Chap Chai Melaka

This recipe is basically Chinese in nature, mostly made up of Chinese ingredients that are not indigenous to Southeast Asia. However, the early Peranakan ancestors adapted this daily staple with the addition of local Southeast Asian spice ingredients such as dried shrimp, briny pungent belacan (shrimp paste), candlenuts, shallots, and red chilis—spices typically found in Nyonya dishes. This is also a popular dish in Medan, Sumatra, and Semarang, Java where the largest concentration of Indonesian Peranakans reside today. Surprisingly, I have found a non-spicy version of similar name in Korean restaurants, pointing to its Far East Asian roots.

The original name is Hokkien (Fujianese) for “mixed vegetables.” In this fairly simple dish you can taste the individual ingredients that complement each other: sweet cabbage, silky black or cloud fungus, woodsy lily bud, chewy tofu skin, and slippery bean thread noodles that have absorbed the rich sauce flavors. Most of the dried ingredients are imported from China and can be found in Oriental markets. Make sure to use the tender parts of the cabbage and to cut it into rather wide long ribbons so they do not disintegrate in this wonderfully satisfying and full-flavored vegetable dish. 

A milder Chinese version was usually served in our household, especially during special occasions (Chinese New Year in particular due to its vegetarian nature) and birthdays. However, this Peranakan version is equally delectable with its spicier, more pungent flavors and was usually present at our everyday dinners. My father recalls eating this dish often as a child, prepared by his mother. My maternal grandmother usually cooked the milder version, since she grew up in a Cantonese environment before her arranged marriage to a Baba Peranakan from the Malacca region. The addition of stronger tropical flavor elements to the Chinese recipe is indicative of the fusion of Chinese and Southeast Asian culinary traditions, a true reflection of Nyonya food itself. 

A recent recreation of this dish was a mind-opening revelation for me. For the longest time my memory of this dish was very sketchy, and I had a difficult time recalling the flavors. When I took the first bite of my attempt to recreate it, a stream of nostalgia rushed in with the recollection of the familiar flavors, and a comforting feeling of family, especially my paternal grandmother, Mamah. I remembered with sorrow that the last time I had savored this bowl of “lost memory” was when she passed away more than thirty years before. Just like the Bi Tai Bak and Spicy Chicken Gizzard and Pork Salad recipes, this dish could have easily slipped into oblivion, taking away with it a nugget of memory of my growing up as a Peranakan. But now, I cherish this recipe with a certain sense of zeal, knowing that not only is it a wonderfully delectable dish but also one that was saved and brought back into my consciousness and culinary repertoire.

Serves 4

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

⅔ cup dried black or cloud fungus

2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes, drained

6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)

3 candlenuts, shelled and crushed, or cashew or macadamia nuts (optional)

5 small (50 grams/1¾ ounces) shallot, peeled

4 cloves garlic, chopped fine (1 tablespoon minced)

2 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 teaspoon paste/sambal oelek

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ cup dried lily bud (Cantonese: kim chan), soaked, hard tip removed, and tied into a knot

1 piece curled tofu skin (Cantonese: foo chook), rinsed until pliable and cut into 5-centimeter (2-inch) pieces

4 cups white cabbage, ribs removed if tough, cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) wide by 4-inch (10- centimeter) long strips

1 cup water

1 teaspoon thin soy sauce

¾ teaspoon salt

1 handful bean thread or glass noodles, soaked in cold water until soft, drained

  1. Soak the dried black/cloud fungus and lily bud separately in hot water for 30 minutes. While waiting, prepare the rest of the ingredients. When the fungus is finished soaking and is soft, divide each cluster into bite-size pieces and discard any hard pieces. With the lily bud, pinch off the hard end, and tie into a knot.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the soaked dried shrimp until quite fine. Remove and set aside.
  3. To the processor, add the belacan, candlenuts, shallots, garlic and chilis, and purée into a fine paste. Remove, mix with the dried shrimp, and set aside.
  4. In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the spice paste and dried shrimp until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the fungus, lily bud, and tofu skin, and stir for 1 minute. Add the cabbage, breaking it into loose leaves. Add the water, soy sauce, and salt. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer.
  5. When the sauce is simmering, remove the lid and cook until the cabbage is tender but not too soft, about 5 minutes. When cooked, add the bean thread noodles to the sauce and stir for 10 seconds only. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately.
My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available and ON SALE for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.

Kacang Panjang Chai Po

This rather simple dish is one of my family’s favorites, and it packs in a lot of flavor: the salty dried radish, the spicy red chili, the slightly fishy dried shrimp, the nutty and crunchy peanuts, all ingredients that are paired with the mild flavored tofu bits and Long Bean. This is a typical manner in which the Nyonya cook will treat a simple vegetable by adding a myriad of complementary and contrasting spice and flavorful elements, as exemplified by this vegetable dish.

A recent posting of this recipe in a Baba Nyonya recipe group garnished a lot of attention and comments, especially for a simple vegetable dish. Interestingly, many members stated that they had not relished it since their early days, and they reminisced that it was last cooked by either their mother or grandmother. Most commented that it was fondly eaten with plain rice porridge, an indication of the dish’s humble and soul-evoking nature that this dish conjures for the various posters. A reader enlightened me that the dish is known as “Chau Lup Lup” in Cantonese referring to the ingredients cut into small bits, and “Au Boh Tok” in Hokkien to stepmothers who were mean to stepchildren by forcing them to eat less of this dish and more of rice as the result of their struggling eating the finely-chopped dish with chopsticks.

When you are choosing Long Beans, pick the ones that are deep green in color, fresh looking, and not wilted. They are very perishable, and so, use them are soon as you can.  If the peanuts are quite large, chop them up or break them into halves. You can find packs of brownish Dried Radish in Asian Markets – get those in whole form and not the chopped-up ones, and you will have to soak it in hot water if it is too salty. Try making this dish, and you will see why it has been become a hit with my friends.  

You may use Green Beans as a substitute for the Long Beans. I like to slice them very finely on the diagonal for a nice presentation.

Serves 4

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

¼ cup tofu, firm type (Cantonese: taukwa), and finely cubed 

½ cup vegetable oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (½ tablespoon minced)

1 large piece salted dried radish (Cantonese: Choy Po), finely diced (¼ cup pressed), soaked in hot water 15 minutes or more until not too salty, drained. 

1½ tablespoon dried shrimp, very small, soaked 10 minutes in water and drained

200 grams Long/Snake Beans or Kacang Panjang, sliced ¼-inch (½-cm)

1 Finger Hot red chili pepper, stemmed and deseeded, sliced horizontally then finely sliced 

Thin soy sauce

2 tablespoons peanuts, toasted, peeled, and split

In a wok on medium-high flame, pour ½ cup oil and stir fry the tofu cubes until golden brown. Remove and drain well. Set aside.

Remove the oil and leave behind 3 tablespoons oil in pan. Add the garlic and fry for 1 minute or until slightly golden brown. Add the dried radish and dried shrimp, and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the Long Beans and chili and stir-fry for 1 minute.  Add 4 tablespoon of water and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Stir-fry uncovered for 1 minute. 

Taste the seasoning. If it is not salty enough, add a bit more soy sauce to taste. Add tofu and stir-fry uncovered for 1 more minute until mixture is quite dry but not completely dry.

Pour cooked mixture onto a plate, and sprinkle peanuts on top before serving.

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.

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 boh or Kashmiri dried peppers, or chile puya, 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.
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.

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 for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.

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. 
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.