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.
The “summer heat” in Singapore on most days these few weeks have reached the point of being unbearable. Save for the last few rainy nights which lent to breezy mornings and cloudy days, the rest of the time is basically hot hot hot! This kinda weather calls for something spicy and provocative to work up one’s appetite. Chanced upon some beautiful pucuk paku pakis on my most recent trip to the wet market and it is time to whip up a quick kerabu which is perfect for a homecooked meal!
Sambal Jantong Pisang is an interesting dish, and one which is uniquely Peranakan. I love it for its kerabu-like freshness and crunchy textures, intermingled with the richness and spiciness of the coconut milk dressing. It used to be commonly served as a dish on the Tok Panjang banquet on traditional weddings, for its tedious making process seems most befitting of the grandeur and scale of this solemn once-in-a-lifetime event. More importantly as I was told by an old Baba, the dish is particularly meaningful for the occasion as bananas are symbolic for one to be bountiful blessed with many children, the wish for the newly weds to bear so, hopefully as many as the elongated flowers one would find in each unopened banana bud, layer after layer, generation after generation.
When we were young, we met up a lot with our other relatives at my grandparents’ place. My parents moved out after they got married but always made it a point to go back and visit whenever we could. It was the same with our uncles and aunts who had moved out. Gatherings were a noisy, but also joyous affair, playing with cousins and also neighbours’ children whom we all grew up with. Apart from the regular weekend visits, what was particularly worth looking forward to were the “important days”. Usually it was the numerous marked Chinese-related festivals and celebrations, from Chinese New Year, and Chap Goh Meh at the beginning of the lunar calendar year, through Cheng Beng and dumpling festival right up to “bulan tujoh“, mooncake festival and finally Tang Chek. Apart from my own grandparents’ birthday celebrations, there were the birthdays of deities and of course the “ari see kee”, i.e. death anniversaries of our ancestors. Most of these “ari besair” were marked with an elaborated prayer session in the late morning or early afternoon and of course a pig out session that followed, enjoying the laok semayang that were prepared to honour the gods or ancestors first before being devoured by us. Many of the dishes were eaten as it is, but some were “transformed” into other delectables, and sambal timun was one of them.
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!
It is mango season again and we see an assortment of mangoes from all over. From the honey and rainbow mangoes from Thailand, to the Benishaan and Alphonsoes from India, each visit to the local supermarket often involves getting hit by heavily perfumed wafts of heady aroma they exude. Each variety has its own distinct fragrance, devised by its own unique concoction of volatile chemicals which contribute to a sometimes intoxicating brew making them distinguishable from one another. However, many cultivars nowadays are grown for certain attributes like being less fibrous and longer shelf life in place of others like flavour and aroma! As a result some varieties like the Tommy Atkins which do not taste and smell very much are still in cultivation and widely sold, though hardly anyone buys them as far as I know! As far as I’m concerned, I still prefer very much my Harumanis, buah binjai and buah kuini when they are in season!
Straits cooking, be it Malay, Indonesian or Peranakan is characterised by the elaborated and generous use of chillies, spices and herbs. Given the variety that grows within the region, a slight difference in combination of these ingredients permutates to produce a plethora of different culinary delights which Straits cooking is so well-known for. Baba-Nyonya cuisine, heavily influenced by the other cuisines in the region, pushes this further through the incorporation of fruits into dishes. The additional dimensions rendered through these fruits often bring dishes from Peranakan cuisine to the next level, be it in visual appeal, aroma, texture and/or flavour.
Mango, pineapple, jackfruit and bananas are the “regulars”, being used in many signature dishes which many of us are familiar with. Once a while, we encounter lesser known local fruit varieties like bilimbi buluh (Averrhoa bilimbi), buah cermai (Phyllanthus acidus), buah kedondong (Spondias dulcis) and buah sukun (Artocarpus altilis), buah binjai (Mangifera caesia). These would be a real treat to those who appreciate the interesting flavours which many of these fruits have.