Winter Solstice Celebration – Kueh Ee

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.

Serves 4

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

100 grams (3½ ounces) glutinous rice flour 

2 tablespoons Tianjin preserved vegetable (Cantonese: tung choy)

Pinch salt

1 scallion, chopped into ¼-centimeter (⅛-inch) pieces

Leaves from 1 stalk coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

Pinch white pepper

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Taste the Tianjin preserved vegetables. If they are too salty, soak them in water for a minute. Remove and squeeze dry.
  7. 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.
  8. Garnish the soup with the garlic, fried shallot rings, scallion, coriander, and a pinch of white pepper. Serve immediately.
My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.

Ikan Sambal

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

5 garlic cloves, peeled

¾ teaspoon/9 grams belacan (shrimp paste), toasted

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

  1. 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. 
  2. In the food processor, purée the onion, garlic, and belacan into a fine paste. Remove and mix with the chili paste.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.

Bubur Chacha

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!

8 servings

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

  1. 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.
  2. In a saucepan, simmer the coconut milk with the salt, uncovered, for 5 minutes until slightly thickened. Set aside.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together with the coconut milk and syrup (without pandan leaf). Serve warm or chilled.
My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.