I’d been neglecting my blog for the past 2 months or so, but I haven’t been neglecting my kitchen, my cooking and my kueh making at all. In fact, quite a number of events have unfolded during the course of this short “hiatus”, which includes a hanami trip to Tokyo which I’ll be blogging about (hopefully) soon. I also started my own blog page on Facebook where I would be concentrating on for a while, so please follow me there for the latest updates on my blog and what I am doing if you have not already done so. By the way here’s the link- http//www.facebook.com/travellingfoodiesblog/. I also made my first baby step into the F&B industry by kickstarting a small home-run catering service of kuehs and other delectables, which I’ll be talking about more in near-future posts. But most, most, most importantly, I was given the exciting opportunity of being involved in the production of a new Mandarin TV variety-cum-cooking program called 弹指间的料理 “Touch-Screen Cuisine”!
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”…
Peranakan cooking is a classic example of an amalgamation of the culinary cultures from many ethnic groups who have lived closely together in this region for hundreds of years. It likens a ”Creole Cuisine“ of the East, blending together influences from Malay, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian and Thai cooking all into a unique genre which we know today as “Straits Chinese cuisine”. Out of these influences came a myriad of dishes which have now become signatures of Straits Chinese cooking, whose names run analogous to the cuisine now. Ayam Masak Buah Keluak, Itek Tim, Babi Pongteh and Ikan Gerang Asam are some of the more iconic ones. Like many other Peranakan dishes, he Hee Pio soup has its origins in traditional Chinese cooking, particularly those from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. For many lovers of the cuisine, Hee Pio Soup is a simply must-have on the dining tables at family dinners, important gatherings, wedding celebrations and other joyous occasions where the “Tok Panjang” was served. While the concept of Tok Panjang has kind of waned and disappeared from the modern lifestyles of most Peranakan households, Hee Pio soup still makes its customary appearance whenever folks get together just to dine together in the company of one another.
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!
For me, the Peranakan culture is probably the most intriguing bit of Southeast Asian history. There are so many stories and theories which attempt to explain their origins but none so far has been rock solid. And precisely because of this shroud of vagueness that lends the Peranakan heritage a veil of mystery. Yet, the inter-marriage between the Chinese and Malays then yielded the “Straits Chinese” community which encapsulates the very essence of these two cultures, alongside influences from the Indians and even Europeans which colonised this part of the world. It is this “melting pot” of cultural and historical bearings that nurtured the Peranakan culture to be rich and colorful as we know it today. Through their architecture and handicraft like sewing and beadwork, we saw how the Peranakans brought together elements of the East and West and slowly over generations yielded it to become their uniquely own. But personally, I feel that the spirit of Peranakan culture, like many other cultures, lies in their food.
My first experience with Peranakan food outside of the household was actually at the most uncanny of all places, Pow Sing Chicken Rice 報喜 at Serangoon Gardens. Their chicken rice is fairly decent but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the standard of the Nyonya dishes on their menu. Alas, the quality of the food wasn’t fantastic but the liberal use of tau cheo (fermented bean paste) in addition to a hoard of spices, and the eccentricity of buah keluak’s appearance which can only be matched with its taste… the dining experience left quite an impression, both good and bad…