Apom Balik

Basically this is a pancake that is enriched with the use of creamy coconut milk, molasses-like palm sugar, and pieces of the durian fruit or banana that gives it a strong and rich flavor that is distinct and hard to describe – pancake a la Nyonya.  

When the durian fruit is in season in Malaysia, you can smell it everywhere you go, especially in the markets or near stalls where they are sold. This thorny fruit exudes a flavor and smell that are so pungent that you either have a love or hate relationship with this exotic fruit. The Peranakans have incorporated the custard-like flesh of this Southeast Asian fruit in this dessert in which the fruit’s assertiveness is lessened by its cooking.  

I distinctly recall watching my paternal grandmother making this on a specific occasion. It was raining but she was determined that her grandchildren were going to enjoy this snack. Under an overhead ledge by the kitchen, she made a small charcoal fire in a portable burner as she poured the batter and cooked the pancakes with such attention and care. I stood next to her as I observed the whole process with anticipation, and she would give me the first few pancakes for me to eat while they were still piping hot. It was the perfect snack for a cool wet afternoon; there were indeed some benefits that came along with being the cook’s assistant!

If you do not have an Apom mould pan, one with round deep indentations, you may use a non-stick pan or silver-dollar pancake pan, but make sure that the pancakes are not too big, or too thick, about 3 inches (5 cm) in diameter. If you cannot find fresh durians, you can find frozen ones in Asian markets (or you may make this with just ripe bananas which is equally delightful), although the strong sulfur oxide-like smell will not be present, which may be a relief for some sensitive noses!

Recipe from Edible Memories e-cookbook

Makes around 25 pancakes

50 minutes

150 grams palm sugar (gula melaka) or light brown sugar

1 stalk pandan leaf, folded and tied into a knot

5 tablespoons water 

½ head/ 1 cup coconut shavings, fresh 

(or ¾ cup canned coconut cream or 1¼ cups canned undiluted coconut milk)

250 gm bleached wheat flour, all-purpose, not self-raising

½ teaspoon baking powder 

¼ cup water

1 piece durian fruit or 1 large ripe banana, flesh only and cut into small pieces

Apom mould, silver dollar pancake or regular nonstick pan

Vegetable oil

In a saucepan, add gula melaka or brown sugar, pandan leaf, and 5 tablespoons water. Bring to a simmer for 3 minutes until it is a thick syrup consistency. Pour into a bowl and let cool.  

Squeeze milk from coconut shavings into a bowl. Add enough water to squeezed shavings, and resqueeze to make a total of 1¼ cups of squeezed coconut milk. If using canned coconut cream, mix it with water until you have 1¼ cup liquid. If using canned coconut milk, do not dilute this mixture.  

In a large bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. Add the sugar syrup into the batter and mix well. Slowly pour the coconut milk into the batter and mix well. Add some water bit by bit (around ¼ cup) and stop once the batter has reached a condensed milk thick consistency that pours into a constant stream. Add the pieces of durian or banana. Stir well to avoid lumps.

Heat the round Apom mould or a skillet on medium-low flame, oil it with a few drops of oil, and wipe off the excess with paper towel. Add just enough batter to cover the bottom (3 inches/5 cm diameter on a skillet), even batter out with a spoon, and cook until the top is quite set but still barely wet on the top. Fold pancake towards the middle and let the two halves stick by pressing down firmly – if the middle is still too runny, cook on both the folded sides until it is set. Remove and set aside. Take pan off heat.

Repeat process by first stirring the batter well, lightly oiling the pan, and wiping off the excess oil with the used paper towel. 

Serve pancakes hot or at room temperature.  

The hardcopy and e-book of The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book (1st image) and Edible Memories e-cookbook (2nd image) are available – more information on the Homepage.

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!

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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.

The hardcopy and e-book of The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book (1st image) and Edible Memories e-cookbook (2nd image) are available – more information on the Homepage.

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.

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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. 

The hardcopy and e-book of The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book (1st image) and Edible Memories e-cookbook (2nd image) are available – more information on the Homepage.

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.

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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.

The hardcopy and e-book of The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book (1st image) and Edible Memories e-cookbook (2nd image) are available – more information on the Homepage.