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. 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 ¾ cup water, ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Mix well. Cover and lower heat to medium. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes stirring occasionally until eggplant is fully cooked but not too soft – add a bit more water if the eggplant is not fully cooked and the sauce has dried up, and cook it further.
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 self-raising bleached wheat flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
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 stop once the batter has reached a condensed milk thick consistency. 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 barely liquid. Fold pancake towards the middle and let the two halves stick – 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 ground roasted peanuts (or oven roast peeled raw peanuts at 250 F (120C) until fragrant and lightly brown), plus extra pieces for decoration
1 cup confectionary sugar
1 cup peanut oil
2 cups 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.
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.
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.
This recipe is quintessentially representative of Nyonya cooking due to the use of a full-flavored and spicy rempah (spice paste) as the stuffing for the simple fish. I recall eating this dish often for dinner when Mamah was alive, as this was one of the dishes in her extensive culinary repertoire. She used to stuff a whole fish with the spice paste and then pan-fry it until the fish was cooked through. I distinctly remember her tearing away pieces of the sambal-smeared flesh from the whole fish with her nimble fingers during dinner, the way most Peranakans used to eat during her time.
I recall a very touching story that Mamah once told me when I was still a preteen. During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during the Second World War, there were many air raids that took place, and before such bombings occurred, sirens would go off as a warning. At one point, such raids had been taking place for a long period of time, preventing the inhabitants from leaving their homes for a few days. Needless to say, the local market had not opened during that time, and after a few days, people were desperate for food and other provisions.
After a brief period of quiet, the market was open again. Mamah went to the market in search of food for the family, and she went over to the fishmonger to barter over a piece of fish. Suddenly, the sirens started wailing and everyone panicked as they ran for cover to hide from the menacing airplanes. My grandmother froze, torn between running for her life and fending for her loved ones who were very hungry. In a split second, she grabbed the biggest fish on the cart and made a mad dash for home. When I heard the story, I marveled that an unassuming, small-framed woman had such tenacity to fight for survival under the most difficult circumstances.
In this seafood recipe, the secret to the tasty stuffing is the use of small red onion (preferably Bombay onion) that has a certain sweetness, dried chili peppers for depth of flavor and spiciness, and tamarind paste, which is essential in bringing an acidic and sweet flavor profile to the mix. I have seen recipes that use ingredients that unnecessarily complicate the flavors, like fresh red chili peppers and lemongrass—I believe that this recipe is tasty enough with fewer ingredients, just as my grandmother used to prepare it. Since the fish has to cook for a long period of time, my grandmother would use an oilier type of fish, like chub or Indian mackerel (Malay: ikan kembong) or Torpedo Scad (ikan cencaru/cincaru), since the spice paste would keep the fish moist during the cooking process. However, other types of white firm-fleshed fish can be easily substituted.
I have written a simpler method where the chili paste can be served alongside pan-fried fillets. When you cook and serve this spicy dish, you will understand why this was a weekly staple in our family dinners, delicious enough to make you want to eat it with your fingers, Peranakan-style.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 45 minutes
15 dried chili boh or Kashmiri peppers, or chile puya, stemmed and seeded (or 3 tablespoons dried chili paste)
1 very large/250 grams (8 ounces) red onions (not shallots), peeled and coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying fish
1 tablespoon seedless tamarind pulp mixed with ½ cup hot water, strained to remove fiber
¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
400 grams (14 ounces) white firm-fleshed fish filets, like tilapia, red snapper, mahi-mahi
Sweet/glutinous rice flour
Pour enough hot water on dried chilis to cover and soak until they are soft. Drain and place them in a food processor, then purée into a fine paste. Remove and set aside.
In the food processor, purée the onion, garlic, and belacan into a fine paste. Remove and mix with the chili paste.
In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the chili-onion paste until aromatic, about 6 minutes. Then add 12 tablespoons of tamarind juice, and the salt and sugar, or to taste. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, until very thick but not too dry, about 12 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Cut the fish fillets into bite-size pieces. Pour enough flour into a shallow dish/plate to cover the base, and dredge the pieces of fish. Dust off any excess flour.
Add some oil to the pan on medium-high heat, and fry the fish until both sides are golden brown. Drain well and place on paper towels. Remove and serve with the chili-tamarind paste on the side or smeared on top.
Note: You can fry the fish Nyonya-style by smearing the chili paste into a slit in a thick fillet, or stuffed into slits made in whole fish, and frying until completely cooked. Continuously spoon hot oil over the fish to baste it during frying.
In making this dessert, we see the use of starches other than the usual rice: purple yam, sweet potato, and taro root—common Southeast Asian tubers. The velvetiness of the cooked root starches matches the rich, thick, and sweet broth with tiny sago pearls and bits of chewy cooked tapioca gluten swimming in it. The list of ingredients is typically found in Nyonya desserts: rich coconut milk, caramel-like gula melaka (palm sugar), and fragrant pandan leaf. This sweet soup can be served warm or cold, hence its consumption by my family at any time of the day or night.
Traditionally, this dish was a simple preparation of the tubers and chewy uncolored tapioca gluten bits. Nowadays, the dish has been modified with the chewy bits stained red, green, blue or yellow, which makes the dessert visually more appealing. When dealing with the sticky tapioca dough, make sure to wet your hands and the knife; this ingredient adds a chewy textural element to the dish reminding one of gummy bears. The original recipe only uses the tapioca flour gluten instead of the sago/tapioca pearls—you may choose which one to include, or maybe even both, a common choice these days. Since canned coconut milk comes in different consistencies and qualities, I have made the necessary adjustments.
This is a fairly rich dish, so it is usually served in small portions in the diminutive colorful Peranakan bowls described in the above reading. As no surprise, I would find my family members sneaking into the refrigerator in the middle of the night to have an additional serving. Once you make and savor this rich flavorful dish, you may find yourself doing the same and perhaps bursting into a spontaneous Cha Cha dance, from which this dessert takes its name!
Preparation time: 1 hour
½ taro root, peeled and cut into 1-centimeter (½-inch) cubes, or 1 medium (250 grams or ½ pound) Asian purple sweet yam (Malay: keledek)
1 medium (250 grams or ½ pound) Asian yellow sweet yam (Malay: keledek), peeled and cut into 1-centimeter (½-inch) cubes, or 1 sweet potato
3 pandan leaves
2 cups (475 ml) fresh or canned regular coconut milk, or 1½ cups (350 ml) canned thick coconut milk plus ½ cup water
½ teaspoon salt
100 grams or 3½ ounces gula melaka (palm sugar), or ½ cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons water
50 grams (1¾ ounces) sago or tapioca pearls, around 2 mm diameter
50 grams (1¾ ounces) tapioca flour — optional
Food coloring (any color) — optional
Place the taro root and yam (or sweet potato) cubes on a steaming plate. Place 2 pandan leaves in the steaming water and steam the roots for 15 minutes or more until completely cooked or just fork-tender.
In a saucepan, simmer the coconut milk with the salt, uncovered, for 5 minutes until slightly thickened. Set aside.
In a separate saucepan, mix the gula melaka with the water, add 1 pandan leaf (tied into a knot), and bring it to a brief boil. Set aside to cool with pandan leaf in it.
In a fine-mesh sieve, wash the sago pearls well until the water is clear, then drain it well. In a pot, boil the sago in plenty of water for 5 minutes or until the center is transparent and cooked. Strain into a fine sieve, drain, and set aside.
To make the tapioca gluten (optional): In a saucepan, bring ¼ cup of water to a boil. Pour all the boiling water in one go onto the tapioca flour in a bowl, add a few drops of the food coloring, and mix well until a thick dough forms. Fill a saucepan with lots of water, and bring it to a boil. Meanwhile, turn the dough mixture onto a small cutting board. With wet hands, shape the dough into a thin roll. Dip the tip of the knife in a bowl of water, and cut the dough at a diagonal to get 1-centimeter- (½-inch-) wide small square or triangular pieces. Once the water is boiling, place the pieces into the boiling water. The pieces are done when they are translucent and begin to float, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and keep in a bowl of cold water. Drain well before mixing with rest of ingredients.
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together with the coconut milk and syrup (without pandan leaf). Serve warm or chilled.
In this recipe, we see the Peranakan’s penchant for using a strong flavor element with a mild ingredient – tamarind. The use of this acidic and slightly sweet fruit perhaps harkens back to its introduction by the Tamils who controlled the Straits of Melaka in the 11th century. This application is not only found in this shrimp dish but also in another made with pork belly.
The basic Nyonya version of this dish is very simple, comprising of only shrimp and tamarind paste as the main ingredients. However, this version is a “supped up” recipe that I learned from Tri Suherni, who worked as my parents’ cook for many years. Here, she brings her Javanese background with the addition of garlic, shallots, chilies, and whole peppercorns into the whole flavor profile.
The shells are kept on the seafood for two purposes. First is to keep the shrimp moist during the cooking, and second, to act as a canvas for the tamarind sauce to hold on to. The deveining process allows the tamarind to permeate the flesh during marination.
The best way to really enjoy this dish is the following. Holding the shrimp by its tail, bite the head off, and savor the sauce while you bite down to release the slightly bitter head juices. After removing the shell from the mouth, bite off a chunk, savor the sauce as you manipulate the shell off the flesh – the deveining facilitates this easy removal. Scoop a spoonful of rice into the mouth and chew the mixture together. After completely working on a shrimp, don’t forget to lick the remaining sauce on the fingers. There is no finer way to enjoy it, which, to me, is totally delightful for this gourmand.
Marination time: 1 to 2 hours
Preparation and cooking time: 15 minutes
500 grams (1 lb) medium-large to large shrimp, unpeeled and deveined
2 tablespoon unseeded tamarind pulp, mixed well with ½ cup room-temperature water and strained
5 whole white peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
5 small/50 grams shallots, peeled and chopped roughly
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into half lengthwise and into 1-inch pieces
If shrimps are not deveined, follow these steps:
Holding the shrimp in one hand, hold a small serrated knife on 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.
Snip off the end of the shrimp nose and the antennae with a pair of scissors or a knife. Add the shrimp to a large bowl, and drain the shrimp very well of water. Add the tamarind paste, and mix well. Marinate for 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator.
When the marinated shrimps are ready:
In a food processor, add the peppercorns and crush into fine bits but not into a fine powder. Add the garlic and shallots, and process into a fine paste. Remove and reserve.
In a pan on medium-high heat, add the oil. Add the processed mixture and fry for 2 minutes until aromatic. Add the marinated shrimp and tamarind mixture, and add ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste. Cook each side of shrimp for 2 minutes only. Add the chilies and stir for 2 minutes until the sauce is completely dry. Serve immediately.
The Summer Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month (the “double fifth”) of the lunar calendar (7th June this year). It is also known as the Kueh Chang festival, which is closely associated with the Dragon Boat Race Festival. In preparation for this special day, Nyonya ladies would get together and spend time making kueh chang dumplings, consisting of glutinous rice and usually with a stuffing in the middle, all wrapped in bamboo leaves from China (they are larger and preferable to the local Southeast Asian leaves). In some Peranakan communities, savory meat dumplings known as kiam bak chang are popular. However, in the Malacca Peranakan community, sweet meat dumplings known as kueh chang melaka are made instead, along with kueh chang abu that are made with an alkaline solution and paired with a choice of either sweet coconut jam (sri kaya) or palm sugar syrup (gula melaka) to temper the dumpling’s slightly bitter taste.
On the day itself, the dumplings are given to relatives and friends in remembrance of the Dragon Boat Festival. This celebration has its roots in an ancient belief of the Wu and Yue people of eastern and southern China who believed that river dragons controlled the water needed for agriculture. These dragons were fed such offerings in an attempt to control the rainfall necessary for the crops. In time, the festival was associated with another legend in which the poet, Chu Yuan, drowned himself in 277 BCE to protest a prince’s refusal to consider social reform suggested by the poet. Rice dumplings were taken by the rescuers as sustenance while they searched for the drowned poet. Legend has it that to keep the river dragons from feeding on the poet’s body, carved dragonheads were displayed at the helms of the boats, and dumplings were thrown into the river to distract the sea creatures. According to local belief, the dragons, upon ingesting the offerings, then instructed the local people to wrap the dumplings in leaves. This custom is now practiced to represent the qualities of family unity and loyalty, the same ones that Chu Yuan exemplified in his patriotic endeavors.
As a child, I would sit next to Mamah and watch her make this once-a-year kueh chang, mesmerized by her wrapping the various ingredients in leaves. It was astounding to watch the precision that she displayed in the folding of the bamboo leaves into perfectly formed cones, the addition of the right proportion of soaked glutinous rice and meat-mushroom stuffing into the leaf cones, and the deftness of her fingers as she produced tightly sealed, perfectly symmetrical pyramid-like dumplings in a couple of decisive and well-honed hand movements (video). After she shaped the dumplings, my stomach would growl as I impatiently waited to taste my favorite dumpling that was served only once a year for this celebration.
For the anticipation-filled grandchildren, all that mattered was the 2-hour wait while these dumplings were boiled, pulled out, and served piping hot. We used to dive into our plates without any sense of decorum. When this treat was “in season,” I mostly enjoyed them in the morning after they were warmed up in the steamer. As an adult living away from my homeland, I missed partaking in this annual ceremony. With that in mind, my auntie Madam Dolly Lee would freeze a bunch for me so I could enjoy them when I returned to Malaysia months later to visit her and my family. This dumpling truly brings back fond memories of my deceased relatives; even writing about this stirs up a deep yearning within me for these dumplings and their warm familial presence. To satisfy my year-long wait, I would eat them to my heart’s content for breakfast and tea for the next few days.
In the recipe, I have provided an easy alternative for those who, like me, are not deft enough with the bamboo leaves, which produces the same result as the traditional wrapping and cooking method. If you are wrapping the dumplings, make sure to use the leaves from China as they tend to be longer and more appropriate for wrapping.
To this day I have not perfected this elusive skill of dumpling making, despite breaking the folding process down into a science. I guess innate intuition and time-honed culinary skills cannot be easily replaced by book smarts.
Dried bamboo leaves, from China, washed and soaked in water, and striped into 2 long pieces along the spine (optional)
To make the filling
If using whole coriander seeds, toast in a dry pan on medium heat – do not allow to burn by continuously shaking the pan. When they are fragrant, remove seeds to cool down. Crush seeds until a fine powder.
In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil and fry the garlic for 1 minute until slightly golden brown. Add the bean sauce and stir well for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and stir for 2 minutes. Add the pork, melon sugar, and coriander and stir well. Add the water, salt, and dark soy sauce.
Cover the pan with a lid, lower the heat to medium low, and bring the filling to a simmer. Remove the lid and cook until the mixture is quite dry, about 10 minutes. There should be barely any moisture left. Remove and let cool.
To make the rice
In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil and stir-fry the garlic for 1 minute until golden brown. Add the rice, salt, and white pepper. Lower the heat to low and stir the rice for 10 minutes until the mixture is quite dry, but not too dry.
Remove and divide the rice mixture into thirds. Stain one-third with enough bunga telang water to make an even deep color but slightly translucent blue-stained rice (about ½ teaspoon coloring to a tablespoon rice) – use more coloring if necessary.
To assemble and cook the dumplings in bowls:
You can make a medium-size rice dumpling in small rice ceramic bowls. Place the unstained glutinous rice in a wide container like a pie dish. Pour 3 cups of water onto the rice, add the pandan leaves bundle to the simmering water, and steam on medium heat for 20 minutes (you may place bamboo leaves on the bottom of the dish and on top, shiny side touching rice, to add fragrance to the dumpling). After 20 minutes, add another 1 cup of water and steam for another 20 minutes. Remove and cover with plastic wrap.
If cooking a lesser quantity of cooked rice than what the recipe calls for, cover bottom of bowl with strips of bamboo leaf cut to size in a cross fashion with shiny side up, and add three times the amount of water to rice by measuring with the same spoon or ladle, or 2 tablespoons rice plus 6 tablespoons water per rice bowl. Steam until completely absorbed (15 to 20 minutes). Remove bowls, scoop out rice, and cover cooked rice with plastic wrap. Save the bamboo leave strips.
Into empty (or the same) rice bowls, place back the strips of the bamboo leaves, shiny side up, and add 1 tablespoon of blue-stained rice and 2 ½ tablespoons of water. Steam for 15 minutes.
Remove the bowls from the steamer. Make a slight indentation in the rice, add 1 heaping tablespoon of meat filling, and cover the mixture with 3½ tablespoons of cooked unstained rice, or the initial amount steamed in the bowl. Press down the top surface firmly and evenly with the backside of a spoon, and steam for 15 minutes. Remove and cover with plastic wrap while they cool down. Press down the top firmly to compact the dumpling. Refrigerate any unconsumed portions in the bowls.
To serve, loosen the rice from the side of the bowl with a tablespoon or butter knife before inverting it onto a plate.
To reheat unconsumed portions, steam the uncovered bowls for 15 minutes on medium-low heat.
You can also wrap the dumpling the traditional way with soaked Chinese bamboo leaves (video link)
For many years, I thought that pineapple tarts were exclusively a Peranakan dessert, as I would frequently see them sold mainly on the narrow streets of Melaka town. But this belief was overturned when I moved to the United States. One year, I was invited to a Christmas party given by a couple of friends of mine from Trinidad and Guyana. At the party, I was thrilled to see these very same tarts and at the same time amazed that other cultures made these delectable treats. Then it dawned upon me that the pineapple tart recipe was a legacy left behind by the British in Malaysia and in her former Caribbean colonies.
This sweet concoction is perhaps a version of the fruit jam tarts that the British are fond of, but it has been modified with the use of indigenous fruits like pineapple. Instead of just a plain fruit flavor of the English version, the filling here has been infused with cinnamon, star anise, and cloves, all being regional spices. The use of butter and milk in the dough is another clue to its Western origin, as these ingredients are not native to the region. These tarts are addictive delights, but they are quite perishable. Store them in airtight containers or refrigerate them quickly to prevent any mold forming. I have included the more complicated tart version as well as the simpler jellyroll.
Mamah spent most of her life in Melaka, and she had a wide reputation for her Nyonya cakes and pastries; this recipe is one from her repertoire. A couple of weeks before Chinese New Year, she and her sisters would get together to prepare all the food from scratch. Watching such activity, my siblings and I knew that these delicious tarts would come off the assembly line of busy hands along with the myriad of other food products. I once attempted this recipe alone, which only proved to me that cooperative work is the best way to make them. I still remember the delicacy of each small piece with the sweet and fruity filling on the top, covered by a thin latticework of pastry that made them (almost) too pretty to be eaten. To this date, I have not encountered a rendition as good as hers. I hope this recipe does justice to the tarts she would bake that produced such big smiles and satisfied stomachs in her grandchildren. Once you start eating these, you’ll discover how difficult it is to stop at just one.
Makes 120 rolls or 60 tarts.
Preparation time: around 4 hours or less
For the filling:
1 large pineapple, peeled, cored, and finely diced (4 cups), or 4 (28-ounce) large cans chopped pineapple
Using a cheesecloth, squeeze out and reserve most of the juice from the pineapple pieces while leaving some liquid behind. You may use a hand stick blender to chop it up, but not too fine.
In a saucepan on medium-low heat, cook the squeezed pineapple, rock sugar (if using), enough white sugar to make a small portion of the mixture taste nearly cloyingly sweet, cinnamon, star anise, and cloves for 20 to 25 minutes until the mixture is thick, sweet, glossy, and very dry. Break larger pieces up with a spoon. Add some reserved pineapple juice if the mixture dries out too early. The end result should be slightly moist with a slightly caramelized color and with no excess liquid. Remove the whole spices when the filling is cooked. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.
Spoon the filling into portions on a cookie sheet and let cool: ¼ teaspoon each for jelly rolls and ½ teaspoon for tarts. Or cover and refrigerate the whole mixture overnight for another time.
To make the dough
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour. Using two knives or a pair of scissors, cut the butter into pea-size bits.
Make a well in the middle of the mixture and add the salt (if using unsalted butter), the whole egg, 2 tablespoons of milk, and the ice water. Mix thoroughly in the well. Bit by bit, slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet. If the dough is not coming together, add a bit more milk. Do not overwork the flour, just enough to bring it together. The dough should not be too soft, too wet, or too stiff, and it should not be sticky – add a bit of flour if it is too wet. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 170°C (350°F).
To make jelly rolls
Lightly roll out the dough to a ¼-inch thickness; it should be 13 centimeters (5 inches) wide. If you like, use a spiral lattice roller to put a pattern into the dough.
Cut the dough into five 2.5-centimeter- (1-inch) wide long strips. Flip each strip over and cut into sections, each 4 centimeters (1½ inches) long.
Spread each section with ¼ teaspoon of pineapple filling, roll, and close the ends like a small jellyroll. The striped pattern, if you made one, should be on the outside. Place on a parchment paper–lined tray. Brush the tops of the pastries with the thinned egg yolk.
To make tarts
Divide the dough into four equal amounts. Work with one section at a time, keeping the others covered in the refrigerator. Lightly dust the dough with flour and roll it ⅓ centimeter (⅛ inch) thick. Brush off any excess flour from the top.
Use a specialized dough cutter for the tart pastry. If not, follow these steps: Use the 2¼-inch cookie cutter to cut rounds into the dough. Use the 1¼-inch cutter to cut out the middle section of half of the rounds. Using a butter knife, lift and align the brushed side of a whole round on top of the brushed side of a hollowed round. Press it down quite firmly. Invert it and place this double dough on a parchment paper–lined cookie sheet. Use the fluted side of the 2-inch cutter to create a scalloped edge to the tart. Remove and reserve the excess dough. Repeat with the remaining dough until the baking sheet is full. Cover with plastic and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Repeat the process for the remaining three pieces of dough. Remove one cookie sheet from the refrigerator. Use a butter knife to cut diagonal lines into the double dough rim—do this without handling the dough with your fingers.
Place ½ teaspoon of filling in a mound in the middle of the tart. Roll out the reserved excess dough and cut it into short thin strips. Take two strips and form a crisscross pattern on top of the filling. Brush the pastry around the filling with the thinned egg yolk, including the top strips. Repeat the process until all the tarts are prepared.
To bake the pastries
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until golden yellow. Remove and cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
During one of my trips back to visit my parents in Malaysia, I went to get a facial, since it was cheaper there than in the United States. The beautician was a nice chatty lady from Melaka, where my father and relatives hail from. During the session, I started to ask her about what she remembered about Nyonya cuisine while she was growing up there. She listed a bunch of dishes that I was very familiar with, until she started to describe a certain salad dish. At this point, I stopped her and asked her to give me a more detailed description of its ingredients. When she finished describing the dish, I realized then that my family had not eaten this salad since Mamah passed away nearly twenty-five years before. I was so excited about finding a lost culinary treasure that I asked my mother to go the market the next morning to purchase the ingredients, and that night, we recreated the dish.
While preparing this dish, I could not believe that after twenty-five years I still remembered how the dish should taste, the flavor memories still at the tip of my tongue as I adjusted the amount of salt, sugar, chili paste, and lime juice that make up the dish’s seasoning. During dinner, my parents, my aunt, and I were very quiet as we ate the salad. A sense of comfort and reminiscence came upon us, and our eyes looked slightly glazed. At that point, I knew that my grandmother was present then and there through that particular dish—it was a very touching moment for all of us.
An enquiry by me about this dish on a Baba-Nyonya Facebook group produced a lot of responses and some interesting information. First, it confirmed that the dish’s Baba Melayu name was correct, as I had not been sure of its veracity, and that there is a northern Penang version called Kerabu Timun, as well as other versions in the Kelantan Peranakan and the Malacca Portuguese communities. I also learned that my version was missing a key component, pounded dried shrimp or dried brine shrimp (gerago), that brings the dish’s umami factor to another level—for this, I’m grateful for the help of social media and the group Peranakan members for guiding me with this “lost” recipe. Some commented that they grew up eating a version made with boiled pork skin, and my father even remembers a version made with chicken intestine. And finally, many posted that they had not eaten this dish in a long time, including quite a few that wrote that they last ate it when their mothers were alive; a lady remarked she had not tasted the dish for nearly 70 years. This last revelation stirred up in me the same sadness and sense of nostalgia when I rediscovered this recipe years ago as I realize how quickly certain dishes like this one could easily be forgotten or not transmitted to future generations.
This dish is basically a salad incorporating cooked chicken gizzards and pork with fresh cucumber and a full-flavored spicy sauce, made fragrant by slivers of torch ginger flower (bunga kantan). This flower is essential in imparting its citrus-like and uniquely aromatic quality to the dish. However, it is very difficult to find its fresh form outside of Southeast Asia (hence the commissioned photos by a Malaysian friend)—do not use the dry form as it is too fibrous for the dish (you may omit it and still produce a tasty dish). As with the other salad-like dishes, this is not served as a separate course but rather as part of the whole meal. Do not mix the sauce with the meat and cucumber in advance otherwise the cucumber will be soft and the dish too soggy. Hopefully, the flavors in this dish will tickle your palate and touch your heart like it did when my family revived and saved it from possible extinction.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
4 chicken gizzards
250 grams (½ pound) pork belly, skin removed with a bit of fat left on
1 medium cucumber
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes, drained, and pounded or processor chopped not too finely
4 small (40 grams/1½ ounces) shallots, peeled and cut into fine rings
2 tablespoons sambal belacan ; or 3 or Finger Hot red chilipeppers, seeded and stemmed (or 1½ tablespoons chili paste or sambal oelek), plus 6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste), crushed together into a fine paste
5 tablespoons lime juice (10 limau kasturi or 3 limes)
½ head bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), sliced diagonally, very finely
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
Put the chicken gizzards and pork belly into a pot on medium heat, and pour in enough water to cover. Simmer covered for 30 minutes—you may proceed with the next step and prepping the other ingredients. When cooked, remove and slice the pork thinly into slices 2-by-3 centimeters (¾-by-1 inch). Slice the gizzards into very thin long pieces.
Peel the cucumber and halve it lengthwise. Remove the seeds using a tablespoon. Slice the cucumber diagonally into ½ centimeter- (¼-inch-) thick pieces.
In a bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar levels. Serve immediately.
This refreshing yet spicy fruit and vegetable salad was a favorite of mine when I was growing up, and it still remains so. Here, we see the mingling of Southeast Asian fruits and spices along with Chinese peanut-sesame brittle. Although the ingredients are simple—quite a rarity among Nyonya dishes—what makes it taste so great is the sauce that adds complexity, and the spices that beautifully complement the sweet fresh pineapple and cool cucumber.
Every time Mamah prepared this salad, she would call me into the kitchen to taste it, and I would fine-tune the flavors before it was served, even though this is perhaps one of the simplest Nyonya dishes, with its short list of ingredients. She took much pride in her cooking and was well known for her expertise. As an uneducated single mother, she had to survive on her only skill—cooking—and she would get up at 4 a.m. to prepare the different cakes and snacks that my father and aunties had to sell in the schoolyard. In addition, she would be commissioned to prepare certain Nyonya dishes for upcoming festivities, or fix a failed recipe, as in the case of the finicky fermented rice dish, Tapeh Pulut. In her household, her cooking was not just about the excellence of the finished product, but also a personal demonstration of her deep love for her family and relatives, as she perhaps silently judged her efforts by their effusive remarks and satisfied bellies.
A key ingredient is the fresh ripe pineapple. In preparation, she would buy it days in advance and let it ripen until the kitchen was filled with its sweet aroma. When serving, mix the sauce with the salad only at the last minute, or the dish will become too soggy.
As I was growing up, I would speak Baba Melayu with Mamah, a mixture of Baba Melayu and Cantonese with Popoh, and English with my parents (English was the common linguistic denominator between my parents). When speaking to my family members and many Peranakans of my generation, the choice of language depended very much on which language best expressed an idea or phrase. This could also be whimsically dictated by the speaker’s mood at any given moment. At the dinner table, it was no surprise that eventually we created a rojak (salad) language in which various elements of all these languages were “tossed together” into an auditory mélange that was only completely understood by its participants, and totally confusing to dinner guests or the uninitiated.
To me, this simple rojak represents the complexity of how the Peranakan language operated at my family’s dinner table—a bit of this, a bit of that, and all of it coming together in perfect understanding and harmony (except for the uninitiated, of course).
Preparation time: 30 minutes
5 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 to 1½ tablespoons paste/sambal oelek
3 tablespoons dried shrimp, washed, soaked in hot water, and drained
¾ teaspoon salt
2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1.5-centimeter (½-inch) cubes (2 cups)
½ large ripe pineapple, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1.5-centimeter (½-inch) cubes (2 cups)
100 grams (3.5 ounces) Chinese peanut-and-sesame brittle (or 6 tablespoons roasted peeled peanuts, 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seed, 1 teaspoon sugar), crushed but not too finely (¾ cup)
If using belacan paste, spoon it onto a piece of aluminum foil, fold it until well sealed, and bake in a toaster oven on 350°F for 5 minutes or until aromatic. If you are using a belacan square, toast it over an open fire until aromatic. Take it outside to cool and to keep the strong smell out of the house. In a food processor, purée the chilis and belacan into a very fine mixture. Remove and set aside.
Add the dried shrimp to the processor and chop until fine. Remove and set aside.
Just before serving, mix the processed ingredients in a large bowl with the salt. Then mix in the cucumber and pineapple. Sprinkle the salad with the crushed peanut brittle and toss well. Serve immediately.
Note: You may use 2 tablespoons pre-made sambal belacan instead of the chilis and belacan.
A recent inquiry on a Facebook Baba Nyonya recipe group about memorable Nyonya dishes produced the mention of this amazingly delicious dish, hence my publishing of my grandmother’s recipe.
This signature dish of my maternal grandmother, Madam Leong Yoke Fong, was one of my favorites when I was growing up. It is similar to the Thai version, in which duck is the main ingredient instead of shrimp, but this recipe has a more robust flavor. The sauce used here has a unique combination of flavors: sweet-sourness and fruitiness of the tamarind and pineapple, pungency from the belacan (shrimp paste) and aromatic roots, brininess and depth of flavor from the salted fish, creaminess from the coconut milk, and heat from the chili peppers. It seems nearly impossible that these disparate ingredients could come together harmoniously, but the final result is a wonderful dish that was definitely a gastronomic highlight for my family during our large dinners.
If possible, use freshly cut pineapple to let the fruity and acidic flavors cut through the rich sauce. You may also use canned pineapple chunks packed in its own juice and not in syrup. You can find the salted fish in Asian stores, either at room temperature or in the frozen section—use the small imported croakers if you can’t find Malaysian-produced ones.
Popoh (the Cantonese title we used for my maternal grandmother) would be dressed kemban-style while she moved busily around the kitchen preparing our nightly banquets. This was done so her sleeves would not get in the way of prepping and cooking, and so she could keep cool in the hot kitchen. She insisted on cooking this rich seafood curry in an unglazed earthenware pot called a belanga (website – 2nd photo), mixing it with a wooden round spoon worn down to a flat lip. Interestingly, cooking it this way imparted a je ne sais quoi to the dish that can never be replicated when using a metal pot; to this day, I vividly remember the earthy tinge the pot imparted to the dish. I believe taste memory rarely fades, and such is the case with my memory of the wonderful flavors of this dish. I also believe you will be impressed once you try this recipe and taste all the different notes found in this delectable marriage of ingredients and flavors.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 45 minutes
5 chili boh or chile puya dried peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 tablespoon paste
4 Finger hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1½ tablespoons paste/sambal oelek
2 lemongrass stalks, white part only, roughly chopped
4 candlenuts, shelled, or macadamia or cashew nuts (optional)
10 small (100 grams/3½ ounces) shallots, peeled, roughly chopped
2.5 centimeters (1 inch) turmeric root, peeled, or ½ teaspoon powder
6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 head coconut shavings, first and second milk pressings extracted separately (¾ cup each), or 1 cup canned thick coconut milk plus ½ cup water
4 or 5 (2-centimeter [1-inch]) pieces dried fish, preferably the bones (Malaysian type or dried croaker)
1½ cups pineapple chunks (medium-size chunks with core removed)
2 or 3 tamarind slices (asam gelugur/keping), or 1 tablespoon tamarind paste mixed with ½ cup hot water and strained
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
20 medium prawns, unshelled
Pour enough hot water on dried chilis to cover and soak until they are soft. Drain. Purée in a food processor until they form a smooth paste.
In the food processor, add the fresh chili peppers, lemongrass, galangal, candlenuts, shallots, turmeric, and belacan and purée into a fine paste. Remove and set aside.
In a pot on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the processed spice paste and fry for 8 minutes until aromatic.
Add the first-pressing coconut milk slowly, and bring to a simmer; if using canned coconut milk, add it all now. Add the dried fish and pineapple slices, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook, covered, for about 5 minutes.
If using the second-pressing coconut milk, add it now. Add the tamarind slices or tamarind water. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes.
Add the salt and sugar, or to taste. Lower the heat and bring to a gentle boil, then cover and cook for 5 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, add ½ cup water.
Add the prawns and cook until just done, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Remove the tamarind slices and serve immediately.
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
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).
This rich dish is popular in both the Malay and Peranakan cultures of the Malacca region, and was most likely borrowed from the host culture by the Peranakans after centuries of settling in the area and assimilating various elements surrounding them. The depth of flavor in the dish is achieved by the use of the pungent belacan (shrimp paste), the spicy chili peppers, a good amount of fragrant shallots, and the slightly briny dried shrimp—all contributing to a full-flavored and complex sauce. The richness of the coconut milk is paired with the yam that absorbs all the flavors of the sauce. Every ingredient complements the others to produce this flavorful and satisfying vegetable dish.
Although this is a rather short recipe in terms of the list of ingredients and cooking process, the complex flavors in the end product belie its simplicity. Most Nyonya recipes have a rather lengthy list of steps that can be daunting to many cooks and the uninitiated to this cuisine. But here we have one that is within the reach of any cook that still provides deep flavor and gastronomic satisfaction. This recipe is a regular during many of my special dinners for my friends for the above reasons, and it is also a favorite of many of my non-Peranakan friends. Once a friend exclaimed that it tasted like soul food, perhaps alluding to how the dish hit the right spots for him. For me, a Baba Peranakan, it is one of my favorite dishes; not only is it soul stirring, it also reminds me very much of Mamah, my grandmother—simple, warm, and loving.
When preparing the dish, make sure to cut the cabbage leaves into large pieces so they stand out among the bold flavors and the yam pieces. If you cannot find yams, you may use sweet potatoes, which are sweeter than yams. Serve some sambal belacan on the side to add some more “kick” to the dish.
Having tried this recipe, you will see why this dish is a favorite with my father and his relatives who were raised in Malacca.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes then drained
2 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 teaspoon paste/sambal oelek
6 small (60 grams/2 ounces) shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)
1 cup coconut milk
1 medium (250 grams or ½ pound) yam (Malay: keledek), peeled and cut into medium-size cubes, or sweet potato
1 small white cabbage, ribs removed and each half cut into 3 or 4 wide ribbons (4 cups)
⅓ teaspoon salt
In a food processor, chop the dried shrimp into fine bits. Remove and set aside. Add the chili pepper, shallots, and belacan to the processor. Purée into a smooth mixture, remove, and set aside.
In a pot on medium-high heat, combine the dried shrimp, chili-shallot mixture, and the coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low.
Add the yam, cover with a lid, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes until partially cooked (add a bit of water if the mixture gets a bit dry).
Add the cabbage and salt. Cover and cook for 5 minutes until the cabbage is just done. It is tempting to add some water at this point, but refrain from doing so as the cabbage will release some moisture as it cooks— you want to have a rather thick sauce in the final product.
Remove and serve immediately with sambal belacan (recipe)
The Peranakans are very fond of duck, especially when it is made into this savory and sour soup. However, they believe that duck meat is very rich and frequent consumption may overwork one’s digestive system, which is why there are only a handful of duck recipes in the Peranakan culinary repertoire. Therefore, this dish was served infrequently at home but made a special appearance during certain auspicious days like Chinese New Year, the eve of a wedding, birthdays, funerals, and religious celebrations. However, due to its association with religious events, some traditional families refrain from serving it during ceremonies; I’m including it as it was my family’s tradition to do so. My Chinese relatives and houseguests would help themselves to a second serving when it was served for special dinners, relishing the wonderful flavors found in this full-bodied yet rather simple soup.
My paternal grandmother, Madam Lee Khoon Thye, was quite well known for her rendition of this dish. She was much sought after for her culinary skills both in savory dishes and desserts, a feat not achieved by many Nyonyas. Local Peranakan families would ask her to prepare the classic dishes, this duck soup included, and desserts for special occasions like weddings and special dinners. She became a master of Nyonya cooking both out of love for the cuisine and the sheer necessity of supporting her family as a single mother by selling her food products. Unlike many versions of this recipe, she kept the dish rather simple, omitting the use of other sour ingredients like the pickled plums found in other versions. The pickled mustard vegetable and the tamarind slices are sufficient enough to bring the sour element, which in turn balances out the rich duck flavor.
This recipe requires the dried slice form of tamarind (asam keping or asam gelugur) that is sometimes difficult to find outside Malaysia. However, if necessary, they may be substituted with preserved plums in vinegar and salt, but not with tamarind paste since the broth has to be quite clear. When buying the pickled mustard vegetable, buy the kind from China—not the local Malaysian one, which tends to be leafier—and preferably found in vats in Asian stores; they have fewer chemicals and preservatives.
Just before serving, a piece of fresh chili is torn into the bowl before filling it with the hot soup, adding a piquant bite that makes the soup even more irresistible. The shot of brandy added to the soup is important to mask any gamey flavor from the duck. I always insisted on adding an extra shot in the kitchen before it was brought out to the dining room. No doubt this made everyone love the soup even more!
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
½ duck (1 kilogram or 2 pounds), skin on, washed well, jointed and breast cut into three pieces
300 grams (10½ ounces) pickled mustard vegetable (Cantonese: humm choy), leaves separated, soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained, cut into large pieces
12 pieces dried tamarind slices (Malay: asam keping/asam gelugur), or 9 pickled plums, lightly smashed
1 large tomato, cut into bite-size pieces
1 to 2 fresh Finger Hot red chili peppers
1 tablespoon brandy
In a large pot, place the duck, the pickled mustard vegetables, ginger, tamarind slices (or pickled plums), and enough water to cover the duck. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the meat barely falls off the bone, about 1 hour. Skim the fat off during this process.
Remove the tamarind slices once the soup is sour enough to your preference. Add more slices if it is not sour enough and boil for 10 minutes more—it has to be quite sour. Add more boiling water if necessary. Add the tomato for the last 10 minutes. Season with salt if necessary, which it may not be if using pickled plums.
When ready to serve, break the chili pepper(s) into the serving bowl before pouring the soup into it, then add the brandy.
The soup can be made a day ahead for a better flavor. Pork bones can be added at the same time as the duck, to add more flavor to the soup.
For many years, this dish was not a staple in my cooking repertoire as I grew up eating it only on rare occasions. It was more frequently cooked when my father and his siblings were being raised by their single mother. But while working on this recipe, I marveled at its simplicity on one hand and its profile of complex flavors on the other. Due to its simplicity and relatively quick cooking time, it was served at regular meals as well as for offerings during the anniversary of a death in which favorite dishes of the deceased were offered at the altar as a gesture to honor their loved ones.
Compared with most Nyonya dishes, this quick dish can be easily mastered by anyone. Despite the short list of ingredients, we see the Peranakan penchant for different layers of strong flavor. It is not enough for Peranakans to simply cook the chicken in plain soy sauce, since their palate always craves the heat of red chili peppers and other strongly flavored ingredients. The red onion adds a subtle sweetness that acts as the liaison between the salty soy sauce and the brightness of the lime juice. Serving it with the spicy and pungent condiment, sambal belacan, adds another dimension and complexity to the flavor profile, and is typically how it is eaten at the dinner table.
A posting of this recipe on social media received many reactions from people who shared memories of growing up eating it but have not relished it for many years. It also revealed to me that this cooking technique is not only reserved for chicken, as the posters commented that they enjoyed variations made with fried eggs, fish, eggplant, and even cripsy fried ikan bilis or dried Asian anchovies. It is indeed a versatile sauce that is highly favored among the Peranakans due to its many flavor elements.
Once you have tried this recipe, you may marvel at how wonderful and satisfying it is. It has become a weekly staple for me and also for some of my relatives who are always pinched for time in the kitchen. After a taste of this, you will understand why the Peranakans, both living and deceased, are so fond of this chicken recipe.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 50 minutes
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 very large (400 grams/14 ounces) red onion, peeled and cut into medium-size vertical slices
2 Finger Hot red chili peppers, seeded and sliced not too finely, or 1 tablespoon Sambal Oelek
4 chicken thighs with drumsticks, or 8 drumsticks, cut into bite-size pieces
1½ teaspoons thick dark soy sauce
5 tablespoons thin soy sauce
1½ cups water
2 tablespoons lime juice
In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil and cook the onion and chili until quite soft, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and cook for 5 minutes more until no longer pink. Add the dark and light soy sauces and the water. Reduce the heat to medium. Simmer with the lid of the pan ajar for 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
Remove the lid, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook for 15 minutes more while stirring occasionally, to let the sauce reduce—add a bit of water if it reduces too quickly. Taste and adjust the seasoning with light soy sauce. You may remove excess grease from the sauce.
Add the lime juice just before serving and stir well. Serve with sambal belacan with lime juice added to it.
6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste), toasted and ground
6 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 2 tablespoons paste/sambal oelek
1 teaspoon lime juice, preferably from Kalamansi lime
If using belacan paste, spoon it onto a piece of aluminum foil, fold it until well sealed, and bake in a toaster oven on 350°F for 5 minutes or until aromatic. If you are using a belacan square, toast it over an open fire until aromatic. Take it outside to cool and to keep the strong smell out of the house.
In a food processor, purée the chilis with the belacan to a smooth paste. Add salt to taste.
Serve by squeezing the lime juice into it.
If using wet shrimp paste and sambal oelek:
Put the shrimp paste in a bowl and squeeze a bit of lime juice on it. With the back of the spoon, press the paste into the juice until the mixture is well incorporated. Add the sambal oelek and mix well. Finish with more lime juice and mix well.
A Peranakan’s call to guests for this dish during an afternoon’s card or mahjong game would rarely get a negative response, and it was usually enough to bring the entertainment to a complete halt. Furthermore, my family members could also be found in the kitchen eating this rather rich dessert in the middle of the night—albeit refrigerated—especially my mother who is very fond of it. (Photo – Cherki card game, a past Peranakan favorite)
Customarily, this kind of dessert was served in special Peranakan porcelain that was hand painted with bright pink, green, blue, and yellow colors, all considered too garish by the mainland Chinese. These dainty items were made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, China and exported to Southeast Asia for the Peranakans’ exclusive use. A few years back, I visited my cousin who resides in London. Above her stove were two small plates, and upon inspection, I vaguely recognized them. I asked her if they were Peranakan porcelain, and she confirmed that they belonged to our common grandmother. I marveled at the intricacy of the brightly colored peonies and phoenixes in the center, surrounded by a bold red scalloped lip, as well as the fine brush strokes, all hand-produced. One of the plates showed some wear and tear, indicative of its use for daily meals. I took a few photographs of them, and upon returning home, I enlarged them to show the fine details, and they now are proudly displayed in my dining room. I once asked my parents if they still had any Peranakan porcelain among their valuables, to which they replied that they threw them out once they moved to a new house, thinking that they were outdated and not valuable—one shudders to think what they could be valued at these days. However, since then, my parents have started acquiring some of these precious plates, which are carefully stored in a beautiful red lacquered and gilded armoire.
Instead of using regular polished white rice to make this sweet pudding, black glutinous rice is the main ingredient and starch of this unique recipe. It has a nuttier flavor, and the outer hull gives it a unique texture. It has to be boiled much longer than regular rice so the starch is fully cooked and the hull becomes soft in texture. This grain is a full-flavored ingredient, thus the list of the other ingredients is short. The addition of the coconut cream just before serving gives it a burst of richness that complements the chewy rice and the thick sweet soup. It can be served warm or chilled.
You can find black glutinous rice in Asian markets. Do not buy the wild rice found in regular markets.
8 to 10 servings
Preparation time: 1 hour
240 grams (8½ ounces) black glutinous rice (Malay: pulut hitam), washed and drained, and soaked in water overnight
2 pandan leaves, folded and knotted
7 cups water
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt, plus a pinch
½ coconut, shaved and squeezed to produce ½ cup coconut cream, or canned
In a pot, combine the rice, pandan leaves, and water, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 45 minutes until the rice is nearly completely cooked but not yet mushy.
Add the sugar and ½ teaspoon of salt, and simmer for 10 minutes more. Remove from the heat when the rice hulls are soft enough.
In a saucepan, bring the coconut cream and the pinch of salt to a quick simmer, then turn the heat off. Let it cool.
Serve warm or chilled, with a bit of coconut cream added to each bowl before serving.
The mixture may thicken as it cools. If necessary, add some boiling water until a slightly thick consistency is achieved, and adjust the sugar and salt to taste.
This recipe is basically Chinese in nature, mostly made up of Chinese ingredients that are not indigenous to Southeast Asia. However, the early Peranakan ancestors adapted this daily staple with the addition of local Southeast Asian spice ingredients such as dried shrimp, briny pungent belacan (shrimp paste), candlenuts, shallots, and red chilis—spices typically found in Nyonya dishes. This is also a popular dish in Medan, Sumatra, and Semarang, Java where the largest concentration of Indonesian Peranakans reside today. Surprisingly, I have found a non-spicy version of similar name in Korean restaurants, pointing to its Far East Asian roots.
The original name is Hokkien (Fujianese) for “mixed vegetables.” In this fairly simple dish you can taste the individual ingredients that complement each other: sweet cabbage, silky black or cloud fungus, woodsy lily bud, chewy tofu skin, and slippery bean thread noodles that have absorbed the rich sauce flavors. Most of the dried ingredients are imported from China and can be found in Oriental markets. Make sure to use the tender parts of the cabbage and to cut it into rather wide long ribbons so they do not disintegrate in this wonderfully satisfying and full-flavored vegetable dish.
A milder Chinese version was usually served in our household, especially during special occasions (Chinese New Year in particular due to its vegetarian nature) and birthdays. However, this Peranakan version is equally delectable with its spicier, more pungent flavors and was usually present at our everyday dinners. My father recalls eating this dish often as a child, prepared by his mother. My maternal grandmother usually cooked the milder version, since she grew up in a Cantonese environment before her arranged marriage to a Baba Peranakan from the Malacca region. The addition of stronger tropical flavor elements to the Chinese recipe is indicative of the fusion of Chinese and Southeast Asian culinary traditions, a true reflection of Nyonya food itself.
A recent recreation of this dish was a mind-opening revelation for me. For the longest time my memory of this dish was very sketchy, and I had a difficult time recalling the flavors. When I took the first bite of my attempt to recreate it, a stream of nostalgia rushed in with the recollection of the familiar flavors, and a comforting feeling of family, especially my paternal grandmother, Mamah. I remembered with sorrow that the last time I had savored this bowl of “lost memory” was when she passed away more than thirty years before. Just like the Bi Tai Bak and Spicy Chicken Gizzard and Pork Salad recipes, this dish could have easily slipped into oblivion, taking away with it a nugget of memory of my growing up as a Peranakan. But now, I cherish this recipe with a certain sense of zeal, knowing that not only is it a wonderfully delectable dish but also one that was saved and brought back into my consciousness and culinary repertoire.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
⅔ cup dried black or cloud fungus
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes, drained
6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)
3 candlenuts, shelled and crushed, or cashew or macadamia nuts (optional)
5 small (50 grams/1¾ ounces) shallot, peeled
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine (1 tablespoon minced)
2 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 teaspoon paste/sambal oelek
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup dried lily bud (Cantonese: kim chan), soaked, hard tip removed, and tied into a knot
1 piece curled tofu skin (Cantonese: foo chook), rinsed until pliable and cut into 5-centimeter (2-inch) pieces
4 cups white cabbage, ribs removed if tough, cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) wide by 4-inch (10- centimeter) long strips
1 cup water
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
¾ teaspoon salt
1 handful bean thread or glass noodles, soaked in cold water until soft, drained
Soak the dried black/cloud fungus and lily bud separately in hot water for 30 minutes. While waiting, prepare the rest of the ingredients. When the fungus is finished soaking and is soft, divide each cluster into bite-size pieces and discard any hard pieces. With the lily bud, pinch off the hard end, and tie into a knot.
In a food processor, pulse the soaked dried shrimp until quite fine. Remove and set aside.
To the processor, add the belacan, candlenuts, shallots, garlic and chilis, and purée into a fine paste. Remove, mix with the dried shrimp, and set aside.
In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the spice paste and dried shrimp until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the fungus, lily bud, and tofu skin, and stir for 1 minute. Add the cabbage, breaking it into loose leaves. Add the water, soy sauce, and salt. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer.
When the sauce is simmering, remove the lid and cook until the cabbage is tender but not too soft, about 5 minutes. When cooked, add the bean thread noodles to the sauce and stir for 10 seconds only. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately.
This rather simple dish is one of my family’s favorites, and it packs in a lot of flavor: the salty dried radish, the spicy red chili, the slightly fishy dried shrimp, the nutty and crunchy peanuts, all ingredients that are paired with the mild flavored tofu bits and Long Bean. This is a typical manner in which the Nyonya cook will treat a simple vegetable by adding a myriad of complementary and contrasting spice and flavorful elements, as exemplified by this vegetable dish.
A recent posting of this recipe in a Baba Nyonya recipe group garnished a lot of attention and comments, especially for a simple vegetable dish. Interestingly, many members stated that they had not relished it since their early days, and they reminisced that it was last cooked by either their mother or grandmother. Most commented that it was fondly eaten with plain rice porridge, an indication of the dish’s humble and soul-evoking nature that this dish conjures for the various posters. A reader enlightened me that the dish is known as “Chau Lup Lup” in Cantonese referring to the ingredients cut into small bits, and “Au Boh Tok” in Hokkien to stepmothers who were mean to stepchildren by forcing them to eat less of this dish and more of rice as the result of their struggling eating the finely-chopped dish with chopsticks.
When you are choosing Long Beans, pick the ones that are deep green in color, fresh looking, and not wilted. They are very perishable, and so, use them are soon as you can. If the peanuts are quite large, chop them up or break them into halves. You can find packs of brownish Dried Radish in Asian Markets – get those in whole form and not the chopped-up ones, and you will have to soak it in hot water if it is too salty. Try making this dish, and you will see why it has been become a hit with my friends.
You may use Green Beans as a substitute for the Long Beans. I like to slice them very finely on the diagonal for a nice presentation.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
¼ cup tofu, firm type (Cantonese: taukwa), and finely cubed
½ cup vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (½ tablespoon minced)
1 large piece salted dried radish (Cantonese: Choy Po), finely diced (¼ cup pressed), soaked in hot water 15 minutes or more until not too salty, drained.
1½ tablespoon dried shrimp, very small, soaked 10 minutes in water and drained
200 grams Long/Snake Beans or Kacang Panjang, sliced ¼-inch (½-cm)
1 Finger Hot red chili pepper, stemmed and deseeded, sliced horizontally then finely sliced
Thin soy sauce
2 tablespoons peanuts, toasted, peeled, and split
In a wok on medium-high flame, pour ½ cup oil and stir fry the tofu cubes until golden brown. Remove and drain well. Set aside.
Remove the oil and leave behind 3 tablespoons oil in pan. Add the garlic and fry for 1 minute or until slightly golden brown. Add the dried radish and dried shrimp, and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the Long Beans and chili and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add 4 tablespoon of water and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Stir-fry uncovered for 1 minute.
Taste the seasoning. If it is not salty enough, add a bit more soy sauce to taste. Add tofu and stir-fry uncovered for 1 more minute until mixture is quite dry but not completely dry.
Pour cooked mixture onto a plate, and sprinkle peanuts on top before serving.
This fish stew is one of the quintessential Peranakan dishes that reflects the flavors that make Nyonya cuisine unique: sour, salty, spicy, and fragrant. Seafood is a staple in Peranakan cuisine as the Straits Settlements were seaside communities. Since this fish dish is a mainstay found in many Peranakan restaurants, it is perhaps one of the most recognized dishes, but I have to admit that I am always a bit disappointed by their renditions; the tendency to add bunga kantan (wild ginger flower) attests that there can be too much of a good thing because it overpowers the light minty fragrance of the delicate daun kesum. During earlier days, bunga kantan was seasonal and thus not easily available, unlike nowadays. This herb was rarely added to the dish due to its price, making it too impractical and cost prohibitive for an often-served dish. To me, simplicity is best in this dish, just as it was served weekly in our household.
Its name in Baba Melayu can be confusing to some who are familiar with this dish. Many know it as Asam Pedas. But a fellow Baba on a Facebook group pointed out that Asam Pedas is the Malay version, which has a lighter and less fragrant sauce than the Nyonya version that is made with more root spice ingredients, hence making it more flavorful; this name confusion was also clarified by my Malacca cousin. So, in maintaining fidelity and authenticity, I have written down the dish’s true name.
Fresh fish works best in this dish, and it should be cooked whole or in large slices to seal in the moisture. You can use a mild-flavored medium-firm fish, like red snapper, tilapia, skate wing, or sea bass, but avoid oily or earthy-flavored fish like salmon and mackerel. You may find the various spice roots in the frozen section of Asian markets. The essential herb daun kesum or laksa leaves (photo) is also known as rau ram or “Vietnamese mint” and can be easily found in Vietnamese grocery and some Asian markets.
A true Peranakan meal would not be complete without Gerang Asam Ikan. As experts in preparing this dish, my grandmothers would only serve it when the fish from the open market was very fresh. Instinctively, they knew exactly how to produce the perfect balance of flavors and spices to complement the sea sweetness of the fish that plays the starring role. The skill needed to cook this dish perfectly was a true litmus test for a Nyonya. How the fish was poached and the vegetables cooked was a tall order for a lady to prove her worth to her family sitting around the dinner table. But a perfect rendition of this dish would speak volumes to the diner’s heart and meet one’s gastronomic approval, which in turn would bring joy to the cook herself.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 50 minutes
5 chili boh or Kashmiri dried peppers, or chile puya, stemmed and seeded, or 1 tablespoon paste
10 small (100 grams/ 3½ ounces) shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, roughly chopped
3 candlenuts, shelled and crushed, or cashew or macadamia nuts (optional)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unseeded tamarind paste, mixed well with 3 cups hot water and strained to remove pulp
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
2 sprigs daun kesum or laksa leaves or Vietnamese mint (rau ram), plus more for garnish
2 medium Asian eggplants, cut into medium-size wedges
7 to 10 small whole okra (ladies fingers), stemmed
600 grams (1¼ pound) whole or thick fillets of threadfin fish (ikan kurau), cleaned, or any mild fish
Pour enough hot water on dried chilis to cover and soak until they are soft. Drain. Process them in a food processor to a fine paste. Add the turmeric, galangal, belacan, shallots, lemongrass, and candlenuts. Process to a fine paste. Remove and set aside.
In a pot on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the spice paste for 4 to 5 minutes until very aromatic but not browned. Add the tamarind water and bring to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more chili paste if not spicy enough. Add the salt and sugar (if using), or to taste—sugar is not necessary if the tamarind is sweet. Add the daun kesum, lower the heat to medium low, cover the pot with a lid, and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
Raise the heat to medium high. Add the eggplant and simmer for 3 minutes until barely cooked. Add the okra and fish. Cover with the lid, lower the flame, and simmer gently until the fish is just cooked, about 3 minutes. Add a bit of water if the sauce is too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and sugar if necessary.
Remove and garnish with a few fresh daun kesum leaves on top of the fish. Serve immediately.
Have you eaten so much for Chinese New Year that you feel jelak or overindulged? Here is a salad dish that is light but not short of flavor, like all Nyonya dishes (however not necessarily light sometimes).
A simple salad can be found in many cuisines, but the difference in this recipe lies in the sauce and the combination of ingredients. Just like the bedak sejuk, the rice powder cooling facial paste worn by Nyonyas and children (I still remember this on my face), this salad is cooling and refreshing, and it pairs very well with many spicy dishes. However, the Peranakans are unable to omit a quintessential element from their diet, thus the inclusion of chili in this dish.
In Nyonya cuisine, salads or cold dishes are never eaten separately as a course; they are integrated as part of the whole meal. However, you can serve it any way you choose. The crispy lettuce and cucumber slices contrast pleasingly with the softer tomato and egg slices. The pieces of peanut in the spicy sauce add a further textural element with their crunchiness. Although this is a very simple dish to prepare, it immediately commands attention from the diner due to the bold and wonderful flavors found in the sauce, which surprisingly seem to complement the mild fresh vegetables. Mamah made this dish often when she felt it was time to add some variety to our large dinners and to include a lighter dish in the meal, especially after days of consuming richly sauced dishes. As usual, she would call me into the kitchen at the very last moment, asking me to check the balance of sweet, sour, and salty in the sauce before pouring it on the salad.
You may want to make the presentation a bit fancier by folding the lettuce into large squares or using a small-leaf lettuce in order to place the cut vegetables and egg slices on top of it. Spoon the sauce on the salad only just before serving it, otherwise the lettuce will turn soggy.
½ head green leaf or 1 head Boston or Bibb lettuce, washed and drained well
1 medium cucumber, peeled and cut into quite thin coins
50 grams (1¾ ounces) Chinese peanut-and-sesame brittle (or 3 tablespoons roasted peeled peanuts, ½ teaspoon toasted sesame seed, and ½ teaspoon sugar), crushed but not too finely
Tear the lettuce into fairly large pieces onto a plate (they can be folded into large squares). Place a slice of cucumber, followed by a slice of tomato, and finally an egg slice in a stack on each piece of lettuce.
Mix the chili cuka with the rice vinegar, salt, and the crushed peanut brittle. Add some sugar to the sauce if it is too spicy—the sauce should already be a bit sweet from the peanut brittle. (This sauce can be substituted with Thai sweet chili sauce mixed with some crushed peanuts.)
Pour the sauce onto the salad just before serving.
If there were one dish that could be representative of Nyonya cooking from the Malacca Peranakan community, it would be this wonderful, hearty, and flavorful stew. Here we see the Peranakan penchant for using pork belly, as in many other pork dishes, paired with potatoes and Chinese mushrooms, cooked in Chinese salty bean sauce, and served with the spicy and pungent condiment, sambal belacan.
When I was writing this recipe, my aunt Madam Dolly Lee Kim Neo reminisced that instead of potatoes in the version that I was accustomed to, Mamah used to cook it with bamboo shoots when Auntie Dolly was a child. I did not quite believe her at first since I could only recall eating the dish with wedges of potato in it. One day, my father gave me a small cookbook from Singapore on Nyonya cuisine. The Singapore Peranakan culture is an extension of the Malacca prototype since many from Malacca migrated to the southern island when it became a trading port. In that cookbook, there was a recipe for pongteh, and, lo and behold, it was made with bamboo shoots. The same auntie also told me that it was my maternal grandmother, Madam Leong Yoke Fong, and not my paternal grandmother (her mother), who introduced Chinese mushrooms to the dish. Later on, I found out from my cousin Moses that this same grandmother occasionally would also add sengkuang (jicama) and white peppercorns to her version. The original recipe most likely would have used bamboo shoots since bamboo trees grew abundantly in the countryside. In addition, Chinese mushrooms had to be imported and were considered a luxury item, only used by city folk or wealthier Peranakan families. My maternal grandmother, who was raised in the Chinese culture, married into a fairly wealthy Peranakan family in Alor Gajah, which explains her addition of this expensive ingredient to the dish.
The amount of shallots and garlic seems excessive, but they are essential to providing a rich flavor as well as the thickening agent for the sauce. An important tip is to fry the potato wedges quickly in hot oil until a golden-brown crust forms so the potato does not fall apart in the stew, otherwise it will make the sauce mealy in texture. Another is not to cook the potatoes in the stew for too long—you may remove them once they are done. The Dutch most likely introduced the potato to the Malay Peninsula since they were cultivating it in the Philippines during the late sixteenth century, and by the seventeenth century in Java. It was around that time that the Dutch entered and controlled Malacca. You may add some sugar to make the sauce slightly sweet, but my family has an aversion for sugar in our savory dishes.
When I used to visit my aunt Madam Nancy Guan in Bukit Rambai, seven miles north of Melaka town, she would always prepare this dish for us with a customary layer of pork fat shimmering on the surface. My siblings and I would relish the rare opportunity to eat it Malay-style, with our fingers, to my father’s slight disapproval; here, her seniority trumped his preference. It was amazing how she could whip up a Peranakan feast for us even when we paid a surprise visit, and this stew was de rigueur on the table alongside a cooked chicken from her backyard, slaughtered upon our arrival.
If you feel that this dish is too fatty, you can remove as much fat as you want. Do not substitute the belly with any lean meat, like pork loin, but with a cut of meat that is capable of being stewed for some time—even chicken thighs and drumsticks make a great version. Make sure to serve it with the spicy condiment sambal belacan with some lime juice added to it, just as our family has always savored this dish. You will see why we ate this dish weekly in our household, and also the reason why my granduncle Mr. Lee Mui Loke insisted that my paternal grandmother cooked it every time he went back to visit relatives in the family village.
Like most stews, especially Nyonya ones, this tastes even better the following day, and its strong flavors and richness would hardly deter a true Peranakan from indulging in it for breakfast the next morning with some rice or toasted bread, as is the case with my family—you may find you agree.
Serves 4 to 6
Mushroom soaking time: 1 hour
Preparation time: 1 hour, 15 to 1 hour, 30 minutes
20 small (200 grams/7 ounces) shallot, peeled and finely sliced
500 grams (1 pound) pork belly, cut into medium-size bites, or 1 kilo (2 pounds) bone-in chicken thighs and/or drumsticks
5 to 7 large dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 1 hour, stemmed, and cut into bite-size pieces (soaking water reserved)
Thin soy sauce
½ tablespoon sugar or more to taste (optional)
In a food processor, purée the shallot and garlic into a fine paste. Set it aside.
In a pan on high heat, heat the oil. Quickly fry the potato until golden brown but not fully cooked through. Remove, drain, and set aside.
Pour out the oil from pan and place 10 tablespoons (just over ½ cup) back. Lower the heat to medium and fry the shallot-garlic mixture until aromatic but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add the bean sauce and quickly fry for 1 minute.
Increase the heat to medium-high, add the pork belly, stir well, and cook until the surface no longer looks raw, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the mushroom soaking water and enough water to make a total of 3 cups to the pan. Add the mushrooms. Reduce the heat to medium. Partially cover the pan with a lid and bring to a boil. Add the potato wedges and boil until the potatoes are completely cooked, about 10 minutes, then remove the potatoes and set them aside.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer with the lid ajar for 35 minutes more. Stir occasionally, and add some water if the sauce gets too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning with light soy sauce. Add the sugar (if using).
Skim off some of the excessive oil from the top before serving. Add the potato wedges back to the pot and heat for a minute before serving.
Serve with sambal belacan mixed with some lime juice.
In the West, they enjoy Smores, a sandwich of sweet crackers with a gooey filling of melted marshmallow and chocolate. For the Peranakans, we enjoy another wonderful molten sandwich concoction after the Chinese New Year to finish off the Kueh Bakul that was prepared a few weeks before as an offering for a religious day.
Shortly after the Winter Solstice, a ceremony called the Kitchen God Send-Off (Sembahyang Datok Dapur) is held in which the Kitchen God (Hokkien: ThéChu Kong) goes on his annual trip to heaven to report the household year’s happenings to the heavenly realm. One week before the Lunar New Year (celebrated around the end of January or in February), offerings of three cups of tea, a pair of lighted candles, kueh bakul, and prayers are made along with the sound of firecrackers to send him off to the heavens, hopefully with little news—or preferably no—news to report (photo).
In this recipe, we can see how the Peranakans adapted a Chinese ingredient by pairing it with elements from their new Southeast Asian homeland. Kueh bakul in Baba Melayu, the Peranakan vernacular, means “cake in a basket” since banana leaves are shaped into molds for the paste. Known as neen koh in Cantonese and ti kueh in Hokkien, this cake is made just before the Lunar New Year celebrations, thus its Chinese name translates to “New Year cake.”
The Peranakans took this Chinese sticky sweet concoction and paired it with tubers common to Southeast Asia, resulting in a dessert that is totally different in character and texture. Make sure not to cut the root slices too thick, or else the “sandwich” will be too large.
You can find this sweet paste in most Asian stores around the Lunar New Year celebration. However, look for those made in Malaysia since they are firmer and sweeter than the softer versions made in China.
I prefer eating these sweet treats piping hot or just after they have cooled down for a minute while the soft, sticky, toffee-like kueh bakul filling coats the starchy root slices like caramel sauce. The crispy batter coating makes the perfect textural contrast to the melting kueh bakul and the firmer yam and taro slices. Growing up in Malaysia, I couldn’t wait for this sweet paste to be fried or steamed with fresh coconut, served right after the Chinese New Year when these treats were usually enjoyed. If the treats had not been cooked at home, my parents would seek out a roadside vendor selling them along with another treat, fried battered banana—both were heavenly snacks for us children. If you cannot find yams, you can use sweet potatoes.
200 grams (7 ounces) yam, peeled and cut into ½-centimeter (¼-inch-thick) half rounds
200 grams (7 ounces) taro, peeled and cut into ½-centimeter (¼-inch-thick) half rounds
200 grams (7 ounces) rice flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups vegetable oil
Refrigerate the kueh bakul for at least 2 hours before cutting it so it hardens slightly. Cut pieces that are slightly smaller than the width of the yam and taro slices. After cutting, sandwich the kueh bakul pieces with yam on one side and taro on the other. The root slices have to cover the slice of kueh bakul, but the sides do not have to be perfectly aligned.
In a bowl, mix enough water into the rice flour to make a very thick batter, like condensed milk. Add the salt and mix well.
Heat a saucepan with the oil on medium-high heat until hot. Using a pair of wooden chopsticks, dip the sandwich into the batter and coat it well. Gently lower the sandwich into the hot oil, and let it fry without moving it around, even if it sticks to the bottom—it will unstick after a minute. Fry until golden brown and a bit of the filling is oozing out. The yam and taro slices should be completely cooked.
Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot or room temperature.
Happy Chinese or Lunar New Year of the Pig to everyone. I hope you managed to start this new year with a fantastic and scrumptious celebration. In my household, there would be weeks’ worth or preparation and cooking for this festive event, with lots of dishes, snacks, and condiments made in advance in anticipation for the big event. Kueh Pai Tee is one of those that we looked forward to with hungry stomachs.
In the weeks leading up to the New Year, Nyonya ladies would get together, some having traveled from afar, in order to work communally as they prepared for the festivities. Many dishes were made ahead of time due to the lengthy and labor-intensive nature of certain dishes. The main staple, Nyonya pickles, also known as achar ahwak or achar chili melaka, would definitely be made in advance. I remember seeing trays of sliced cucumbers, chilis, and green papaya shreds lying out in the sun as they dried in preparation for the pickling process. Beside making the pickles, most of the time would also be spent making special cakes, pastries, and desserts for the celebration: pineapple tarts, dodol, kueh bakul,kueh bangkit, kueh kapit (love letters), tapeh pulut, pulut tekan (an uncustomary family tradition), and sri kaya. The tapeh pulut was also made in advance since the glutinous rice needed several days to ferment in order to produce the boozy liquid that both adults and kids enjoyed very much; this was the only time when no prohibitions were in place for children to consume this alcoholic drink. Keropok, fish or shrimp crackers (photo), would also be made in advance since the cracker chips had to be dried in the sun for a couple of days before puffing up miraculously when fried in hot oil.
The English name of this dish, or Kueh Pai Tee in the Peranakan vernacular, comes from the shape of the shells themselves as you may have figured it out already. While growing up, we ate it only occasionally, and it is one of the rare dishes that was classified as a true appetizer. I remember that they were only served on special occasions or celebrations like birthdays and Chinese New Year. However, these days, my family serves it regularly for dinner since we are so fond of it.
One reason why this dish is so well-liked is because of its novelty and taste. The juxtaposition of the crunchy shell with the softer fragrant filling makes it the perfect match in the culinary world. True appetizers in Nyonya cuisine are rare, and their being served on special occasions adds to its charm and exquisiteness.
As for the taste, it is an explosion of rich flavors and textures: a light crispy shell holding a soft and moist jicama (sengkuang) filling cooked with fragrant five-spice powder, along with shrimp, crabmeat, fried shallots, coriander leaves, and topped with the spicy and sour chili cuka sauce. The thought of enjoying these stuffed shells brings me back to the days when large meals were served during festivities, and all the relatives and family friends would crowd around the table to get their hands on these small tasty bites before they ran out. Looking at their expressions and hearing their moans were indicative of their enjoyment brought about by a cornucopia of irresistible flavors and textures. This appetizer is truly scrumptious as it conjures up in a Peranakan’s mind a festive and joyous occasion with each savory bite.
You will need a brass tee mold with deep grooves on the side to make the shells. If you cannot find jicama or yam bean, Asian white radish is a good substitute. When made, these pastries are addictive and it will be hard to stop eating them, so make sure you have more than enough for each guest (at least three or four per person).
Kueh Pai Tee/Top Hats
Serves 10 to 15
Shells total time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Filling total time: 1 hour 15 minutes
For the shells (makes 30 to 35):
4 tablespoons rice flour
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
Pai Tee mold
For the stuffing:
450 grams (1 pound) sengkuang (jicama/yam bean), peeled and grated into ½-centimeter- (¼-inch-) wideshreds (substitute – Asian white radish)
225 grams (8 ounces) chicken breast or pork, finely minced
115 grams (4 ounces) shrimp, peeled and chopped fairly finely
¼ teaspoon five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons thin soy sauce
¾ cup water
For the garnish:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Green leaf or Boston/Bib lettuce, torn into small pieces
½ cup crabmeat, cooked and shredded, from fresh crabs or precooked
Chili cuka sauce (recipe below)
½ cup fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves
¼ cup fried shallot rings
To make the shells:
Mix together the rice flour and all-purpose flour, egg, and salt. Add the water little by little until the batter is very runny, like evaporated (not condensed) milk. It should pour from a spoon in an unbroken stream. You may have to adjust the amount of water to achieve this consistency.
Heat the tee mold in a pot of enough hot oil to submerge the mold on medium heat for 3 minutes. Remove from the oil, wipe the bottom of the mold clean of oil, then dip the mold into the batter, all the way to the top of the ridges to get a curved edge when frying. Then place the mold back into the oil to deep-fry on medium heat until golden brown. Lift the mold slightly out of the oil to allow the dough to make a “brim.” Do not allow the bottom of the mold to touch the bottom of the pan for 30 seconds so that it will set partially. (Three shells can be fried at the same time by loosening the shells after a minute and submerging them in the oil with forks and spoons.
Remove and drain the shells on paper towels, and store in an airtight container.
To make the filling:
Squeeze the shredded jicama in cheesecloth until very dry. In a pot on medium-high heat, heat the oil and stir-fry the garlic until lightly brown, 1 minute. Add the bean sauce and stir for 1 minute. Add the chicken and cook, stirring to break it up into fine pieces, until there is no visible pink. Add the jicama, shrimp, five-spice powder, white pepper, and 2 tablespoons soy sauce. (If using Asian white radish, add 1½ tablespoons of sugar).
Add the water, lower the heat to medium-low, cover but leave the lid ajar, and simmer until the jicama is soft, no longer crunchy, and quite dry, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt—it should taste well seasoned. Remove and let cool.
For the garnish:
Break the eggs into a bowl and beat them lightly with a pinch of salt. Place a pan on medium-low heat and heat the oil. Wipe the pan with a paper towel. Pour enough egg into the pan to make a thin pancake. When the sides curl up, pick the pancake up and flip it to cook for 10 seconds. Remove and place on a plate. Cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with the rest of the egg mixture, wiping the pan with the oiled paper between pancakes.
When the pancakes are cool, roll them up, slice first into four long and wide strips, then again into narrow strips.
Fill the shells with pieces of lettuce followed by the jicama filling. Garnish with slices of egg pancake, crabmeat, chili cuka sauce, cilantro, and the crispy fried shallot rings, in that order. This has to be eaten immediately, otherwise the shell will get soft and soggy.
10 Finger Hot red chile peppers, stemmed, or 4 tablespoons paste/sambal oelek
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2.5 centimeter (1-inch) knob young ginger root, peeled
1 tablespoon sugar
Juice from 15 limau kasturi or 3 large limes, (15 tablespoons juice)
1 teaspoon salt
In a food processor, purée the chile peppers to a paste. Measure 4 tablespoons of paste and save any extra for a future use. Return the 4 tablespoons of paste to the processor and add the garlic and ginger. Purée to a fine paste. Stir in the sugar and lime juice. Add the salt to taste. Refrigerate in a bottle if not consumed immediately.