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Gerang Asam Ikan

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 bol or chile puya dried peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 tablespoon paste

1.5 centimeters (½ inch) turmeric root, peeled, or ¼ teaspoon powder

1.5 centimeters (½ inch) galangal root, peeled, or ¼ teaspoon powder

6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp 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 

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. Remove and garnish with a few fresh daun kesum leaves on top of the fish. Serve immediately.
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Nyonya Salad

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

1 large tomato, cut into round slices, or to fit

2 eggs, hardboiled, peeled and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon chili cuka (link) or sambal oelek

5 tablespoons rice vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

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

Sugar (optional)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. Pour the sauce onto the salad just before serving.
My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available on Amazon for USD $5.99. Please visit the main page for details – CLICK

Pongteh

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

9 cloves (30 grams/1 ounce) garlic, peeled and finely sliced (2 ¼ tablespoons minced)

1 cup vegetable oil

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into medium-size wedges (2½ cups)

3 tablespoons ground bean sauce (Cantonese: meen see)

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)

  1. In a food processor, purée the shallot and garlic into a fine paste. Set it aside.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. Serve with sambal belacan mixed with some lime juice. 
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Kueh Bakul Goreng

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: Thé Chu 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.

Serves 4 to 6

Preparation time: 1 hour (with pre-refrigerated Kueh Bakul)

200 grams (7 ounces) kueh bakul, cut into ½-centimeter (¼-inch-thick) half rounds

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot or room temperature.
My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available on Amazon for USD $5.99. Please visit the main page for details – CLICK

Happy Chinese New Year – Top Hats/Chili Cuka

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.

Kueh Pie Tee/Top Hats - Nyonya Appetizer

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

Vegetable oil

For the stuffing:

450 grams (1 pound) sengkuang (jicama/yam bean), peeled and grated into ½-centimeter- (¼-inch-) wide shreds (substitute – Asian white radish)

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 garlic cloves, minced (1 tablespoon)

1 tablespoon ground bean sauce (Cantonese: meen see)

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

Pinch salt

For the garnish:

2 eggs

Salt

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Remove and drain the shells on paper towels, and store in an airtight container.

To make the filling:

  1. 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).
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. When the pancakes are cool, roll them up, slice first into four long and wide strips, then again into narrow strips.

To serve:

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.

Chili Cuka

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.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available on Amazon for USD $5.99. Please visit the main page for details – CLICK