It documents the History of the Baba Nyonya Peranakans and details the important Cultural Traditions, as I share my family stories growing up in such household. Each chapter showcases a Nyonya recipe (Poh Piah, Chap Chai, Tauhu Sumpat, Sambal Nenas Timun, Kobis Masak Lemak Puteh, Pongteh, Ayam Temprah, Asam Fish, Ikan Sambal, Udang Lemak Masak Nenas, Top Hats, Buah Keluak, Achar Chili, Itek Tim, Laksa, Mee Siam, Sri Kaya, Kueh Chang Nyonya, Kueh Ee, Pineapple Tarts, Bi Tai Bak, Kueh Angku, Kueh Bakul Goreng, Bubur Pulut Hitam, Tapeh Pulut, Bubur Cha Cha, and many more!) that my Grandmothers were known for.
This beautiful book will make a great coffee table display and read, as well as serve as a document of our precious culture for many future generations.
Throughout my years of researching and writing Nyonya recipes, this cookie has been extremely elusive and the most difficult for many reasons. My grandmothers never made these cookies when I was young, contrary to what many think of the superwoman Nyonya cook – I only recall them coming home with plastic containers filled with these bright white morsels and tasking the grandchildren to place red dots with toothpicks dipped in red dye. However, my father recalls seeing his mother make it during his youth with a covered kuali/wok over woodfire. Furthermore, I came across recipes that either were not successful or required sago flour that is impossible to find outside of Malaysia. So, in a way, I was either afraid of trying again or I had just thrown in the towel, literally!
However, my love for these sweet treats did not diminish with time, and my recollections of them were always the fondest and warmest memories of my grandmothers whipping up a culinary storm in the weeks of preparation for the Lunar New Year. Recently, I came across some recipes in Nyonya food groups on Facebook, and I noticed that the cookies were made with only tapioca flour which is easily available – this stirred up my curiosity and interest in it again. Besides, the beautiful wooden cookie moulds given by my sister years ago were gathering dust and beckoning me to give it another try. So I printed out a few versions and I studied them before I made a couple of batches. Below is my version of it.
Making Kueh Bangkit is deceptively simple. The baking or frying of the flour with pandan leaves is to infuse it with the leaves’ aroma as well as to dry the flour out to produce a mouth-melting product. The use of the egg yolk with hardly any egg white attached is to avoid the stiffening protein from the white, and it is beaten with the sugar to lighten its yellow color – get store-bought and not farm eggs so that the dough will stay quite white. The dough has to be formed with just the right amount of coconut cream, not the milk, so that it is not only rich in flavor, but the cookie is flaky and soft due to the lack of excess water. The baking has to be at the right temperature and timing so that it is cooked but without the slightest browning. And finally, it has to be cooled down for a day so that the inside moisture distributes evenly throughout the cookie before it is consumed. In other words, lots of attention and precision must be given to the whole process, just like any wonderful complicated pastry.
When I showed the results of my cooking online in a group for expats in the USA, a lady remarked that there were so many good cooks and bakers in the group. I replied that necessity is the mother of invention, and so is nostalgia. I hope you are able to produce a successful bunch with my recipe and envelope yourself with fond memories of this cookie and growing up eating it.
I have provided an alternative it you do not possess a Kueh Bangkit mould.
Note: I tried another batch today using the baked flour straight out of the oven and once cooled down, and the end product had no noticeable difference compared to those made with 2-day old baked flour, as recommended by many Nyonya and recipes. I also made cookies with a 1¼-inch/3-cm cutter, and the recommended cooking time was fine.
60 grams confectioners/icing sugar or caster sugar (very fine)
1 egg yolk, making sure as little egg white is attached
2 cans (400 ml each) coconut milk, the creamiest kind, or 800 ml fresh coconut milk
⅛ teaspoon regular salt
Red food coloring
Baking or Parchment paper, not wax paper (optional)
Baking tray, large
Pastry brush, small (optional)
Kueh Bangkit mould or 1¼-inch/3-cm cookie cutters
Step 1 (can be made in advance): Turn the oven on to 300F/ 150C with the rack in the middle shelf. Pour the flour into a baking container or aluminium foil shaped like a bowl on a tray (for easy cooling later). Cut the pandan leaves into 2-inch/ 5-cm pieces and hide them in the flour with equal spacing. Place flour into the oven and bake for 1 hour 30 minutes.
Alternative: fry this in a dry wok on medium-low heat for at least 45 minutes, stirring very gently (or the flour will fly everywhere) until the pandan leaves are dry and slightly brown.
Meanwhile, place the coconut milk into the coldest part of the fridge.
Step 2: Once baked, remove the flour from the oven. If it is to be used immediately, remove the foil onto a plate or pour the flour onto a cooler pan. Remove the pandan leaves carefully trying not to break the dried leaves. Allow to cool for around 30 minutes or more to room temperature. If reserving for another time, cover it with some plastic film once cooled. Sift the flour to measure 200 grams in a bowl, and the rest into a smaller bowl (around 2 tablespoons worth) – be careful not to pass pieces of dried pandan leaf through it.
Step 3: Remove the fresh coconut milk or 1 can from the fridge – the cream should have solidified slightly on the surface. Gently scoop the cream, while avoiding the separated water, to measure 110 grams worth – open the other can if more is needed. Add the salt and stir well. Set aside. Return the rest to the fridge to be chilled if more is needed.
Step 4: In a mixing bowl, add the sugar, and make a well in the middle. In the middle, add 3 tablespoons coconut cream and the egg yolk. Using a large whisk or hand mixer, gently beat this mixture for around 3 minutes until the yolk is pale in color and the mixture is completely smooth and it does not feel granular to touch (to make sure that the sugar is completely dissolved especially if using caster sugar).
Step 5: (will take around 30 minutes): Add the flour in 3-tablespoons increments to the sugar-egg mixture and mix well using a spatula. Add more flour until the mixture is quite stiff. At this point, add 1 tablespoon coconut cream and mix with the spatula, breaking up the dough. Add more flour and mix with your hands as you rub the dough pieces with your fingers. Continue adding the cream until 80% of it is used and all the flour has been added. You should have a dry crumbly mixture.
Continue to add the coconut cream by ½-tablespoon increments by dripping it evenly over the dough. Use your fingers to break the larger dough pieces when mixing it. Continue to add the cream until the dough can just come together into a mass in the bowl but not form a ball – it should still crumble when pressure is applied. Cover with plastic film or moist kitchen towel.
Step 6: Turn the oven on to 300F/ 150C with the rack in the middle shelf. Place a baking/parchment paper big enough on a large baking tray – optional.
Step 7: Using a small pastry brush, dip it in the reserved excess flour and dust the mold indentations well. Shake off any excess but do not tap it on the countertop. Grab a small palmful of dough and squeeze hard to make it come together. Push the dough into the mold pattern making sure that it covers the whole indentation by pushing the dough quite firmly and evenly, with excess over the sides and mould top level (the dough should be a bit crumbly and fall apart easily – don’t panic).
When all the patterns in the mould are filled this way, use a butter knife to slide down the mould to shave off any excess. Turn the mould over and tap out the cookies on one end of the tray – you may have to turn the mould on the other end to tap out some stubborn ones. Repeat the process by dusting the moulds first. Arrange the cookies on the tray and use the brush to brush aside any fine bits of dough in between the cookies to a corner – remove with a spoon. If the dough is sticking to the mould, use a skewer or toothpick to clean the indentations before making the next batch of cookies.
Alternative: Roll or press down with hand on dough in small batches into ½-inch/ 1-cm thickness – if it is too crumbly, add a bit more coconut cream until it holds together more. Use the cookie cutters to cut the dough and transfer to the tray. Or you can push the original recipe dough into the cutter sitting on the tray to the above thickness.
Step 8: When the oven is hot enough, place the cookies in the middle rack with equal spacing from the oven walls. Set the timer to 20 minutes. At the 10 minute mark, rotate the pan so that the back of the tray is now in the front. At the 15 minute mark, check to see if the cookies are getting slightly brown at the bottom – if they are, remove them immediately. If not, continue to cook until the 20 minute mark. The cookies should be colorless and as white as possible.
Step 10: Remove the tray and let the cookies cool on the tray for around an hour – this is to allow the inside moisture to distribute throughout the whole cookie. Using the red food dye, dip the broader end of the toothpick into the dye and place a dot on the cookie, preferably the eye or the center.
Once cooled, you can place them in a storage container but do not close the lid tight for a day. They are best eaten the following day and after.
Recipe from my upcoming cookbook: Edible Memories.
Tasting this soup always brings me back to my childhood when our family would make day trips to Bukit Rambai, Melaka, to visit our relatives that resided in the village that my father’s family grew up in. After around an hour’s drive on the superfast highway to Alor Gajah, my father would take a backroad that offered its passengers a more scenic and leisurely ride to my Aunt Nancy’s (Makkoh) house. I would always marvel at the red oxide soil that exuded a slight metallic smell in the air. And on top of the martian-like top soil, we could see small patches of pepper vines growing on bamboo stilts that would sometimes be weighed down by batches of green peppercorns. It must be sheer ingenuity and necessity that these spicy beads were incorporated as the prominent element in this quick yet full-flavored soup.
Tofu is a rather bland ingredient that is featured in this soup. However, in this recipe we see how the Peranakans have taken this Chinese staple in another direction that is typically Nyonya in its approach. Instead of a mild-flavored soup, like the rather similar Hokkien version, here we have a bold and full-flavored backdrop so that the tofu can act as a counterpart with its smooth and bland qualities. The strong flavors in the soup come from the use of garlic, shallots, Belacan (shrimp paste), dried salted fish, white peppercorns, and the garnishing of young Chinese celery and spring onion add strong herbal flavors.
In making this recipe, I prefer the traditional way of pounding the shallots and garlic in the mortar and pestle in order to extract more flavors into the soup, just like how my grandmothers would. Make sure you get the medium-firm or medium-soft tofu that is fresh. Also, do not use the salted fish product called Bacalao, but instead look for salted Ikan Kurau bones, or even dried Chinese Croaker will do. You may find young Chinese celery in most Asian Markets as its flavor is more subtle than regular celery.
My father would relish his favorite soup with some spicy and tangy samban belacan condiment on the pieces of Tofu and shrimp. I am sure you will enjoy this rather complex, spicy, and soul-satisfying Nyonya soup.
200 grams/7 oz medium-firm or medium-soft tofu, cut into bite-size pieces
100 grams/3.5 oz small shrimp, shelled (or medium size shrimp, cut into ½-inch pieces)
2 stalks Chinese celery (Cantonese: kahn choy) or Celery leaves, roughly chopped
2 stalks spring onion, chopped finely
White pepper, ground
Crush the white peppercorns in a mortar until there are still some small bits, not too fine. Remove and reserve.
In the mortar, crush the garlic, shallots, and Belacan together into a fine paste. Remove and reserve.
In a pot on medium heat, add the oil, and fry the processed paste until aromatic (around 4 minutes) – make sure not to brown the paste too much. Add the water, white peppercorns, and salted fish bones (or dried shrimp). Cover, bring to boil, and reduce the flame to simmer fairly gently for 30 minutes (10 minutes in a pressure cooker).
Meanwhile, prepare the tofu, shrimp, Chinese celery, and green onions according to the ingredient list.
After the soup has simmered for 30 minutes, and add ½ teaspoon salt or to taste. Raise the flame to medium, add the tofu and fresh shrimp, and cook until the shrimp is just cooked (1 to 2 minutes) — do not use the pressure cooker mode but instead with the saute mode and the cover open.
Add the Chinese celery and turn flame off.
To serve, pour soup into a large bowl, and garnish it with spring onions and a pinch of white pepper.
Usually, the word “asam” denotes the use of tamarind in Nyonya cooking as found in many of its dishes. Here, however, we have a dish that defies the use of that local ingredient. But the dish’s sour element comes from the different sauces of tomato ketchup, sweet chili sauce, and white vinegar, seasonings borrowed from English colonial times.
In addition the above sauce ingredients, this relatively easy dish packs a lot of flavor from the ginger root, garlic, oyster sauce, white pepper, and dark soy sauce, all contributing to a complex sauce that will make you want to savor every drop coating the shrimp shell before peeling it. In addition, the young celery leaves and spring onions bring in more herbal aromatics and texture to the dish. To avoid overcooking the shrimp, mix all the sauce ingredients in a bowl, and pour it into the pan once the shrimp is no more pink on the outside. If you cannot find young celery, you can substitute it with celery leaves or cilantro that are chopped fine.
After cooking this, don’t be surprised to find yourself licking every drop of this fantastic sauce.
400 gm medium to large shrimp, heads off, with shells on
4 cloves garlic, peeled & cut into thin long wide slivers
2 Finger Hot red chili pepper, stems and seeds removed & sliced fine
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
¼ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice or white vinegar
1-2 stalk young celery leaves (Cantonese: kahn choy), sliced 1-inch (2 ½ cm) long
1-2 stalk spring onion, cut 1-inch (2½ cm) long
If shrimps are not deveined, follow these steps:
Holding the shrimp in one hand, hold a small serrated knife in the other hand, and start at the top of the first shell after the head. Cut into the shell and into the flesh all the way until before the last segment before the tail, deep enough to expose the vein – do not go deeper than the vein. Remove the vein and dip it with the fingers in a bowl of water to release it.
In a wok or pan on medium-high heat, add 4 tablespoons oil, and fry garlic, ginger and chili for 1 minute or less until aromatic and slightly golden brown. Add the shrimp, and stir them for 1 minute or until they appear just cooked on the exterior. When cooked, lower flame to medium-low.
In a bowl, mix the ketchup, chili sauce, oyster sauce, white pepper, dark soy sauce, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Add sauce to pan. Bring sauce to a simmer and let it reduce until thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in green onion and celery leaves for 1 minute. Serve immediately.
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!
Makes around 25 pancakes
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
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.
After cooking for around a week, my guests have just left my Lunar New Year Open House. It was the perfect opportunity for me to prepare some of my grandmother’s Nyonya dishes, a treat for my guests over the last few years. This year, I decided to make New Year cookies as dessert, and I started preparations a bit earlier for that. With three attempts to make the special powdery cookies, Kueh Bangkit, resulting in dissatisfaction and disappointment, I resorted to Peanut Cookies, a favorite of mine back when I was growing up in Malaysia. These are very delicate flakey bites with the rich nutty flavor in each crumb. A recent online comment by a reader reminded me of how my grandmother made these with pork lard which gave these sweet bites an added unctuousness that I still recall with great nostalgia.
With success under my belt, here is the simple and tasty recipe, adapted from the Rasa Malaysia website (see page).
Makes around 50 cookies.
4 cups/950 ml (540 gm) roasted whole peanuts (or oven roast peeled raw peanuts at 300 F (150C) until fragrant and lightly brown), plus extra pieces for decoration
1 cup/240 ml confectionary or icing sugar
1 cup/240 ml peanut oil or lard
2 cups/475 ml all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons shortening or cold butter
1 egg yolk, beaten slightly with 1 tsp water for egg wash
Chop peanuts in food chopper until very fine and loose and when the mixture starts to become slightly sticky – do not over-chop them.
Mix the ground peanut, sugar, and flour together until well combined. Cut the shortening into mixture until fine bits. Slowly add the peanut oil and mix well, until the mixture begins to come together – stop adding the oil at this point.
Shape into small balls and place on baking tray lined with parchment paper – do not flatten. Use a toothpaste cap to make the circular indentation by pressing and rotating the cap to lightly flatten the cookie. Or you can press down a peanut half into the middle of the dough.
Brush the sides below the indentation or around the peanut with the egg wash.
Bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) on middle rack for 20 minutes or until brown – check and watch out for burning after 15 minutes and rotate baking tray position if needed be. Check around the bottom of cookie for burning and remove if you smell burning. Remove from oven, take the parchment paper with the cookies off pan, and let cool. When cool, store in airtight container.
The Winter Solstice ceremony, called Tung Chek in Hokkien, or also known as the Kueh Ee festival among the Peranakans, is celebrated on the 22nd of December in order to mark the end of the agricultural and astronomical year in China. To this day, this custom is still practiced in the Peranakans’ ancestral homeland, the Fujian province of China.
Even though the winter season is unnoticeable in the tropics, the Southeast Asian Chinese transplants continued this tradition with little to no dilution of its original form. For this occasion, the Peranakans would eat kueh ee, which is glutinous rice balls colored red, white, and occasionally green, served in ginger-flavored sugar syrup—the different colors represent the yin and yang forces of nature. For dinner, the Malacca Peranakans would serve the rice balls in a savory fragrant pork and chicken soup, which is how it was celebrated in my family. As part of the observance, large balls of this rice flour would be made and placed as offerings on the home ancestral altar and to the Kitchen God. A pair of the larger cakes (one red and the other white) was placed on each side of the main door for months to attract blessings on the family. Such practices on this specific day were to remind oneself that the whole family had lived through another year. On the other hand, a death in the family meant that the custom would not be observed that year as a sign of respect for the departed one. In the past, this rice ball soup was also customarily served to a newly married couple on their wedding day, as an assurance for the longevity of their new partnership.
The savory soup version is a delicious dish that I feel should be served more than once a year. Since it is only served at the winter solstice, we treat the dish reverently, relishing every drop of the savory soup and the rice balls that have absorbed some of the soup flavors. The garnish of cilantro, scallions, white pepper, Tianjin preserved vegetable (tung choy), fried shallots, and fried garlic are de rigueur since they impart some additional flavor notes to each light sip. The colors of the balls are symbolic, and I have even seen some recipes that use green food coloring, which I find unusual next to the customary red and white. The secret to the dish is to make a rich broth that will flavor the rice balls. The garnishes add a different flavor dimension to the dish, so do not omit these important elements.
NB: A recent posting of this recipe received a lot of hits and some comments that shed some light on this savory version. Many said that they grew up eating this in a Hakka or Toishan household. The parents of my granduncle, Ah Kong, were from Toishan, and my grandmother was adopted by his family. I suspect my grandmother learned the dish from them, hence, it is a tradition what we continue in our family.
Preparation time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (1 hour for making stock)
500 grams (1 pound) pork bones, with bits of meat attached, or 4 cups chicken stock
1 chicken drumstick or 100 grams (3½ ounces) lean pork
5 cups water, plus more for rice balls
Vegetable oil, for frying
3 garlic cloves, minced
5 small (50 grams/1¾ ounces) shallot, peeled, sliced into thin rings
1 scallion, chopped into ¼-centimeter (⅛-inch) pieces
Leaves from 1 stalk coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
Pinch white pepper
Put the pork bones and chicken in a pot with 5 cups of water, cover, and bring to a rolling boil. Lower the heat to a simmer (you may continue to steps 2 and 3). Remove the drumstick after 30 minutes and let cool in a bowl of water—shred the meat and reserve. Let the stock continue simmering for 30 minutes more. Turn off the heat and remove the pork bones. When cool, remove the meat from the bones and cut into small cubes.
In a pan on medium-low heat with enough oil to cover the base, fry the garlic until golden-brown. Remove, drain well, and set aside. Fry the shallots in the same way. Reserve for garnishing.
In a large bowl, add all the flour and then water bit by bit until a thick dough forms. Warning: It is easy to make it too runny, so be conservative with the water. The consistency of the dough should be like thick clay, very stiff to the touch and barely sticking to the hand. Work the dough for a few minutes until it is even and smooth.
Divide the dough in half, and add coloring to one half until it is red enough. You can test this by dropping a small amount of dough into boiling water (the color should be bright and rich). Pinch off small amounts of dough and form them into balls the size of a small marble or large pea by rolling them between your palms. Place the rolled dough on a plate.
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Cook the white dough in the boiling water until fully cooked or until they start to float in the water. Remove to cool in a bowl of cold water. Repeat the process with the red dough.
Taste the Tianjin preserved vegetables. If they are too salty, soak them in water for a minute. Remove and squeeze dry.
Bring the stock back to a boil. Add only a bit of salt until barely salty—the preserved vegetable will add more salt to the soup. Add a few dough balls, a pinch of Tianjin pickle, and bits of chopped meat to a serving bowl. When the soup comes to a boil, immediately spoon it over the ingredients in the bowl.
Garnish the soup with the garlic, fried shallot rings, scallion, coriander, and a pinch of white pepper. Serve immediately.
This recipe is quintessentially representative of Nyonya cooking due to the use of a full-flavored and spicy rempah (spice paste) as the stuffing for the simple fish. I recall eating this dish often for dinner when Mamah was alive, as this was one of the dishes in her extensive culinary repertoire. She used to stuff a whole fish with the spice paste and then pan-fry it until the fish was cooked through. I distinctly remember her tearing away pieces of the sambal-smeared flesh from the whole fish with her nimble fingers during dinner, the way most Peranakans used to eat during her time.
I recall a very touching story that Mamah once told me when I was still a preteen. During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during the Second World War, there were many air raids that took place, and before such bombings occurred, sirens would go off as a warning. At one point, such raids had been taking place for a long period of time, preventing the inhabitants from leaving their homes for a few days. Needless to say, the local market had not opened during that time, and after a few days, people were desperate for food and other provisions.
After a brief period of quiet, the market was open again. Mamah went to the market in search of food for the family, and she went over to the fishmonger to barter over a piece of fish. Suddenly, the sirens started wailing and everyone panicked as they ran for cover to hide from the menacing airplanes. My grandmother froze, torn between running for her life and fending for her loved ones who were very hungry. In a split second, she grabbed the biggest fish on the cart and made a mad dash for home. When I heard the story, I marveled that an unassuming, small-framed woman had such tenacity to fight for survival under the most difficult circumstances.
In this seafood recipe, the secret to the tasty stuffing is the use of small red onion (preferably Bombay onion) that has a certain sweetness, dried chili peppers for depth of flavor and spiciness, and tamarind paste, which is essential in bringing an acidic and sweet flavor profile to the mix. I have seen recipes that use ingredients that unnecessarily complicate the flavors, like fresh red chili peppers and lemongrass—I believe that this recipe is tasty enough with fewer ingredients, just as my grandmother used to prepare it. Since the fish has to cook for a long period of time, my grandmother would use an oilier type of fish, like chub or Indian mackerel (Malay: ikan kembong) or Torpedo Scad (ikan cencaru/cincaru), since the spice paste would keep the fish moist during the cooking process. However, other types of white firm-fleshed fish can be easily substituted.
I have written a simpler method where the chili paste can be served alongside pan-fried fillets. When you cook and serve this spicy dish, you will understand why this was a weekly staple in our family dinners, delicious enough to make you want to eat it with your fingers, Peranakan-style.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 45 minutes
15 dried chili boh or Kashmiri peppers, or chile puya, stemmed and seeded (or 3 tablespoons dried chili paste)
1 very large/250 grams (8 ounces) red onions (not shallots), peeled and coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying fish
1 tablespoon seedless tamarind pulp mixed with ½ cup hot water, strained to remove fiber
¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
400 grams (14 ounces) white firm-fleshed fish filets, like tilapia, red snapper, mahi-mahi
Sweet/glutinous rice flour
Pour enough hot water on dried chilis to cover and soak until they are soft. Drain and place them in a food processor, then purée into a fine paste. Remove and set aside.
In the food processor, purée the onion, garlic, and belacan into a fine paste. Remove and mix with the chili paste.
In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the chili-onion paste until aromatic, about 6 minutes. Then add 12 tablespoons of tamarind juice, and the salt and sugar, or to taste. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, until very thick but not too dry, about 12 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Cut the fish fillets into bite-size pieces. Pour enough flour into a shallow dish/plate to cover the base, and dredge the pieces of fish. Dust off any excess flour.
Add some oil to the pan on medium-high heat, and fry the fish until both sides are golden brown. Drain well and place on paper towels. Remove and serve with the chili-tamarind paste on the side or smeared on top.
Note: You can fry the fish Nyonya-style by smearing the chili paste into a slit in a thick fillet, or stuffed into slits made in whole fish, and frying until completely cooked. Continuously spoon hot oil over the fish to baste it during frying.
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!
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
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.
In a saucepan, simmer the coconut milk with the salt, uncovered, for 5 minutes until slightly thickened. Set aside.
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.
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.
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.
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together with the coconut milk and syrup (without pandan leaf). Serve warm or chilled.
In this recipe, we see the Peranakan’s penchant for using a strong flavor element with a mild ingredient – tamarind. The use of this acidic and slightly sweet fruit perhaps harkens back to its introduction by the Tamils who controlled the Straits of Melaka in the 11th century. This application is not only found in this shrimp dish but also in another made with pork belly.
The basic Nyonya version of this dish is very simple, comprising of only shrimp and tamarind paste as the main ingredients. However, this version is a “supped up” recipe that I learned from Tri Suherni, who worked as my parents’ cook for many years. Here, she brings her Javanese background with the addition of garlic, shallots, chilies, and whole peppercorns into the whole flavor profile.
The shells are kept on the seafood for two purposes. First is to keep the shrimp moist during the cooking, and second, to act as a canvas for the tamarind sauce to hold on to. The deveining process allows the tamarind to permeate the flesh during marination.
The best way to really enjoy this dish is the following. Holding the shrimp by its tail, bite the head off, and savor the sauce while you bite down to release the slightly bitter head juices. After removing the shell from the mouth, bite off a chunk, savor the sauce as you manipulate the shell off the flesh – the deveining facilitates this easy removal. Scoop a spoonful of rice into the mouth and chew the mixture together. After completely working on a shrimp, don’t forget to lick the remaining sauce on the fingers. There is no finer way to enjoy it, which, to me, is totally delightful for this gourmand.
Marination time: 1 to 2 hours
Preparation and cooking time: 15 minutes
500 grams (1 lb) medium-large to large shrimp, unpeeled and deveined
2 tablespoon unseeded tamarind pulp, mixed well with ½ cup room-temperature water and strained
5 whole white peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
5 small/50 grams shallots, peeled and chopped roughly
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into half lengthwise and into 1-inch pieces
If shrimps are not deveined, follow these steps:
Holding the shrimp in one hand, hold a small serrated knife on other hand, and start at the top of the first shell after the head. Cut into the shell and into the flesh all the way until before the last segment before the tail, deep enough to expose the vein – do not go deeper than the vein. Remove the vein and dip it with the fingers in a bowl of water to release it.
Snip off the end of the shrimp nose and the antennae with a pair of scissors or a knife. Add the shrimp to a large bowl, and drain the shrimp very well of water. Add the tamarind paste, and mix well. Marinate for 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator.
When the marinated shrimps are ready:
In a food processor, add the peppercorns and crush into fine bits but not into a fine powder. Add the garlic and shallots, and process into a fine paste. Remove and reserve.
In a pan on medium-high heat, add the oil. Add the processed mixture and fry for 2 minutes until aromatic. Add the marinated shrimp and tamarind mixture, and add ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste. Cook each side of shrimp for 2 minutes only. Add the chilies and stir for 2 minutes until the sauce is completely dry. Serve immediately.