triggers, deja vus from a not-to-distant past can rouse and unleash an avalanche of reminiscence. Perhaps this is what folks often call being “sentimental”… unwitttingly and unknowingly. For me, making kueh belanda surely counts as one of these things, and I’m sure it is the same with my friends too, as four of us got together to make them very recently. It was a really tiring and back-breaking process, but I’m glad I did it again after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Mummy would have been proud…
For some folks, preparations for Chinese New year starts as early as a month back right after Tang Chek. It marks the beginning of spring cleaning as well as cooking and baking to usher the new year. Folks like give an assortment of kuehs and snacks to friends and family during this period of time. The all-time favorite would be kueh tair, i.e. Peranakan Pineapple Tarts, with kueh belanda and kueh bangket etc following closely behind. Another top on the list is acheir, the Peranakan achar and Sambal Lengkong too is given away as a token of appreciation as well for some.
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.
It is just days to Christmas and I reckon it was timely for a gathering with some friends whom I’d gotten to know over Facebook, a good time to get together again since meet ups as such are far and few in between given everyone’s busy schedules. It is also good to be able to put a face to a name, transcending from online acquaintances to friends in real life. There have been quite a number of Christmas promotions running in our local restaurants and F&B establishments in hotels so we are literally spoilt for choices. Despite coming back from Melaka just a couple of days back, I still crave for good Peranakan food. A quick buzz over one of the Facebook groups I am active in and it didn’t take long for like-minded foodies to respond to the calling. We chose ‘The House of Indocafe’ as none of us have been here before. We thought it would be a good chance to try out their “Festive Ala Carte Buffet” menu which is currently running at their “White House” restaurant located just along the fringe of the Orchard Road shopping belt. It was a choice we grew to regret. Read on to find out why…
Yes! I am back in Melaka again, barely a month since the last trip, only because there is still so much of this city that awaits to be explored and discovered. Despite the numerous trips I have made here over recent years, there is always something interesting, new and bizarre or old and nostalgic that continues to beckon me for a return to this beautiful city.
The only difference this time round is I am not travelling up alone but together with 4 other foodie-minded friends to experience what Malacca has to offer. The first stop upon getting off the coach is a welcome “tiffin lunch” set in the style of a Tok Panjang at the luxurious and idyllic Casa del Rio Melaka.
I’d been revisiting some of the old recipes I’d blogged about before recently. Sometimes, its because some friends had shared with me a “discovery” or “revelation” about a dish which I knew which prompted me to relook at it. Otherwise, it is simply because I have a craving for it. Roti Jala is one of those things which you’d miss eating once in a while. I turned an ayam peksak (poached chicken) from my mum’s semayang see kee (death anniversary prayers) into a pot of kari ayam, the best excuse to make some roti jala to go along.
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.
Kueh dadar is one of my favorite kueh, which we enjoyed tremendously as children as I’d mentioned in this post two years back. Known also as kuih ketayap, kuih gulung or kuih lenggang to some Malay communities, it is also a kueh which I revisit very often in my kitchen, sometimes eaten just on its own, or when I’m up for something more elaborated or wish for greater contrariety, a savory kuah santan would be quickly prepared using the leftover coconut milk from the batter to “chelop” the kueh dadar in. If the American kids grew up dunking Oreos in a glass of milk, kueh dadar chelop kuah santan must definitely be part of the wonderful childhood memories Peranakans have collectively.
Many of us love spicy dishes but find it daunting to prepare the chili mix which breathes life unto these savory delectables which are part and parcel of our culinary repertoire in this region. “Rempah” as it is commonly known in Singapore and Malaysia, otherwise called “bumbu” in Indonesia is the heart and soul of Southeast Asian cuisine in this part of the world. But there are many different types of rempah in existence, “rempah titek“, “rempah gerang asam“, “rempah kuning“, “rempah cili-bawang” are just some examples, which we will explore in the course of this blog over time but is there a rempah which is most commonly used amongst many dishes? Indeed there is. I call this “generic rempah” for ease of remembering, something I’d mentioned and used in many of the dishes I’d introduced earlier like laksa lemak, kangkong masak lemak and rendang ayam. Its versatility extends beyond these dishes of course, some of which I would prepare and blog about in time to come… hopefully. A large batch can be made and it stores pretty well but just to put it into immediate use after its been freshly prepared, I’d used the generic rempah in a simple recipe for Sambal Ikan Bilis, an indispensible condiment in our favorite nasi lemak. (more…)
When we were young, many weekends were spent at my grandma’s where my aunts and cousins would gather as well. I remember particularly looking forward to following my mum go back to her mum’s place for several reasons. Firstly, we got to take a cab! Grandma used to stay a distance from us and visiting her meant long bus journeys, not to mention changing feeder buses at the interchange. It was the pre-Translink card days without travelling rebates so given our family of four, taking a cab seemed the most logical thing to do. Those were the days of the yellow-top black taxis with rickety doors which needed a hard slam to close properly but I enjoyed the rides simply because the taxis had air-con! Secondly, grandma doted on us grandchildren down to the dribbles and drips, often having snacks prepared for us already which we got to eat upon our arrival. She would also secretly stuff our pockets with money behind our parents’ back! Being the eldest grandson, I was often assigned to run errands for her at the sundries shop just next block. I bought an assortment of things for her, from ingredients like eggs or flour which ran out on the last minute while preparing certain dishes, to her cigarettes. I loved it when she asked me to buy things for her because that meant I could keep the spare change! Knowing this, my cousins would sometimes offer to tag along, and this was when we would make a quick detour to the nearby playground to play with the slides, swings or see saw! Finally, I loved visiting Grandma when I was young because she was such a wonderful cook. With the help of my mom and aunts, Grandma’s kitchen came alive every Sunday afternoon as the women chatted vivaciously and exchanged the weekly gossips, usually about other family friends and relatives, or about the latest TV and movie film stars, while dinner preparations went on for the weekly feast. Popular dishes on the dining table which we all enjoyed were Tee Tor Tng, Chap Chye, Kari Ayam, Tau Yew Bak, Ikan Chuan Chuan, Ayam Char but our absolute favorite which everyone loved had to be Grandma’s Ngoh Hiang.
Last weekend, Singapore celebrated her Golden Jubilee, 50 years of glorious nation building which saw her rose from a third world nation, separated from Malaysia and forcefully pushed onto her road of independence which she had not wished for, to become one of the major key players in the regional political and economic development. In fear that the Chinese-majority population in Singapore would threaten the rule and dilute the prowess of the Malay-dominant UMNO which controls the Federation of Malaya then, Tunku Abdul Rahman “talak” Singapore, ousting her from the Federation which she had joined less than two years back. Left largely on her own, the initial years were full of staggers and struggles, but through the sheer hardwork and determination of our parents, Singapore’s first taste of success is by no means an easy feat. While the dramatic transformation our island state undertaken had been repeatedly retold in media all over the world, like a fairytale, this Golden Jubilee marks only but the closure of the first chapter of her ongoing story, far from the climatic conclusion many seem to be perceiving and enjoying. Lying ahead are more challenges to follow, many of which are intangible and unpredictable. As the paradigm shift over the last 20 years or so deemed that our fate should become invariably intertwined with the increasingly turbulent global climate, it seems like our future no longer lies solely in our own hands. From the frustrating and stifling realities like escalating costs of living, increasing population densities beyond comfort limits, all-too-frequent MRT breakdowns, to other “softer dimensions” like the disintegration of our social fabric, attrition of our cultural bearings and extinction of our local heritage. The latter aspects seem lesser noticeable but far more important than how they are usually being played out for without our bearings and roots, we are nothing. On the whole, Singapore is a nation that grew so rapidly overnight, that she had hardly any time to reflect and ponder over what was sacrificed, eroded and forever lost. Too caught up with being and staying competitive, her people were tugged into the rat race, constantly instilled with invisible fears of the repercussions and possible aftermath for being left behind or simply not being Number One. In our concerted efforts as a nation to become richer in tangible gains like economic growth, integrated infrastructure, standards of living, global ranking, we had also become poorer, as we silently mourn for our loss, some deplorable beyond being reparable. Friends who visit Singapore seem to be always telling me how fast our country grows, some areas changed and developed beyond recognition in a matter of just a couple of years. Like a child who is all too eager to want to grow up and step into adulthood to prove her worth, much of her time is spent to better herself, with little left to enjoy her childhood and growing up years, let alone to smell the flowers along the way. As we admire the towering skyscrapers that grew like magical beanstalks, we also lament the demolishing of the old architecture built brick upon brick by our forebears. As we broaden our expressways to ease increasingly tense traffic conditions, we scramble to save our old cemeteries from being raised to the ground to make way for establishments in the name of modernisation and modernity. In short we live in an age of dilemma, torn between the want to constantly “majulah” and the need to stay in touch with our past. We see that happening all over Singapore, and even more so in our beloved Katong.