I love rendang and cook it as often as I could. The ones available outside somewhat doesn’t make the cut, no pun intended. Even those available at the really good Nasi Padang stalls at Geylang Serai often end up dry and fibrous. The usual suspects for my homecooked rendang is beef shin or chicken thighs but recently I was given two lovely racks of lamb by Pure South so I thought to myself why not turn them into rendang! I am so glad I did!
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.
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.
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…)
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.
Weather has been really cranky of late and many around me seems to be down with something. I was suppose to show my “moral support” for a friend Catherine whose hubby and kiddos had fallen sick by cooking porridge for yesterday’s meals but as I was at a local supermarket getting some ”porridge supplies” like century egg, the uber fresh stingray steak at the seafood section was calling out at me!!! I knew I had to bring them home and seems like fate has it that I should have some bunga kantan and daun kesum bought just over the weekend, still hibernating in the fridge. Ikan Pari Asam Pedas it seems destined to be!
Peranakan cooking is often thought to be complicated, elaborated, time-consuming and difficult to learn. Well, this is what many people think and some, expound or expect others to think. Yes there are indeed dishes in straits chinese cooking that have long ingredient lists and/or require more time to prepare and cook than others. But that is also true for most other cuisines which I know of. So the concept of the cuisine being “complex” and troublesome is to me much of a fallacy, perhaps used to instill some sense of apprehension or anxiety to newbies and the unwary, those who are approaching it for the first time. But this is often what I hear others describe Peranakan cooking to be. Sadly so, because in order to lead one to better appreciate the cuisine and hence the colourful culture underlying it, the last thing one wishes to hear is how intimidating and unapproachable it is. How should one embrace something which is so unachievable and intangible? So that the preparation of Peranakan dishes be left only to the exclusive who have inherited their ways of making from the grandmothers and bibiks of the faded past? It is a perpetuated thought by some that only through so, would the dishes remain “authentic”? Well， I choose to think otherwise…
There are a lot of simple dishes in Peranakan cooking, many which require much less time and effort to prepare than what had been described as being atrociously difficult. These would include dishes like kangkong masak lemak, ikan tempra, pong tauhu, udang masak nenas etc. Many of these simple dishes are cooked on a daily basis, and not just for the much-revered Tok Panjang. Afterall, how often does one hosts or attend a Tok Panjang at home? But surely one’s gotta eat everyday yeah? In fact, the ability to cook with ease, a table of dishes what may impress upon others to be difficult and painstakingly prepared, is what many would hope for. Minimal efforts to reap maximal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Now that, is a true blue bibik’s secret if you ask me…
I practically grew up eating laksa lemak, amidst other local delights and I’m quite sure there are well many others like me. The laksa which I remembered first eating was not any of those “branded” names along Katong . In fact, I had my first “Katong laksa” when I was much older in my 20s, and it is not even at Katong but the now defunct Jackson Kopitiam in Macpherson area. The very first bowl of laksa I had when I was really young was from an unassuming looking neighbourhood stall near my old place. This was way before the times when people were aware of Hepatitis B and way before it became fashionable to buy coconut milk in terapaks off supermarket shelves. In other words, it was the time when cockles were really large, fresh and bloody, and one could almost be certain that fresh coconut milk was used to ensure all the “lemak” awesomeness! This is the type of laksa which I grew up eating. How about you?
I don’t know about you guys, but from where I live, no one could resist a good rendang. Thick slabs of meat which had been stewed in a rich and spicy coconut-based sauce over a prolonged period of time is simply to die for. Rendang is the pride and joy of Indonesian cuisine from the Minangkabau people in Sumatra but owing to trade routes and migration patterns, it spread to other parts of Asia, most notably Malaysia and Singapore where it is widely enjoyed and savoured. It has become much of a staple in Malay cuisine, served at festivity gatherings and wedding feasts. Just like many dishes from Malay cuisine, rendang has also found its way onto the dining tables of the Peranakan community. Ask any Baba if rendang is part of the standard laok embok embok, or what is commonly known as Peranakan cuisine, and one would immediately be met with a deep frown as if one has suggested the unthinkable. But ask further if he and his family enjoys rendang and cook it often, that stern look would quickly mellow and dissolve into a sheepish smile. The ingredient of choice for rendang is beef, which is stewed over hours at length until the meat becomes so tender that its fibres could easily be pulled apart with the slightly nudge with the fork. Otherwise, mutton is also good or in this case, chicken! And that is precisely what I cooked this time, Rendang Ayam!
Ikan Pari Kuah Lada is a typical dish for everyday meals in a Peranakan household in Melaka and Singapore. It is essentially stingray cooked in a peppery sauce. The piquant flavours carried through the liberal use of white peppercorns and tamarind (asam jawa) makes the sauce (kuah) an excellent drizzling onto some piping hot steamed rice. Being spicy and tart at the same time makes it really moreish for more helpings of rice!
Rawon is a classic East Javanese dish which either you’re gonna love or loathe. It extracts its unique flavours from the use of the “Indonesian black nut” commonly known as “buah keluak” or “kluwak/kluwek“, or more scientifically Pangium edule. In Singapore and Malaysia, buah keluak is better known as part of a signature dish in Peranakan cuisine “Ayam Buah Keluak” to which it lends its name. In fact, the recipes are so similar that I would like to think that one is necessarily evolved from the other! So if you love Ayam Buah Keluak and like to give it a little twist by using beef instead of chicken, Rawon is definitely the dish for you.
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!
Ayam Buak Keluak… such a love-and-hate relationship with this classic Peranakan dish. As much as I love eating it, I loathe making it. The preparation work that precedes is so much more laborious than the actual cooking of the dish itself! So so much more laborious! Work starts days ahead with the soaking and daily scrubs of the black nuts imported from Indonesia. While most recipes call for prep work three days in advance, I make it a point to soak for a minimum of five days, sometimes up to seven! And to make things “worse”, I do water changes and scrub not once but twice, literally day and night, making sure that they are good to use and safe for consumption. Not taking any chances here. Perhaps it has come to a point of being obsessive. What to do?! Most Peranakan restaurants charge them by the nut nowadays, how else can one enjoy the unique flavours of this dish without having to empty my pockets. Yet to enjoy this dish periodically is a dire need and not a mere want! Now you know why I love it to bits but hate it to the core at the same time!
I have access to a couple of buah belimbing trees in my vicinity and they fruit in abundance all year round. When I was discussing with Wendy on what to cook for Malaysia Food Fest Pahang, I requested her to find me a dish which makes use of these little wonderfully sour torpedoes. My first dish for MFF Pahang, is a recipe I knew I would like. When Wendy was telling me about it after she prepared the dish, way before this month’s event commenced, I knew I would love to try it. Not only because the recipe is incredibly simple to follow, but more importantly, the flavours are exactly what I crave for! Spicy, sour and savoury!
Ask any food lover for the Peranakan cuisine and they would surely babble ceaselessly and incessantly about their “favorites”! From simple kerabus like Sambal Belimbing Timun Nanas to the more elaborated Sambal Jantung Pisang, from the delicately flavoured Bakwan Kepiting, to the robust and full-bodied Buah Paya Masak Titek, from the popular Babi Pongteh, to the elusive Babi Tohay, from the healthy Nyonya Chap Chye to the not-for-the-faint-hearted Hati Babi Bungkus… the list just runs on and on, and I’m sure the rattling would too! And this doesn’t not even include an equally, if not even more comprehensive list of sweet and savory desserts, snacks and nyonya kuehs! Clearly one could not settle with just one, and I’m pretty sure he would not bear to, but instead, produce a collective “menu” , often macam panjang panjang, of dishes close to one’s heart. Sounds like much of an oxymoron I know, but that’s just one of the many dilemmas of a Nyonya foodie!
Ask again, for one single signature nyonya dish, and the options often narrow down to an invariable small range of dishes. And the name that would pop up most frequently has to be Ayam Buah Keluak!