Kobis Masak Lemak Puteh

This rich dish is popular in both the Malay and Peranakan cultures of the Malacca region, and was most likely borrowed from the host culture by the Peranakans after centuries of settling in the area and assimilating various elements surrounding them. The depth of flavor in the dish is achieved by the use of the pungent belacan (shrimp paste), the spicy chili peppers, a good amount of fragrant shallots, and the slightly briny dried shrimp—all contributing to a full-flavored and complex sauce. The richness of the coconut milk is paired with the yam that absorbs all the flavors of the sauce. Every ingredient complements the others to produce this flavorful and satisfying vegetable dish.

Although this is a rather short recipe in terms of the list of ingredients and cooking process, the complex flavors in the end product belie its simplicity. Most Nyonya recipes have a rather lengthy list of steps that can be daunting to many cooks and the uninitiated to this cuisine. But here we have one that is within the reach of any cook that still provides deep flavor and gastronomic satisfaction. This recipe is a regular during many of my special dinners for my friends for the above reasons, and it is also a favorite of many of my non-Peranakan friends. Once a friend exclaimed that it tasted like soul food, perhaps alluding to how the dish hit the right spots for him. For me, a Baba Peranakan, it is one of my favorite dishes; not only is it soul stirring, it also reminds me very much of Mamah, my grandmother—simple, warm, and loving.

When preparing the dish, make sure to cut the cabbage leaves into large pieces so they stand out among the bold flavors and the yam pieces. If you cannot find yams, you may use sweet potatoes, which are sweeter than yams. Serve some sambal belacan on the side to add some more “kick” to the dish.

Having tried this recipe, you will see why this dish is a favorite with my father and his relatives who were raised in Malacca.

Serves 4

Preparation time: 45 minutes

2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes then drained

2 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 teaspoon paste/sambal oelek

6 small (60 grams/2 ounces) shallots, peeled and roughly chopped

6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)

1 cup coconut milk

1 medium (250 grams or ½ pound) yam (Malay: keledek), peeled and cut into medium-size cubes, or sweet potato

1 small white cabbage, ribs removed and each half cut into 3 or 4 wide ribbons (4 cups)

⅓ teaspoon salt

  1. In a food processor, chop the dried shrimp into fine bits. Remove and set aside. Add the chili pepper, shallots, and belacan to the processor. Purée into a smooth mixture, remove, and set aside.
  2. In a pot on medium-high heat, combine the dried shrimp, chili-shallot mixture, and the coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low.
  3. Add the yam, cover with a lid, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes until partially cooked (add a bit of water if the mixture gets a bit dry).
  4. Add the cabbage and salt. Cover and cook for 5 minutes until the cabbage is just done. It is tempting to add some water at this point, but refrain from doing so as the cabbage will release some moisture as it cooks— you want to have a rather thick sauce in the final product.
  5. Remove and serve immediately with sambal belacan (recipe)
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Chap Chai Melaka

This recipe is basically Chinese in nature, mostly made up of Chinese ingredients that are not indigenous to Southeast Asia. However, the early Peranakan ancestors adapted this daily staple with the addition of local Southeast Asian spice ingredients such as dried shrimp, briny pungent belacan (shrimp paste), candlenuts, shallots, and red chilis—spices typically found in Nyonya dishes. This is also a popular dish in Medan, Sumatra, and Semarang, Java where the largest concentration of Indonesian Peranakans reside today. Surprisingly, I have found a non-spicy version of similar name in Korean restaurants, pointing to its Far East Asian roots.

The original name is Hokkien (Fujianese) for “mixed vegetables.” In this fairly simple dish you can taste the individual ingredients that complement each other: sweet cabbage, silky black or cloud fungus, woodsy lily bud, chewy tofu skin, and slippery bean thread noodles that have absorbed the rich sauce flavors. Most of the dried ingredients are imported from China and can be found in Oriental markets. Make sure to use the tender parts of the cabbage and to cut it into rather wide long ribbons so they do not disintegrate in this wonderfully satisfying and full-flavored vegetable dish. 

A milder Chinese version was usually served in our household, especially during special occasions (Chinese New Year in particular due to its vegetarian nature) and birthdays. However, this Peranakan version is equally delectable with its spicier, more pungent flavors and was usually present at our everyday dinners. My father recalls eating this dish often as a child, prepared by his mother. My maternal grandmother usually cooked the milder version, since she grew up in a Cantonese environment before her arranged marriage to a Baba Peranakan from the Malacca region. The addition of stronger tropical flavor elements to the Chinese recipe is indicative of the fusion of Chinese and Southeast Asian culinary traditions, a true reflection of Nyonya food itself. 

A recent recreation of this dish was a mind-opening revelation for me. For the longest time my memory of this dish was very sketchy, and I had a difficult time recalling the flavors. When I took the first bite of my attempt to recreate it, a stream of nostalgia rushed in with the recollection of the familiar flavors, and a comforting feeling of family, especially my paternal grandmother, Mamah. I remembered with sorrow that the last time I had savored this bowl of “lost memory” was when she passed away more than thirty years before. Just like the Bi Tai Bak and Spicy Chicken Gizzard and Pork Salad recipes, this dish could have easily slipped into oblivion, taking away with it a nugget of memory of my growing up as a Peranakan. But now, I cherish this recipe with a certain sense of zeal, knowing that not only is it a wonderfully delectable dish but also one that was saved and brought back into my consciousness and culinary repertoire.

Serves 4

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

⅔ cup dried black or cloud fungus

2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes, drained

6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)

3 candlenuts, shelled and crushed, or cashew or macadamia nuts (optional)

5 small (50 grams/1¾ ounces) shallot, peeled

4 cloves garlic, chopped fine (1 tablespoon minced)

2 Finger Hot red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 teaspoon paste/sambal oelek

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ cup dried lily bud (Cantonese: kim chan), soaked, hard tip removed, and tied into a knot

1 piece curled tofu skin (Cantonese: foo chook), rinsed until pliable and cut into 5-centimeter (2-inch) pieces

4 cups white cabbage, ribs removed if tough, cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) wide by 4-inch (10- centimeter) long strips

1 cup water

1 teaspoon thin soy sauce

¾ teaspoon salt

1 handful bean thread or glass noodles, soaked in cold water until soft, drained

  1. Soak the dried black/cloud fungus and lily bud separately in hot water for 30 minutes. While waiting, prepare the rest of the ingredients. When the fungus is finished soaking and is soft, divide each cluster into bite-size pieces and discard any hard pieces. With the lily bud, pinch off the hard end, and tie into a knot.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the soaked dried shrimp until quite fine. Remove and set aside.
  3. To the processor, add the belacan, candlenuts, shallots, garlic and chilis, and purée into a fine paste. Remove, mix with the dried shrimp, and set aside.
  4. In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the spice paste and dried shrimp until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the fungus, lily bud, and tofu skin, and stir for 1 minute. Add the cabbage, breaking it into loose leaves. Add the water, soy sauce, and salt. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer.
  5. When the sauce is simmering, remove the lid and cook until the cabbage is tender but not too soft, about 5 minutes. When cooked, add the bean thread noodles to the sauce and stir for 10 seconds only. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately.
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Kacang Panjang Chai Po

This rather simple dish is one of my family’s favorites, and it packs in a lot of flavor: the salty dried radish, the spicy red chili, the slightly fishy dried shrimp, the nutty and crunchy peanuts, all ingredients that are paired with the mild flavored tofu bits and Long Bean. This is a typical manner in which the Nyonya cook will treat a simple vegetable by adding a myriad of complementary and contrasting spice and flavorful elements, as exemplified by this vegetable dish.

A recent posting of this recipe in a Baba Nyonya recipe group garnished a lot of attention and comments, especially for a simple vegetable dish. Interestingly, many members stated that they had not relished it since their early days, and they reminisced that it was last cooked by either their mother or grandmother. Most commented that it was fondly eaten with plain rice porridge, an indication of the dish’s humble and soul-evoking nature that this dish conjures for the various posters.

When you are choosing Long Beans, pick the ones that are deep green in color, fresh looking, and not wilted. They are very perishable, and so, use them are soon as you can.  If the peanuts are quite large, chop them up or break them into halves. You can find packs of brownish Dried Radish in Asian Markets – get those in whole form and not the chopped-up ones, and you will have to soak it in hot water if it is too salty. Try making this dish, and you will see why it has been become a hit with my friends.  

You may use Green Beans as a substitute for the Long Beans. I like to slice them very finely on the diagonal for a nice presentation.

Serves 4

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

¼ cup tofu, firm type (Cantonese: taukwa), and finely cubed 

½ cup vegetable oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (½ tablespoon minced)

1 large piece salted dried radish (Cantonese: Choy Po), finely diced (¼ cup pressed), soaked in hot water 15 minutes or more until not too salty, drained. 

1½ tablespoon dried shrimp, very small, soaked 10 minutes in water and drained

200 grams Long/Snake Beans or Kacang Panjang, sliced ¼-inch (½-cm)

1 Finger Hot red chili pepper, stemmed and deseeded, sliced horizontally then finely sliced 

Thin soy sauce

2 tablespoons peanuts, toasted, peeled, and split

In a wok on medium-high flame, pour ½ cup oil and stir fry the tofu cubes until golden brown. Remove and drain well. Set aside.

Remove the oil and leave behind 3 tablespoons oil in pan. Add the garlic and fry for 1 minute or until slightly golden brown. Add the dried radish and dried shrimp, and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the Long Beans and chili and stir-fry for 1 minute.  Add 4 tablespoon of water and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Stir-fry uncovered for 1 minute. 

Taste the seasoning. If it is not salty enough, add a bit more soy sauce to taste. Add tofu and stir-fry uncovered for 1 more minute until mixture is quite dry but not completely dry.

Pour cooked mixture onto a plate, and sprinkle peanuts on top before serving.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available on Amazon for USD $5.99. Please visit the main page for details – CLICK