Tasting this soup always brings me back to my childhood when our family would make day trips to Bukit Rambai, Melaka, to visit our relatives that resided in the village that my father’s family grew up in. After around an hour’s drive on the superfast highway to Alor Gajah, my father would take a backroad that offered its passengers a more scenic and leisurely ride to my Aunt Nancy’s (Makkoh) house. I would always marvel at the red oxide soil that exuded a slight metallic smell in the air. And on top of the martian-like top soil, we could see small patches of pepper vines growing on bamboo stilts that would sometimes be weighed down by batches of green peppercorns. It must be sheer ingenuity and necessity that these spicy beads were incorporated as the prominent element in this quick yet full-flavored soup.
Tofu is a rather bland ingredient that is featured in this soup. However, in this recipe we see how the Peranakans have taken this Chinese staple in another direction that is typically Nyonya in its approach. Instead of a mild-flavored soup, like the rather similar Hokkien version, here we have a bold and full-flavored backdrop so that the tofu can act as a counterpart with its smooth and bland qualities. The strong flavors in the soup come from the use of garlic, shallots, Belacan (shrimp paste), dried salted fish, white peppercorns, and the garnishing of young Chinese celery and spring onion add strong herbal flavors.
In making this recipe, I prefer the traditional way of pounding the shallots and garlic in the mortar and pestle in order to extract more flavors into the soup, just like how my grandmothers would. Make sure you get the medium-firm or medium-soft tofu that is fresh. Also, do not use the salted fish product called Bacalao, but instead look for salted Ikan Kurau bones, or even dried Chinese Croaker will do. You may find young Chinese celery in most Asian Markets as its flavor is more subtle than regular celery.
My father would relish his favorite soup with some spicy and tangy samban belacan condiment on the pieces of Tofu and shrimp. I am sure you will enjoy this rather complex, spicy, and soul-satisfying Nyonya soup.
Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 40 minutes stovetop; 20 minutes pressure cooker
1 teaspoon white peppercorns, whole
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
5 small or 50 grams shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 inch (2.5 cm) Belacan/Shrimp Paste (1 teaspoon powder or ½ tsp paste)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4½ cups water
2 – 3 pieces dried salted fish, preferably bones only (around 40 gms/1.5 oz) – substitute: 10 grams dried shrimp
½ teaspoon salt
200 grams/7 oz medium-firm or medium-soft tofu, cut into bite-size pieces
100 grams/3.5 oz small shrimp, shelled (or medium size shrimp, cut into ½-inch pieces)
2 stalks Chinese celery (Cantonese: kahn choy) or Celery leaves, roughly chopped
2 stalks spring onion, chopped finely
White pepper, ground
Crush the white peppercorns in a mortar until there are still some small bits, not too fine. Remove and reserve.
In the mortar, crush the garlic, shallots, and Belacan together into a fine paste. Remove and reserve.
In a pot on medium heat, add the oil, and fry the processed paste until aromatic (around 4 minutes) – make sure not to brown the paste too much. Add the water, white peppercorns, and salted fish bones (or dried shrimp). Cover, bring to boil, and reduce the flame to simmer fairly gently for 30 minutes (10 minutes in a pressure cooker).
Meanwhile, prepare the tofu, shrimp, Chinese celery, and green onions according to the ingredient list.
After the soup has simmered for 30 minutes, and add ½ teaspoon salt or to taste. Raise the flame to medium, add the tofu and fresh shrimp, and cook until the shrimp is just cooked (1 to 2 minutes) — do not use the pressure cooker mode but instead with the saute mode and the cover open.
Add the Chinese celery and turn flame off.
To serve, pour soup into a large bowl, and garnish it with spring onions and a pinch of white pepper.
Serve with sambal belacan (recipe) on the side.