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…