On a trip to Malacca last week I rekindled my love affair with the Peranakan culture. The Peranakans were also known as the Straits Chinese, and were the first wave of Chinese immigrants from the 14th Century onwards; wealthy merchants who traded in Malacca and intermarried with the local Malays.
They had their own culture, traditions and food, and cendol was their dessert of choice, so in the interests of objective research, I felt compelled to try it twice.
The cendol maker begins by putting a huge block of ice into a machine and shaving off a large bowlful –
Then the sous-chef gets to work –
pouring, swirling and dribbling, just like the best mixologist –
until you get to the finished dish –
It is the most ambrosial mixture of pillow-soft, shaved ice topped with coconut milk and raw palm sugar, and it’s just like eating a billowy, sweet cloud of snow. There’s a side serving of green jelly worms and some red beans hidden under the ice for a bit of texture and colour, and the whole thing costs just over £1. Budget friendly bliss – what more could you want?
Peranakan women didn’t go to school; in fact they weren’t allowed to leave the house at all. They spent their childhood learning to cook and sew, until they were considered competent and married off at the age of 14 or so. Consequently there are a lot of very complicated recipes in their repertoire, as they had nothing else to do all day except devise fiendishly difficult dishes to impress their menfolk.
One such dish is called ‘ayam buah keluak’ and is so difficult to make that it’s practically impossible to find a restaurant that serves it – but we found one –
so we went in to try it.
The keluak nuts contain cyanide, so in order to make them edible they have to be buried in the ground for 40 days and then soaked in water for ten days. Who on earth invented this bizarre recipe, I wondered, and was old-time Malacca full of squirrel-like women dashing out into the garden to bury their nuts every autumn?
The nuts are then cooked with chicken and a mixture of spices, to make a fragrant stew
You need a special thin knife to scrape out the softened centre of the nuts, which is pulpy and black and tasted rather musty to me, although afficionados say that it tastes like truffles
It looks like caviar, but doesn’t taste like it.
I’m glad I’ve tried keluak, but I don’t think I’ll be dashing to try it again – unlike cendol, which I will be devouring on a regular basis whenever I can find a cendol supplier. I’ve been wondering about making my own at home, as my fridge has an ice maker, but I’m not sure whether you can make shaved ice with a Lady Shave – more research needed here, I feel.