The Cheng Beng Celebration occurs on the first week of the fourth month of the lunar calendar and is akin to All Soul’s Day on the Christian calendar. The ten days before and after Cheng Beng day are spent cleaning the gravesites and mending any grave mounds. On the day itself, family members visit the grave of their loved ones, pray, light white and red candles, burn incense, and make offerings of roast pork and boiled chicken (laok sembahyang) on the grave, which later will be taken back home to be eaten. Silver paper money (kretak perak) will also be burned at the site; gold paper money (kretak mas) would be burned at the adjoining smaller tombstone that houses the datok (guardian angel) of the deceased. Green joss sticks are lit at tombstones that are less than a year old and red ones for the others and the accompanying datok’s tombstone. The ceremony lasts for an hour so that the soul of the deceased has enough time to “enjoy” the meal during the worship. To call the end of worship, two coins or divination blocks (piak puay)are tossed into the air, which, upon landing, should be showing a head and a tail. A similar custom is still observed in the Fujian Province, China, the area from which most Peranakan ancestors hail.
I recall following my father to his father’s gravesite in Bukit Rambai, Melaka, and walking through some thick long grass before pulling it up to clear the rust-colored soil around the gravestone. Being a Catholic, he did not burn the traditional hell notes or incense, and no food offerings were made. However, he did light candles, placed them on the tombstones, and said a prayer. Even though this occasion is not as elaborately observed as in the past, my father makes it a point to drive back to his hometown yearly to pay respects to his elders, as expected by custom. Even after my parents emigrated to Australia, they still make the effort to fly back to mark this important occasion to honor their deceased loved ones. As an honor and hommage to my ancestors, I’m publishing the below recipe that reminds me of my beloved Melaka relatives.
For this dish, buah keluak is a fruit seed of the kepayang tree (pangium edule) that is indigenous to Indonesia and certain parts of Malaysia. The black, odd-looking seed is also known as kluwek in Javanese. Its flesh is toxic in its raw form as it contains hydrocyanic acid (photos). To de-acidify the seeds, they are buried in volcanic ash for about forty days and later boiled to make them edible. This buah keluak dish is definitely an acquired taste, and even some Peranakans are not too fond of its bitter, dark chocolate taste and slightly slippery texture—my Chinese relatives are always perplexed by my family’s fondness for it. However, if prepared well, this hearty braised dish is absolutely delicious. The pairing of strong-flavored ingredients and spices is necessary to balance the flavor of the buah keluak. Since it has to be simmered for quite some time, pork rib is the best meat to withstand such long cooking; it also adds lots of flavor to the dish. This dish can be made with chicken thighs and drumsticks instead of pork, as it is commonly prepared that way in restaurants with a Muslim clientele.
As the seeds are seasonal, babi buah keluak is not cooked year-round, so eating it was considered a special occasion in our family. Furthermore, my grandmother would have to call down to our relatives in Melaka for them to purchase the seeds since they were, and continue to be, difficult to find anywhere else. My parents’ Indonesian maid would always return with a bagful after visiting her hometown in Java, and my mother is even able to find them vacuum-packed in the markets in Australia, her new home. A rather large pot of this delicacy would then be prepared so we could savor the dish for at least a few days.
The best way to eat buah keluak is to scoop the contents of the seed out onto the rice (our favorite method was with the back of the fork), spoon some sauce on it, add some pork rib, and top it with some spicy sambal belacan. Perhaps the reader will understand why my family loves this peculiar dish only after he or she has successfully cooked this gem of Peranakan cuisine.
Serves 4 to 6
Soaking time: 3 to 7 days
Preparation time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
14 whole buah keluak seeds, or more to taste
5 chili bol or chile puya dried peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 tablespoon paste
15 small (150 grams/ 5 ounces) shallot, peeled, and chopped roughly
2 stalks lemongrass, white part only, chopped roughly
2.5 centimeters (1 inch) turmeric root, peeled, or ½ teaspoon powder
5 centimeters (2 inches) galangal root, peeled, or 1 teaspoon powder
4 pieces/10 grams (⅓ ounce) candlenuts, shelled and crushed, or macadamia or cashew (optional)
6 grams (½ teaspoon) belacan (shrimp paste)
3 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 tablespoon paste/sambal oelek
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
600 grams (1⅓ pounds) pork ribs or 400 grams (14 ounces) boneless pork belly, cut into large bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons tamarind pulp, mixed with 2 cups hot water and strained
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar (optional)
1. To prepare the buah keluak seeds, soak them in water for three days to one week. Once finished soaking, scrubs the shells with water to remove any dirt and rinse well. Using a broad-tipped screwdriver or pestle, break and remove the black top until the opening is wide enough to extract the seed (video). The seeds should be soft, black or dark brown, and fragrant. Discard any ones with hard, green or rotten seeds inside.
2. Put the dried chilis in a saucepan, and add enough water to cover. Boil for 5 minutes until the chilis are soft. Drain. In a food processor, purée the dried chilis until smooth. Add the shallots, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, candlenuts, belacan, and fresh chilis. Purée until smooth. Remove.
3. In a large pot or wok on medium-high heat, heat the oil and fry the processed mixture until aromatic, about 4 minutes. Add the pork ribs and stir for about 5 minutes more. Add the buah keluak and enough tamarind water to cover the ingredients completely—add more water if necessary. Add the salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes or until the ribs are soft. (If using chicken, remove after 30 minutes and continue to cook the seeds for 15 minutes more.) The finished gravy should be quite thick, but add a bit of water if it is getting too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Sweeten with the sugar (if using).
4. To eat buah keluak, each person uses a teaspoon or butter knife to scoop the flesh from the seeds onto the rice. Add some gravy and pork, and mix well before eating. Serve with sambal belacan (recipe).