My attempts at Peranakan cooking

THE CHALLENGE: create a Peranakan menu for 50 people.  Everything has to be ready by 4pm.

THE DISHES:  Nonya Fried Rice Ayam Sioh (which is to be renamed Babi Sioh as I was going to use pork instead of chicken), Ooi Kiew Ayam (Turmeric Fried Chicken), Kerabu Bihon, and Fish Belanda.

THE CREW: Me, Buritsky, Mary Ann, Aldrin with some help from Omeng, Vivian, and Marie.

8:30am

Everyone is busy shelling shrimps, squeezing limes, and cutting-up vegetables.  Vivian tells me the best she can do with the cucumber and the carrots for the Kerabu Beehon is to julienne them thinly.  I had wanted them to be hair-like thin.  The chicken is marinating and the pork is waiting for its fate.  I still have to give kulintang lessons.

9:30am

Kulintang lessons are over and I check what’s going on in the kitchen.  The chicken looks a little anemic so I have more turmeric powder added together with freshly pounded turmeric roots.   I suddenly remember our lunch at the Indian restaurant in Georgetown where we stuffed ourselves sick with masala, dosa, and chapati. Heading to the rest room beside the kitchen, I see the cook, an think man in his 40s marinating some chicken in a large plastic tub.  It was really yellow.

Buritsky is off to the grocery to buy additional ingredients particularly the bean paste and the tamarind.  I tell her to go look for hoi sin sauce instead if there’s no bean past.

11:00am

I take out the trusty mortar and pestle and begin pounding on a kilo of shallots to extract about a cup of juice to be used for the Babi Sioh. I feel like I am Tita in “Like Water for Chocolate.” I make a mental note of looking for the recipe for Quail in Rose Petal Sauce so I can make it for my birthday. Suddenly, an idea comes to my head. Last year, I had healthy food inspired from the travels.  This year, why not make it a Literary Feast?  Food from the pages of literary writings! 

11:10 am

At 400/k those little dried shrimps called hibe and currently soaking in a bowl to wash off some of their saltiness as well as coloring has got to be one of the most expensive crustaceans.  I’ve seen large tubs of them for sale at Vietnam’s markets their pungent smell wafting though the air attracting both buyers and flies.

The hibe is to be pounded and mixed with red chillies to create a paste for the Nonya Fried Rice.

I look for the chilli and I am horrified to  see  siling labuyo (bird-eye chilli).  Aaaarrrggghhhhh!  Too late to ask anyone to run to the market and buy the large green chillies so amidst Mary Ann’s warnings that my sisters don’t like it hot, I get two pieces and pound them with the hibe.

11:20am

I toast the coriander seeds in a pan and their aroma fills the kitchen.  Back to the mortar so they can be grounded.

11:30am

Mary Ann has wrung out the milk from the coconut and I tell her to add it to the fish head soup cooking for lunch.  I put the shredded coconut meat in a large pan and begin toasting; a task made difficult by the fact that I have to constantly keep stirring the meat lest it burns.  Smells really really good though.

11:40am

I had learned earlier that belachan is dried shrimp paste flattened into cakes the closes equivalent of which is the Visayan ginamos.  I settle for  fresh alamang cooked on a pan until it dries.  I transfer it to the mortar and add chillies again (nore more than 2!)  to make sambal belachan, a primary ingredient in the kerabu.

12:00am

Buritsky finally arrives.  Out of the grocery bags is a single bottle of hoi sin sauce!!!! How am I supposed to make that fit with 5k of pork?!  She has forgotten that I told her to buy 5 bottles.  Again, too late to go to the grocery.  She does find some sweet tamarind imported from Thailand and packaged by Dole.  It’s not nearly enough to extract some pulp for the tamarind water but it will have to make do.

12:15pm

The coconut meat is finally done but has none of the sweetish coconut taste I expected. It also didn’t look like anything that came out of the tiny packets that came with boxes of rice cakes.   I add some sugar and it improves a bit.  Mary Ann says I shouldn’t have extracted the milk but I surmised it wouldn’t have tasted.    I’ve never made toasted coconut before. Maybe she was right.  This one would have to do.

Buristsky starts cooking the Babi Sioh.

12:20pm

I have Mary Ann start frying the garlic slices and shallots for the Fish Belanda.

12:30pm 

Lunch break of cream dory fish head cooked in coconut meal. Delicious.

1:00pm

Mary Ann starts frying the 5k of fish while I start extracting the tamarind pulp. It’s a sordid and messy affair involving lots of hot water, mashing and hand wringing. Won’t go into details as it might just turn you off from any dish that contains tamarind water.

A word of warning when frying cream dory.  There’s so much fat so make sure you cover the pan or else you’re gonna need a lot of anti-burn ointment.

1:15pm

Aldrin starts frying the chicken.

I make the lime dressing for the Kerabu Beehon.  Mixing the  sambal belachan with the lime juice and lots of sugar results in a delicious dressing.  I can’t wait to try it with the noodles.

2:00pm

The pork is cooked and the sauce has thickened into a gravy.  It’s melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  It’s sliced in thin rounds and arranged on serving trays.  The gravy is watered down though as I find a little salty.  Buritsky thinks it’s okay but I’d rather err on the safe side.  I’m surprised at the quick cooking time considering that we used a charcoal burner!

I prepare the sauce for the Fish Belanda. Buritsky has forgotten to buy cinnamon stick so I make do with cinnamon powder instead.  The recipe doesn’t call for any thickening agent but I find the sauce too thin so I thicken it so it would stick to the fish better. Tamarind juice and cinnamon is delicious.  I tastes just like the fish we had at Peranakan Cuisine in Melakka.

2:30pm

Rhoda and a few people arrive and watch.  The noodles have been blanched so I mix them with the lime-belachan using my hands (with gloves of course) to mix them all up together with the julienned cucumber and carrots and the toasted coconut.  The toasted coconut as expected merely gives texture rather than taste.  There’s none of the coconut taste that would have made the flavour more interesting.

There’s not enough blanched prawns so everything goes to the kerabu while the fried rice will just have to settle with the dried fish flakes.

3:00pm

The food is packed except for the chicken and the rice which are still cooking.   Rhoda brings them to Yna’s place.  I tell her to use the batik tablecloth she bought at Titro Nono in Yogyakarta.

What the Nonya Fried Rice lacks in ingredients it makes up for in taste and color.  It’s really delicious ( yehey for hibi and chilli paste) though I would have wanted to be a little spicy.  Since I used the oil from the chicken, it was colored a bright yellow green!

3:30pm

We’re done.

THE VERDICT: Everyone said it was delicious and not because they were relative and friends 🙂  People went back for seconds and thirds and they were just saying how delicious it was, especially the rice.  I was surpised that they enjoyed the Kerabu Beehon as the dish was a little strange to the Pinoy palate who was used to having noodles cooked as a viand and not as a salad.

WHAT I LEARNED:

1.  Nonya cooking isn’t really complicated.  No special cooking techniques were needed.  What made it difficult was sourcing the right ingredients.

2.  If you’re gonna buy a cookbook of the cuisine of a particular place you might as well buy some long-shelf-life ingredients such as tamarind, bean paste, black nuts, and candle nuts.

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