It documents the History of the Baba Nyonya Peranakans and details the important Cultural Traditions and Celebrations, 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.

ORDER FORM (The Baba Nyonya Peranakans Book only – hardcover)

ORDER FORM (The Baba Nyonya Peranakans Book only – hardcover)

TPAS Zoom Cooking Demonstration

More than a week ago, I gave a cooking demonstration on Zoom of two classic Nyonya dishes, Udang Lemak Masak Nenas and Sambal Nenas Timun (photos of the finished dishes below). I am including the whole demonstration for you to watch how to cook these wonderful dishes, and also for you to get to know me as a cook. Enjoy! (Recipes from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book)

Udang Lemak Masak Nenas
Sambal Nenas Timun

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.

Kueh Bangkit

Lunar New Year Cookies – Kueh Bangkit

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 tricky. 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.

Printable Copy (link) – Recipe from Edible Memories e-cookbook

Makes around 60 cookies, 6 grams each

Flour Preparation: 1 hour 30 minutes, plus minimum 30 minutes cooling

Cookie Preparation: 1 hour

Cooking Time: 15 minutes plus cooling time


250 grams/8.8 oz tapioca starch/flour (very fine)

3 pandan leaves, fresh or frozen

60 grams/2.1 oz 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). Wipe the pandan leaves clean, cut 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 100 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 50% of it is used and all the flour has been added. You should have a very 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 (not all used) until the dough barely comes together when gathering a handful into 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 15 minutes. At the halfway mark, rotate the pan so that the back of the tray is now in the front. The cookies should be colorless and as white as possible. 

Step 10: After 15 minutes, turn the oven off and leave the cookies to cool down completely inside the oven. When cool, remove from the oven. 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, 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.

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.

Asam Udang

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. 

Recipe from Edible Memories e-cookbook

Serves 4

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.

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.

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.

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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 5 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:

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.

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.

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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.

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.

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).

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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.

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.

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.

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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.

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.

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.

Recipe from The Baba Nyonya Peranakans book

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).

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.