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.