Fifth-generation Nyonya Pearly Kee’s “kerabu kay” (spiced chicken salad) and “hong bak” meat stew star in the third installment of our “Recipes from the Road” series.
The last time I was in Penang—almost five years ago—I became obsessed with sampling its culinary heritage. One day, I chanced upon a heavenly curry mee in a dilapidated shophouse just down the street from the buzzing Joo Hooi Café (the little noodle stall, alas, no longer exists). Another lunchtime was spent hunched over a steaming bowl of assam laksa at Air Itam market after a few hours wandering the nearby Kek Lok Si temple. But one of my fondest memories was learning to make Penang Nyonya specialties from Pearly Kee, who teaches cooking classes six days a week at her home in the George Town suburb of Pulau Tikus.
Nyonya or Peranakan food, a result of intermarriage between Chinese settlers and indigenous Malay, Javanese, or Thai women, varies across the former Straits Settlements. That of Malacca and Singapore lean more toward Indonesian or Malay cuisine, and are characterized by a touch of sweetness, spices such as candlenut, coriander, and cumin, and the liberal use of coconut milk. Penang’s geographic position in northern Malaysia, on the other hand, means it is heavily influenced by Thai cooking. This is evident in a penchant for sour flavors from ingredients such as tamarind and the fruit of asam gelugur, both of which are harnessed in assam laksa. Indeed, the first Peranakans to settle in the fledgling British colony were believed to have come from Phuket. Pearly explained some of this history as I sat down with my fellow students to eat several dishes of our own making.
In all my travels, I have yet to come across a chicken salad as exquisite as kerabu kay. It contains a perfect balance of flavors and textures all in a single bowl. One bite and you may well encounter the punchy umami of toasted shrimp paste and the heat of chili in sambal belachan, the freshness of mint and aromatic slivers of torch ginger, tart calamansi lime juice, crunchy wood ear mushroom, and the savory richness of full-bodied coconut cream.
Meanwhile, hong bak, a “classy stew” traditionally reserved for celebrations, is proof that patience in the kitchen really does pay off. It describes chicken, duck, or pork cooked with potatoes and braised in a medley of ground Southeast Asian spices and Chinese bean paste until the meat becomes fork-tender. I can tell you that Pearly Kee’s version is as tasty as it sounds. Now that we’re all kept indoors and have more time to spare, why not bring the flavors of Penang into your home with these two recipes?
KERABU KAY (SPICED CHICKEN SALAD)
2 chicken thighs, deboned and steamed, then julienned
2 whole black fungus (wood ear mushroom), soaked in water until expanded and softened. Stir-fry till crunchy for 10 minutes and cut into julienne strips.
1 tbsp pickled Shanghai cabbage, cut into thick strips
2 tbsp torch ginger, thinly sliced
4 shallots, sliced and briefly soaked in cold water
3–5 tbsp calamansi lime juice
3 tbsp sambal belachan
3 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp caster sugar
3 tbsp cooked coconut cream
½ cup mint leaves
1 whole red chili, sliced
1. In a large bowl, dissolve all seasonings till well blended.
2. Add all sliced ingredients into the seasonings and stir well.
3. Garnish with red chili, mint leaves, and torch ginger slices before serving.
HONG BAK (“CLASSY STEW”)
600 g duck or pork belly, cut into 3 cm cubes or large chunks
3 peeled potatoes, cut to the same size as the meat
Potable water (enough to cover the meat when boiling)
3 tbsp coriander powder
½ tsp sand ginger (cekur in Malaysia and Singapore, kencur in Indonesia)
1 tsp white pepper powder
90 g shallots
25 g garlic
1 tbsp bean paste (doubanjiang)
1 tsp nutmeg powder
3–4 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
Sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) for color
1. Blend the spices in a food processor. In a wok or pot, add cooking oil to sauté the spice paste. When well done, add meat and fry until it changes color and becomes firm.
2. Add enough water to cover the meat and allow the mixture to come to a rolling boil. After one minute, set to low heat and simmer for 90 minutes. Top up with water every 25 minutes or so to allow the meat to continue boiling.
3. Add the potato after one hour of cooking.
4. Once the meat is tender, use high heat to reduce the gravy. Add seasonings and adjust the flavor according to taste. Pour into a large bowl and serve.