Baba Nyonya Peranakans informs readers with the History, Culture, Food, and authentic Recipes of this Southeast Asian culture of Malaysia and Singapore.
I'm a passionate gourmand, photographer and food blogger. I am blogging on my favorite places to eat, new eats, and new discoveries. I hope I can share my experiences with the readers. I believe that good food does not have to cost a fortune and it can be found nearly anywhere, as long you search and hunt those places down.
It documents the History of the Baba Nyonya Peranakans and details the important Cultural Traditions, as I share my family stories growing up in such household. Each chapter showcases a Nyonya recipe (Poh Piah, Chap Chai, Tauhu Sumpat, Sambal Nenas Timun, Kobis Masak Lemak Puteh, Pongteh, Ayam Temprah, Asam Fish, Ikan Sambal, Udang Lemak Masak Nenas, Top Hats, Buah Keluak, Achar Chili, Itek Tim, Laksa, Mee Siam, Sri Kaya, Kueh Chang Nyonya, Kueh Ee, Pineapple Tarts, Bi Tai Bak, Kueh Angku, Kueh Bakul Goreng, Bubur Pulut Hitam, Tapeh Pulut, Bubur Cha Cha, and many more!) that my Grandmothers were known for.
This beautiful book will make a great coffee table display and read, as well as serve as a document of our precious culture for many future generations.
With the coming of the Lunar New Year, this Chinese sweet and fragrant pork jerky is a-must in most homes, whether traditional Chinese or Peranakan.
I recall following my Cantonese maternal grandmother (married into a Peranakan family) to Chinatown as we fought the crowds and vendors who suffocated the narrow streets with their merchandises, barely allowing room for anything else to pass through let alone any car. But the grill fumes from preparing this meat treat was always a welcomed sight as the fragrant smoke wafted in the air to tempt the passerby. Invariably, my grandmother would stop at her favorite stall to purchase a few pieces for her grandchildren whom she adored.
Having left Malaysia for further studies, it was difficult to find long yok in the United Kingdom, and impossibly so when I moved to USA. But nostalgia is the mother of culinary invention. A few years ago, I started to notice recipes popping up on the internet. I gave them a try but I was not quite satisfied with their rendition. With some experimenting and tweaks, here is my version that is a close as I remember the flavors that I grew up as a child.
The recipe is very simple to make. However, the secret ingredient that I do not see in other versions is the use of Chinese licorice powder which is best grounded from slices of the dried stems. I am quite sure this will be hit with your loved ones as it is with my folks.
½ teaspoon Chinese licorice powder (ground and sieved from dried stems)
½ teaspoon cinnamonpowder
1½ tablespoons fish sauce
1½ tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons Xiaoxing rice wine, preferably Rose wine
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 to 4 drops of red food coloring
Step1: Mix the ground pork with the marinade. Leave it in the fridge overnight or at least 4 hours.
Step 2: Turn oven on to 250F/ 120C. Oil or line a large baking sheet with parchment or baking paper. Put the marinated pork on the baking sheet and spread the meat as thinly as possible to cover the whole sheet – use another baking sheet if there is extra meat. Bake on the middle rack for 20 minutes or until firm to the touch.
Step 3: Turn the oven up to 350F/ 175C. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until pieces are sticky and quite dry.
Step 4: Remove from the oven. Using a knife or a pizza cutter, cut the meat into fairly large squares. Allow to cool.
Step 5: Grill pieces in an outdoor grill or place them under the broiler until they are slightly caramelized with slight charring. Wrap in wax paper or foil and freeze until needed.
Recipe from my upcoming cookbook, Edible Memories.
Throughout my years of researching and writing Nyonya recipes, this cookie has been extremely elusive and the most difficult for many reasons. My grandmothers never made these cookies when I was young, contrary to what many think of the superwoman Nyonya cook – I only recall them coming home with plastic containers filled with these bright white morsels and tasking the grandchildren to place red dots with toothpicks dipped in red dye. However, my father recalls seeing his mother make it during his youth with a covered kuali/wok over woodfire. Furthermore, I came across recipes that either were not successful or required sago flour that is impossible to find outside of Malaysia. So, in a way, I was either afraid of trying again or I had just thrown in the towel, literally!
However, my love for these sweet treats did not diminish with time, and my recollections of them were always the fondest and warmest memories of my grandmothers whipping up a culinary storm in the weeks of preparation for the Lunar New Year. Recently, I came across some recipes in Nyonya food groups on Facebook, and I noticed that the cookies were made with only tapioca flour which is easily available – this stirred up my curiosity and interest in it again. Besides, the beautiful wooden cookie moulds given by my sister years ago were gathering dust and beckoning me to give it another try. So I printed out a few versions and I studied them before I made a couple of batches. Below is my version of it.
Making Kueh Bangkit is deceptively simple. The baking or frying of the flour with pandan leaves is to infuse it with the leaves’ aroma as well as to dry the flour out to produce a mouth-melting product. The use of the egg yolk with hardly any egg white attached is to avoid the stiffening protein from the white, and it is beaten with the sugar to lighten its yellow color – get store-bought and not farm eggs so that the dough will stay quite white. The dough has to be formed with just the right amount of coconut cream, not the milk, so that it is not only rich in flavor, but the cookie is flaky and soft due to the lack of excess water. The baking has to be at the right temperature and timing so that it is cooked but without the slightest browning. And finally, it has to be cooled down for a day so that the inside moisture distributes evenly throughout the cookie before it is consumed. In other words, lots of attention and precision must be given to the whole process, just like any wonderful complicated pastry.
When I showed the results of my cooking online in a group for expats in the USA, a lady remarked that there were so many good cooks and bakers in the group. I replied that necessity is the mother of invention, and so is nostalgia. I hope you are able to produce a successful bunch with my recipe and envelope yourself with fond memories of this cookie and growing up eating it.
I have provided an alternative it you do not possess a Kueh Bangkit mould.
Note: I tried another batch today using the baked flour straight out of the oven and once cooled down, and the end product had no noticeable difference compared to those made with 2-day old baked flour, as recommended by many Nyonya and recipes. I also made cookies with a 1¼-inch/3-cm cutter, and the recommended cooking time was fine.
60 grams confectioners/icing sugar or caster sugar (very fine)
1 egg yolk, making sure as little egg white is attached
2 cans (400 ml each) coconut milk, the creamiest kind, or 800 ml fresh coconut milk
⅛ teaspoon regular salt
Red food coloring
Baking or Parchment paper, not wax paper (optional)
Baking tray, large
Pastry brush, small (optional)
Kueh Bangkit mould or 1¼-inch/3-cm cookie cutters
Step 1 (can be made in advance): Turn the oven on to 300F/ 150C with the rack in the middle shelf. Pour the flour into a baking container or aluminium foil shaped like a bowl on a tray (for easy cooling later). Cut the pandan leaves into 2-inch/ 5-cm pieces and hide them in the flour with equal spacing. Place flour into the oven and bake for 1 hour 30 minutes.
Alternative: fry this in a dry wok on medium-low heat for at least 45 minutes, stirring very gently (or the flour will fly everywhere) until the pandan leaves are dry and slightly brown.
Meanwhile, place the coconut milk into the coldest part of the fridge.
Step 2: Once baked, remove the flour from the oven. If it is to be used immediately, remove the foil onto a plate or pour the flour onto a cooler pan. Remove the pandan leaves carefully trying not to break the dried leaves. Allow to cool for around 30 minutes or more to room temperature. If reserving for another time, cover it with some plastic film once cooled. Sift the flour to measure 200 grams in a bowl, and the rest into a smaller bowl (around 2 tablespoons worth) – be careful not to pass pieces of dried pandan leaf through it.
Step 3: Remove the fresh coconut milk or 1 can from the fridge – the cream should have solidified slightly on the surface. Gently scoop the cream, while avoiding the separated water, to measure 110 grams worth – open the other can if more is needed. Add the salt and stir well. Set aside. Return the rest to the fridge to be chilled if more is needed.
Step 4: In a mixing bowl, add the sugar, and make a well in the middle. In the middle, add 3 tablespoons coconut cream and the egg yolk. Using a large whisk or hand mixer, gently beat this mixture for around 3 minutes until the yolk is pale in color and the mixture is completely smooth and it does not feel granular to touch (to make sure that the sugar is completely dissolved especially if using caster sugar).
Step 5: (will take around 30 minutes): Add the flour in 3-tablespoons increments to the sugar-egg mixture and mix well using a spatula. Add more flour until the mixture is quite stiff. At this point, add 1 tablespoon coconut cream and mix with the spatula, breaking up the dough. Add more flour and mix with your hands as you rub the dough pieces with your fingers. Continue adding the cream until 80% of it is used and all the flour has been added. You should have a dry crumbly mixture.
Continue to add the coconut cream by ½-tablespoon increments by dripping it evenly over the dough. Use your fingers to break the larger dough pieces when mixing it. Continue to add the cream until the dough can just come together into a mass in the bowl but not form a ball – it should still crumble when pressure is applied. Cover with plastic film or moist kitchen towel.
Step 6: Turn the oven on to 300F/ 150C with the rack in the middle shelf. Place a baking/parchment paper big enough on a large baking tray – optional.
Step 7: Using a small pastry brush, dip it in the reserved excess flour and dust the mold indentations well. Shake off any excess but do not tap it on the countertop. Grab a small palmful of dough and squeeze hard to make it come together. Push the dough into the mold pattern making sure that it covers the whole indentation by pushing the dough quite firmly and evenly, with excess over the sides and mould top level (the dough should be a bit crumbly and fall apart easily – don’t panic).
When all the patterns in the mould are filled this way, use a butter knife to slide down the mould to shave off any excess. Turn the mould over and tap out the cookies on one end of the tray – you may have to turn the mould on the other end to tap out some stubborn ones. Repeat the process by dusting the moulds first. Arrange the cookies on the tray and use the brush to brush aside any fine bits of dough in between the cookies to a corner – remove with a spoon. If the dough is sticking to the mould, use a skewer or toothpick to clean the indentations before making the next batch of cookies.
Alternative: Roll or press down with hand on dough in small batches into ½-inch/ 1-cm thickness – if it is too crumbly, add a bit more coconut cream until it holds together more. Use the cookie cutters to cut the dough and transfer to the tray. Or you can push the original recipe dough into the cutter sitting on the tray to the above thickness.
Step 8: When the oven is hot enough, place the cookies in the middle rack with equal spacing from the oven walls. Set the timer to 20 minutes. At the 10 minute mark, rotate the pan so that the back of the tray is now in the front. At the 15 minute mark, check to see if the cookies are getting slightly brown at the bottom – if they are, remove them immediately. If not, continue to cook until the 20 minute mark. The cookies should be colorless and as white as possible.
Step 10: Remove the tray and let the cookies cool on the tray for around an hour – this is to allow the inside moisture to distribute throughout the whole cookie. Using the red food dye, dip the broader end of the toothpick into the dye and place a dot on the cookie, preferably the eye or the center.
Once cooled, you can place them in a storage container but do not close the lid tight for a day. They are best eaten the following day and after.
Recipe from my upcoming cookbook: Edible Memories.
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.
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.
Here, we see the Malay influence in the pairing of this mild vegetable with a spice paste that consists of fresh and dried chili peppers, shallots, garlic, and the ubiquitous pungent Belacan (shrimp paste). The use of the latter ingredient along with dried shrimp takes this dish to another level with a huge amount of umami savoriness added to this bland vegetable. However, the treatment of the eggplant is very Chinese in which it is not overcooked, and the pieces maintain their integrity while being infused with spiciness and flavor. Invariably, I always looked forward to my grandmother making this wonderful dish that did not need to convince her grandchildren to enjoy this vegetable due to the dish’s flavors.
When buying eggplant, choose the dark ones with a firm flesh; try to find the long Asian variety and not the bulbous Western one, which can have bitterness to it. Make sure to add only increments of ¼ cup of water when cooking so that the eggplant is steamed and not boiled, hence retaining its shape and texture. Once you get to taste this flavor-packed dish, you will understand why it was my family’s preferred way of eating eggplant, a preference that carries on to this day.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
5 dried chili boh or Kashmiri peppers, or chile puya, stemmed, seeded & soaked (or 1 tablespoon dried chili paste)
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained
3 medium/2 large Asian eggplants, stem removed, halved lengthwise & cut diagonally into 2-inch (5 cm) wide pieces (400 gm)
4 – 5 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded (or 2 tablespoons paste)
5 small/50 grams shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 inch (2½ cm) Belacan/shrimp paste (½ teaspoon paste)
¾ cup water
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Soak the dried chili boh peppers in hot water. Do the same for the dried shrimp in another bowl.
Meanwhile, prep the eggplant, red chili peppers, shallots, and garlic.
In a food processor, add the drained dried shrimp and chop until fine. Remove and reserve.
To the processor, add the drained dried red chili peppers and process until fine. Then add the red chilies, shallots, garlic, and Belacan, and process into a very smooth mixture. Remove and reserve.
In a pan on medium-high flame, add 4 tablespoons oil. Fry the processed mixture and dried shrimp for 3 minutes or until aromatic.
Add the eggplant and mix for around 1 minute. Add only ¼ cup water, ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Mix well, cover, and lower heat to medium. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes by stirring occasionally and adding an additional ¼ cup water each time the sauce dries up, until eggplant is fully cooked but not too soft.
When the eggplant is cooked, the sauce should have very little liquid left but not completely dry. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve immediately.
Usually, the word “asam” denotes the use of tamarind in Nyonya cooking as found in many of its dishes. Here, however, we have a dish that defies the use of that local ingredient. But the dish’s sour element comes from the different sauces of tomato ketchup, sweet chili sauce, and white vinegar, seasonings borrowed from English colonial times.
In addition the above sauce ingredients, this relatively easy dish packs a lot of flavor from the ginger root, garlic, oyster sauce, white pepper, and dark soy sauce, all contributing to a complex sauce that will make you want to savor every drop coating the shrimp shell before peeling it. In addition, the young celery leaves and spring onions bring in more herbal aromatics and texture to the dish. To avoid overcooking the shrimp, mix all the sauce ingredients in a bowl, and pour it into the pan once the shrimp is no more pink on the outside. If you cannot find young celery, you can substitute it with celery leaves or cilantro that are chopped fine.
After cooking this, don’t be surprised to find yourself licking every drop of this fantastic sauce.
400 gm medium to large shrimp, heads off, with shells on
4 cloves garlic, peeled & cut into thin long wide slivers
2 Finger Hot red chili pepper, stems and seeds removed & sliced fine
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
¼ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice or white vinegar
1-2 stalk young celery leaves (Cantonese: kahn choy), sliced 1-inch (2 ½ cm) long
1-2 stalk spring onion, cut 1-inch (2½ cm) long
If shrimps are not deveined, follow these steps:
Holding the shrimp in one hand, hold a small serrated knife in the other hand, and start at the top of the first shell after the head. Cut into the shell and into the flesh all the way until before the last segment before the tail, deep enough to expose the vein – do not go deeper than the vein. Remove the vein and dip it with the fingers in a bowl of water to release it.
In a wok or pan on medium-high heat, add 4 tablespoons oil, and fry garlic, ginger and chili for 1 minute or less until aromatic and slightly golden brown. Add the shrimp, and stir them for 1 minute or until they appear just cooked on the exterior. When cooked, lower flame to medium-low.
In a bowl, mix the ketchup, chili sauce, oyster sauce, white pepper, dark soy sauce, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Add sauce to pan. Bring sauce to a simmer and let it reduce until thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in green onion and celery leaves for 1 minute. Serve immediately.
Basically this is a pancake that is enriched with the use of creamy coconut milk, molasses-like palm sugar, and pieces of the durian fruit or banana that gives it a strong and rich flavor that is distinct and hard to describe – pancake a la Nyonya.
When the durian fruit is in season in Malaysia, you can smell it everywhere you go, especially in the markets or near stalls where they are sold. This thorny fruit exudes a flavor and smell that are so pungent that you either have a love or hate relationship with this exotic fruit. The Peranakans have incorporated the custard-like flesh of this Southeast Asian fruit in this dessert in which the fruit’s assertiveness is lessened by its cooking.
I distinctly recall watching my paternal grandmother making this on a specific occasion. It was raining but she was determined that her grandchildren were going to enjoy this snack. Under an overhead ledge by the kitchen, she made a small charcoal fire in a portable burner as she poured the batter and cooked the pancakes with such attention and care. I stood next to her as I observed the whole process with anticipation, and she would give me the first few pancakes for me to eat while they were still piping hot. It was the perfect snack for a cool wet afternoon; there were indeed some benefits that came along with being the cook’s assistant!
If you do not have an Apom mould pan, one with round deep indentations, you may use a non-stick pan or silver-dollar pancake pan, but make sure that the pancakes are not too big, or too thick, about 3 inches (5 cm) in diameter. If you cannot find fresh durians, you can find frozen ones in Asian markets (or you may make this with just ripe bananas which is equally delightful), although the strong sulfur oxide-like smell will not be present, which may be a relief for some sensitive noses!
Makes around 25 pancakes
150 grams palm sugar (gula melaka) or light brown sugar
1 stalk pandan leaf, folded and tied into a knot
5 tablespoons water
½ head/ 1 cup coconut shavings, fresh
(or ¾ cup canned coconut cream or 1¼ cups canned undiluted coconut milk)
250 gm bleached wheat flour, all-purpose, not self-raising
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup water
1 piece durian fruit or 1 large ripe banana, flesh only and cut into small pieces
Apom mould, silver dollar pancake or regular nonstick pan
In a saucepan, add gula melaka or brown sugar, pandan leaf, and 5 tablespoons water. Bring to a simmer for 3 minutes until it is a thick syrup consistency. Pour into a bowl and let cool.
Squeeze milk from coconut shavings into a bowl. Add enough water to squeezed shavings, and resqueeze to make a total of 1¼ cups of squeezed coconut milk. If using canned coconut cream, mix it with water until you have 1¼ cup liquid. If using canned coconut milk, do not dilute this mixture.
In a large bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. Add the sugar syrup into the batter and mix well. Slowly pour the coconut milk into the batter and mix well. Add some water bit by bit (around ¼ cup) and stop once the batter has reached a condensed milk thick consistency that pours into a constant stream. Add the pieces of durian or banana. Stir well to avoid lumps.
Heat the round Apom mould or a skillet on medium-low flame, oil it with a few drops of oil, and wipe off the excess with paper towel. Add just enough batter to cover the bottom (3 inches/5 cm diameter on a skillet), even batter out with a spoon, and cook until the top is quite set but still barely wet on the top. Fold pancake towards the middle and let the two halves stick by pressing down firmly – if the middle is still too runny, cook on both the folded sides until it is set. Remove and set aside. Take pan off heat.
Repeat process by first stirring the batter well, lightly oiling the pan, and wiping off the excess oil with the used paper towel.
After cooking for around a week, my guests have just left my Lunar New Year Open House. It was the perfect opportunity for me to prepare some of my grandmother’s Nyonya dishes, a treat for my guests over the last few years. This year, I decided to make New Year cookies as dessert, and I started preparations a bit earlier for that. With three attempts to make the special powdery cookies, Kueh Bangkit, resulting in dissatisfaction and disappointment, I resorted to Peanut Cookies, a favorite of mine back when I was growing up in Malaysia. These are very delicate flakey bites with the rich nutty flavor in each crumb. A recent online comment by a reader reminded me of how my grandmother made these with pork lard which gave these sweet bites an added unctuousness that I still recall with great nostalgia.
With success under my belt, here is the simple and tasty recipe, adapted from the Rasa Malaysia website (see page).
Makes around 50 cookies.
4 cups/950 ml (540 gm) roasted whole peanuts (or oven roast peeled raw peanuts at 300 F (150C) until fragrant and lightly brown), plus extra pieces for decoration
1 cup/240 ml confectionary or icing sugar
1 cup/240 ml peanut oil or lard
2 cups/475 ml all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons shortening or cold butter
1 egg yolk, beaten slightly with 1 tsp water for egg wash
Chop peanuts in food chopper until very fine and loose and when the mixture starts to become slightly sticky – do not over-chop them.
Mix the ground peanut, sugar, and flour together until well combined. Cut the shortening into mixture until fine bits. Slowly add the peanut oil and mix well, until the mixture begins to come together – stop adding the oil at this point.
Shape into small balls and place on baking tray lined with parchment paper – do not flatten. Use a toothpaste cap to make the circular indentation by pressing and rotating the cap to lightly flatten the cookie. Or you can press down a peanut half into the middle of the dough.
Brush the sides below the indentation or around the peanut with the egg wash.
Bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) on middle rack for 20 minutes or until brown – check and watch out for burning after 15 minutes and rotate baking tray position if needed be. Check around the bottom of cookie for burning and remove if you smell burning. Remove from oven, take the parchment paper with the cookies off pan, and let cool. When cool, store in airtight container.
The Winter Solstice ceremony, called Tung Chek in Hokkien, or also known as the Kueh Ee festival among the Peranakans, is celebrated on the 22nd of December in order to mark the end of the agricultural and astronomical year in China. To this day, this custom is still practiced in the Peranakans’ ancestral homeland, the Fujian province of China.
Even though the winter season is unnoticeable in the tropics, the Southeast Asian Chinese transplants continued this tradition with little to no dilution of its original form. For this occasion, the Peranakans would eat kueh ee, which is glutinous rice balls colored red, white, and occasionally green, served in ginger-flavored sugar syrup—the different colors represent the yin and yang forces of nature. For dinner, the Malacca Peranakans would serve the rice balls in a savory fragrant pork and chicken soup, which is how it was celebrated in my family. As part of the observance, large balls of this rice flour would be made and placed as offerings on the home ancestral altar and to the Kitchen God. A pair of the larger cakes (one red and the other white) was placed on each side of the main door for months to attract blessings on the family. Such practices on this specific day were to remind oneself that the whole family had lived through another year. On the other hand, a death in the family meant that the custom would not be observed that year as a sign of respect for the departed one. In the past, this rice ball soup was also customarily served to a newly married couple on their wedding day, as an assurance for the longevity of their new partnership.
The savory soup version is a delicious dish that I feel should be served more than once a year. Since it is only served at the winter solstice, we treat the dish reverently, relishing every drop of the savory soup and the rice balls that have absorbed some of the soup flavors. The garnish of cilantro, scallions, white pepper, Tianjin preserved vegetable (tung choy), fried shallots, and fried garlic are de rigueur since they impart some additional flavor notes to each light sip. The colors of the balls are symbolic, and I have even seen some recipes that use green food coloring, which I find unusual next to the customary red and white. The secret to the dish is to make a rich broth that will flavor the rice balls. The garnishes add a different flavor dimension to the dish, so do not omit these important elements.
NB: A recent posting of this recipe received a lot of hits and some comments that shed some light on this savory version. Many said that they grew up eating this in a Hakka or Toishan household. The parents of my granduncle, Ah Kong, were from Toishan, and my grandmother was adopted by his family. I suspect my grandmother learned the dish from them, hence, it is a tradition what we continue in our family.
Preparation time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (1 hour for making stock)
500 grams (1 pound) pork bones, with bits of meat attached, or 4 cups chicken stock
1 chicken drumstick or 100 grams (3½ ounces) lean pork
5 cups water, plus more for rice balls
Vegetable oil, for frying
3 garlic cloves, minced
5 small (50 grams/1¾ ounces) shallot, peeled, sliced into thin rings
1 scallion, chopped into ¼-centimeter (⅛-inch) pieces
Leaves from 1 stalk coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
Pinch white pepper
Put the pork bones and chicken in a pot with 5 cups of water, cover, and bring to a rolling boil. Lower the heat to a simmer (you may continue to steps 2 and 3). Remove the drumstick after 30 minutes and let cool in a bowl of water—shred the meat and reserve. Let the stock continue simmering for 30 minutes more. Turn off the heat and remove the pork bones. When cool, remove the meat from the bones and cut into small cubes.
In a pan on medium-low heat with enough oil to cover the base, fry the garlic until golden-brown. Remove, drain well, and set aside. Fry the shallots in the same way. Reserve for garnishing.
In a large bowl, add all the flour and then water bit by bit until a thick dough forms. Warning: It is easy to make it too runny, so be conservative with the water. The consistency of the dough should be like thick clay, very stiff to the touch and barely sticking to the hand. Work the dough for a few minutes until it is even and smooth.
Divide the dough in half, and add coloring to one half until it is red enough. You can test this by dropping a small amount of dough into boiling water (the color should be bright and rich). Pinch off small amounts of dough and form them into balls the size of a small marble or large pea by rolling them between your palms. Place the rolled dough on a plate.
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Cook the white dough in the boiling water until fully cooked or until they start to float in the water. Remove to cool in a bowl of cold water. Repeat the process with the red dough.
Taste the Tianjin preserved vegetables. If they are too salty, soak them in water for a minute. Remove and squeeze dry.
Bring the stock back to a boil. Add only a bit of salt until barely salty—the preserved vegetable will add more salt to the soup. Add a few dough balls, a pinch of Tianjin pickle, and bits of chopped meat to a serving bowl. When the soup comes to a boil, immediately spoon it over the ingredients in the bowl.
Garnish the soup with the garlic, fried shallot rings, scallion, coriander, and a pinch of white pepper. Serve immediately.