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.
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.
Dried bamboo leaves, from China, washed and soaked in water, and striped into 2 long pieces along the spine (optional)
To make the filling
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
To serve, loosen the rice from the side of the bowl with a tablespoon or butter knife before inverting it onto a plate.
To reheat unconsumed portions, steam the uncovered bowls for 15 minutes on medium-low heat.
You can also wrap the dumpling the traditional way with soaked Chinese bamboo leaves (video link)
For many years, I thought that pineapple tarts were exclusively a Peranakan dessert, as I would frequently see them sold mainly on the narrow streets of Melaka town. But this belief was overturned when I moved to the United States. One year, I was invited to a Christmas party given by a couple of friends of mine from Trinidad and Guyana. At the party, I was thrilled to see these very same tarts and at the same time amazed that other cultures made these delectable treats. Then it dawned upon me that the pineapple tart recipe was a legacy left behind by the British in Malaysia and in her former Caribbean colonies.
This sweet concoction is perhaps a version of the fruit jam tarts that the British are fond of, but it has been modified with the use of indigenous fruits like pineapple. Instead of just a plain fruit flavor of the English version, the filling here has been infused with cinnamon, star anise, and cloves, all being regional spices. The use of butter and milk in the dough is another clue to its Western origin, as these ingredients are not native to the region. These tarts are addictive delights, but they are quite perishable. Store them in airtight containers or refrigerate them quickly to prevent any mold forming. I have included the more complicated tart version as well as the simpler jellyroll.
Mamah spent most of her life in Melaka, and she had a wide reputation for her Nyonya cakes and pastries; this recipe is one from her repertoire. A couple of weeks before Chinese New Year, she and her sisters would get together to prepare all the food from scratch. Watching such activity, my siblings and I knew that these delicious tarts would come off the assembly line of busy hands along with the myriad of other food products. I once attempted this recipe alone, which only proved to me that cooperative work is the best way to make them. I still remember the delicacy of each small piece with the sweet and fruity filling on the top, covered by a thin latticework of pastry that made them (almost) too pretty to be eaten. To this date, I have not encountered a rendition as good as hers. I hope this recipe does justice to the tarts she would bake that produced such big smiles and satisfied stomachs in her grandchildren. Once you start eating these, you’ll discover how difficult it is to stop at just one.
Makes 120 rolls or 60 tarts.
Preparation time: around 4 hours or less
For the filling:
1 large pineapple, peeled, cored, and finely diced (4 cups), or 4 (28-ounce) large cans chopped pineapple
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Peel the cucumber and halve it lengthwise. Remove the seeds using a tablespoon. Slice the cucumber diagonally into ½ centimeter- (¼-inch-) thick pieces.
In a bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar levels. Serve immediately.
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).
Preparation time: 30 minutes
5 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 to 1½ tablespoons paste/sambal oelek
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)
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.
Add the dried shrimp to the processor and chop until fine. Remove and set aside.
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.
A recent inquiry on a Facebook Baba Nyonya recipe group about memorable Nyonya dishes produced the mention of this amazingly delicious dish, hence my publishing of my grandmother’s recipe.
This signature dish of my maternal grandmother, Madam Leong Yoke Fong, was one of my favorites when I was growing up. It is similar to the Thai version, in which duck is the main ingredient instead of shrimp, but this recipe has a more robust flavor. The sauce used here has a unique combination of flavors: sweet-sourness and fruitiness of the tamarind and pineapple, pungency from the belacan (shrimp paste) and aromatic roots, brininess and depth of flavor from the salted fish, creaminess from the coconut milk, and heat from the chili peppers. It seems nearly impossible that these disparate ingredients could come together harmoniously, but the final result is a wonderful dish that was definitely a gastronomic highlight for my family during our large dinners.
If possible, use freshly cut pineapple to let the fruity and acidic flavors cut through the rich sauce. You may also use canned pineapple chunks packed in its own juice and not in syrup. You can find the salted fish in Asian stores, either at room temperature or in the frozen section—use the small imported croakers if you can’t find Malaysian-produced ones.
Popoh (the Cantonese title we used for my maternal grandmother) would be dressed kemban-style while she moved busily around the kitchen preparing our nightly banquets. This was done so her sleeves would not get in the way of prepping and cooking, and so she could keep cool in the hot kitchen. She insisted on cooking this rich seafood curry in an unglazed earthenware pot called a belanga (website – 2nd photo), mixing it with a wooden round spoon worn down to a flat lip. Interestingly, cooking it this way imparted a je ne sais quoi to the dish that can never be replicated when using a metal pot; to this day, I vividly remember the earthy tinge the pot imparted to the dish. I believe taste memory rarely fades, and such is the case with my memory of the wonderful flavors of this dish. I also believe you will be impressed once you try this recipe and taste all the different notes found in this delectable marriage of ingredients and flavors.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 45 minutes
5 chili boh or chile puya dried peppers, 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
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
6 grams/½ teaspoon 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
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.
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.
In a pot on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the processed spice paste and fry for 8 minutes until aromatic.
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.
If using the second-pressing coconut milk, add it now. Add the tamarind slices or tamarind water. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes.
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.
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.