On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya Mah Mee
The Peranakans of the past were known to observe etiquette and decorum notoriously. It began at home where everyone was expected to know how to address one’s relatives correctly, making sure one could differentiate the nuances in one’s relationships with their “pek“, “engku“, “engteoh“, and “chek“, terms which are often reduced to a simple “uncle” nowadays. Out of the family context, it was important to know and observe the social hierarchy put in place then and not only understand, but also be well adapted and assimilated into one’s designated role. In short, one is expected to know what the “pecking order” was like and how to will one’s means to reap and benefit the most out of it. It was important for a baba or nyonya to be seen as being “proper” or in Peranakan terms, “tau adat” which basically translates to “know your customs and practices well”. Only then can one be described as being “alus” (refined) or for the nyonyas “senonoh” (elegant and demure) rather than being “kasair” (uncouth). Social behavior was maintained to the strictest order and it was of pertinence for one to be “well placed” into his or her position in society, with the Peranakan families well connected amongst one another through intermarriages, maintaining a close relationship with the colonial masters whom they collaborated or worked for, as well as the sin kheks whom these baba towkays employed and provided for.
Protocol and formalities once perpetuated every aspect of the ways of life of a Peranakan, even in its cuisine. Some dishes were cooked specifically for certain occasions and having them appear on the dining table otherwise was a big no no. For example, “pongteh” was a dish prepared for semayang abu (ancestral prayers) and not to be confused with “chin“, a very similar dish which was associated with weddings instead. The same was with the “kueh culture” for the Peranakans, colour coded to highest levels of specifications, red and yellow for festivities while green and blue were for funerals. But over the years as the generations evolved, many converted to Catholicism or “masok Christian” and abandoned these practices, while for others the “reins” faded and eventually disappeared as they became more influenced by Western culture, married out of the baba-nyonya community or simply migrated to a part of the world where Asian culture isn’t a mainstream, let alone the Peranakan way of life. As such many aspects of the “adat” and its “rules” became relaxed, with only a handful of puristic Peranakans still stauchly following the very traditional customs to the strictest order and in full regalia. Thus, it is not uncommon, to find dishes which were previously cooked for separate occasions appearing on the same dining table nowadays. The identity of certain dishes also evolved over time, and one of them is Nyonya Mah Mee, which is sometimes just called Mee Nyonya.
Laksa Belut Perlis – Freshwater Eel Asam Laksa
A long overdue attempt, barely making it in time as Malaysia Food Fest Kedah & Perlis Month is just days to closure. Been a “busy” month planning for our pigout sessions during our trip to Taipei (yes! expect more reviews on Taipei patisseries to come!), and then the actual week-long trip itself, followed by a post-holiday withdrawal period. Anyway, enough of my ranting! Sometime back during our regular chats, I asked my dear friend, Wendy from Table for 2 or more, the organiser of this monthly online event on what she felt is a dish which is least likely to be attempted this month. Laksa Belut Perlis is an almost immediate reply, probably because of the lack of accessibility to freshwater eels for many. Lucky for us here in Singapore, they are available in some of our local wet markets. So I took it upon myself to attempt this recipe, which essentially uses “laksa utara” as a base , with the special touch of using belut, freshwater eel as part of its ingredient list.
Nasi Dagang Terengganu & Gulai Ikan Tongkol
Nasi Dagang, i.e. Trader’s Rice is a very common breakfast fanfare enjoyed by the masses along the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It uses a mixture of white rice (beras wangi) which is first soaked and subsequently steamed with glutinous rice (pulut) with coconut milk added for its wonderful aroma and flavour. This likens another popular breakfast dish, Nasi Lemak over here in Singapore. However, instead of pandan leaves, sliced shallots (bawang merah) and fenugreek (halba) are added. This concoction seems to be the preferred combination for many dishes, as we’d seen in Pulut Lepa and Ketupat Sotong. As we have seen in several dishes from Terengganu, fish is a staple amongst the folks from this region, and Nasi Dagang is no exception. It is eaten with Gulai Ikan Tongkol, a spicy fish red curry cooked with tuna and a hoard of spices as well as buah belimbing, one of my favorite ingredients I love to use in Straits cooking. And this month’s Malaysian Food Fest seem like a timely affair to visit and pay tribute to this time-honoured dish.
October brings us to the 3rd month of the Malaysian Food Fest and this month, we visit Terengganu! I’d never been the the eastern coast of Peninsula Malaysia, i.e. Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan but I do know that the eastern coastal line is famous for its white sandy beaches with swaying coconut trees against the clear blue skies and idyllic sea. Pulau Redang and Pulau Perhentian are famous snorkelling and scuba-diving spots comparable to Manado and the aussie reefs! Where there’s sea, there’ll be lots of seafood and Terengganu cuisine is characterised by the liberal use of it! Laksam Terengganu is a recipe which had me very curious for quite some time already when I started reading up on the signature dishes of the various Malaysian states for MFF. It is intriguing in many respects, firstly the use of a homemade rice-based noodle which reminded me much of the cantonese chee cheong fun and a gravy thickened with fish meat! I knew instinctively that this has to be on my no. 1 to-try list for Terengganu. So here I go!
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Kerabu Belimbing Timun Nanas (Nyonya Spicy Fruit Salad)
When I first started learning to cook nonya dishes, I remember being immediately overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of some recipes. Tedious steps to follow, long and painstaking preparation, tiring rempah pounding, long list of ingredients to garner… are just some of the reasons which deterred many from trying to cook the dishes for themselves. Yes, peranakan cooking can be very patience-testing, obviously one of the many virtues I lack. But the results are often very rewarding, as its through these multi-step culinary “ordeals” that all those intricate nuances of flavours and textures were teased out, to which is what many of us enjoy about peranakan cooking.
Having said that, not all peranakan dishes are difficult to cook or troublesome to put together. Kerabu Belimbing Timum Nanas is one such recipe which is almost effortless to prepare and requires very little time to do so. It is served as a “palate refreshener”, marking contrast against the other robust and full-bodied flavour dishes, to make the latter lighter for the stomach, so that the whole meal would not be just about heft. Being spicy and tart at the same time, it is perfect “conditoner” to whet everyone’s appetites!
On the Trail of the Phoenix – Sambal Jantung Pisang
Geylang Serai is a place that reminds me much of my childhood. Apart from the Orchard Road shopping belt, the stretch around City Plaza and Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre was one of the earliest built-up shopping areas in the eastern part of Singapore, more affectionately known as “Yokoso” in the past. It is also the major stronghold for the Malay community in Singapore, likening Chinatown and Little India to the Chinese and Indians respectively. Long before Geylang Serai became the infamous weekend rendevous spot for Pinoy domestic helpers and their Bangladeshi boyfriends, this place was the hub of the Malay culture and heritage in Singapore. Apart from visits during the month-long pasar malams (night markets) during the pre-Hari Raya Ramadan (fasting) period to soak in the festivities, my mother, together with her sisters visited this place frequently throughout the year to shop and makan(feast), since Orchard Road was often deemed as being too “atas” (haute couture) and out-of-place for heartlanders like us. My cousins and I would simply tag along, usually an ice-cream or a paper cone of kachang putih at hand. So “Yokoso” became the port-of-call de facto for all our shopping needs, from fabrics for making curtains and cushion covers from Joo Chiat Complex, to clothes from “2nd Chance” at Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre and not forgetting shoes and Casio watches from shops at City Plaza. And no trip to Geylang Serai is complete without a visit to its wet market and food centre, where one can sample the essence of Malay as well as Indian Muslim culinary delights, from an assortment of kuih-muihs (sweet pastries) and light snacks, to more robust Sup Kambing and Tulang Merah. The wet market section was also fantastic, where one could find a wide variety of fresh ingredients from the usual produce of fruit, fish and meat, to the more exotic, like to garner a whole entourage of herbs for Nasi Ulam.
Truth be told, I haven’t been there for eons, despite passing by the area ever so frequently. I often wonder how the place is like now, or if my favorite Indian Rojak stall was still in business. But I’d never really felt compelled to go in. Strange I know, don’t ask me why. Alas as fate has a funny way of coming around, my ventures into Peranakan cooking has brought me back here again, to buy buah keluak, or source for the freshest petai beans still in their pods. And thus when I have a craving and was looking for ingredients to make Sambal Jantung Pisang, I knew the perfect place to start hunting.