Summer Festival – Kueh Chang Melaka

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.

Makes 30 dumplings

Filling preparation time: 1 hour

Assembling and cooking time: bowl – 1 hour; wrapped dumpling – 3 hours (2 hours boiling)

For the filling:

2½ heaping tablespoons coriander powder, from 3 heaping tablespoons whole seeds

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)

1 tablespoon ground bean sauce (Cantonese: meen see)

60 grams (2 ounces) dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 1 hour, stemmed and cut into ½-centimeter (¼-inch) cubes (1½ cups)

450 grams (1 pound) pork butt with a little fat, cut into ½-centimeter (¼-inch) cubes

250 grams (8 ounces) melon sugar, cut into ½-centimeter (¼-inch) cubes (1½ cups)

1½ cups water

1½ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon thick dark soy sauce

For the rice:

8 tablespoons vegetable oil

12 cloves garlic, minced (3 tablespoons)

1  kilogram 400 grams (3 pounds) glutinous rice, washed briefly and drained

2½ teaspoons salt

¾ teaspoon white pepper

Bunga telang (blue pea flower) water

4 pandan leaves, tied into a bundle

Dried bamboo leaves, from China, washed and soaked in water, and striped into 2 long pieces along the spine (optional)

To make the filling

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. To serve, loosen the rice from the side of the bowl with a tablespoon or butter knife before inverting it onto a plate.
  6. To reheat unconsumed portions, steam the uncovered bowls for 15 minutes on medium-low heat.
  7. You can also wrap the dumpling the traditional way with soaked Chinese bamboo leaves (instructions link)
  8. Here is a video of the bowl technique:
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.

Pineapple Tarts – Kueh Tair

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

2 pieces rock sugar (optional)

White sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

1 piece star anise

4 whole cloves

For the dough:

180 grams (6⅓ ounces) all-purpose flour

165 grams (5¾ ounces) cold butter (1½ sticks or 12 tablespoons)

¼ teaspoon salt (if using unsalted butter)

1 egg

4 tablespoons milk, divided

1 tablespoon ice water

1 egg yolk, mixed with 4 drops water, for basting

1 specialized dough cutter (or 3 cookie cutters, round and/or fluted: 1¼-, 2-, and 2¼-inch diameter)

To make the filling

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 

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.

Sambal Timun

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.

Bunga Kantan (Torch Ginger Flower) on the top

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.

Serves 4

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

  1. 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.
  2. Peel the cucumber and halve it lengthwise. Remove the seeds using a tablespoon. Slice the cucumber diagonally into ½ centimeter- (¼-inch-) thick pieces.
  3. In a bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar levels. 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.

Sambal Nenas Timun

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).

Serves 6

Preparation time: 30 minutes

5 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 to 1½ tablespoons paste/sambal oelek

6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste), toasted

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)

  1. 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.
  2. Add the dried shrimp to the processor and chop until fine. Remove and set aside.
  3. 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.

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.

Udang Lemak Masak Nenas

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 Kashmiri dried peppers, or chile puya, 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

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

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

12 grams/1 teaspoon/1-inch 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. In a pot on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the processed spice paste and fry for 8 minutes until aromatic.
  4. 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.
  5. If using the second-pressing coconut milk, add it now. Add the tamarind slices or tamarind water. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
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.

Cheng Beng Ceremony – Babi Buah Keluak

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

5 centimeters (2 inches) galangal root, peeled, or 1 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).

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.

Kobis Masak Lemak Puteh

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.

Serves 4

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. Remove and serve immediately with sambal belacan (recipe)
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.

Itek Tim

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

2.5 centimeters (1 inch) fresh ginger root, peeled and lightly crushed

12 pieces dried tamarind slices (Malay: asam keping/asam gelugur), or 9 pickled plums, lightly smashed

1 large tomato, cut into bite-size pieces

Salt

1 to 2 fresh Finger Hot red chili peppers

1 tablespoon brandy

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

Ayam Temprah/Sambal Belacan

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Add the lime juice just before serving and stir well. Serve with sambal belacan with lime juice added to it.

Sambal Belacan

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

Salt

1 teaspoon lime juice, preferably from Kalamansi lime

  1. 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.
  2. In a food processor, purée the chilis with the belacan to a smooth paste. Add salt to taste. 
  3. 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.

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 Pulut Hitam

Peranakan Cherki Cards

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)

Peranakan Diningware

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. In a saucepan, bring the coconut cream and the pinch of salt to a quick simmer, then turn the heat off. Let it cool.
  4. Serve warm or chilled, with a bit of coconut cream added to each bowl before serving.
  5. 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.
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.