Most people in Singapore and Malaysia have never eaten, seen or heard of the bua keluak, a poisonous nut that grows in South East Asian swamps, says Peranakan Place owner Sam Wong. When cooked properly (to remove any trace of hydrogen cyanide) they produce a rich black flesh, quite unlike anything we’ve ever tasted. The nuts themselves look like wrinkly chestnuts. Inside there’s a pâté-textured flesh that’s rich, savoury and bitter like a combination of Kalamata olives, shiitake mushrooms and hazelnut skin. It's only eaten by Malaysia's Peranakan people.
Wong, or Uncle Sam as his customers affectionately call him, owns Peranakan Place, one of only a couple of restaurants in Sydney specialising in Peranakan food (also known as nonya), a cuisine formed by a history of Chinese and Malay intermarriages in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. While it would be easy to say the culture is a mixture of Malay and Chinese traditions, it isn’t. It’s remarkably distinct, and that’s reflected in the cuisine.
The ayam buah keluak is a rich and slightly bitter chicken curry made with keluak nuts. It’s a made over several days by Wong’s wife, Agnes Wong. First, the whole nuts are soaked for several days. Then they’re cracked open and hollowed out. Each nut is deseeded and its flesh is ground into a paste. Half the paste is used in the curry and the other half is seasoned and stuffed back into the whole nuts, which are then stewed with the curry. You’ll be given a crab-pick-like utensil to shovel the nut’s meat from its shell.
Most of the dishes require a similar level of preparation. Everything is made in-house, even the curry. Babi pongteh, a thick curry with tender pig trotters, shiitake mushrooms and chestnuts, is one of their family recipes. It’s savoury, thick and textured from the chewy mushrooms and doughy nuts. Both the babi pongteh and the ayam buah keluak are rich dishes, particularly when eaten over coconut or chicken rice, but like all Peranakan dishes, they’re not meant to be eaten alone. On every traditional Peranakan table you’ll find three things: sambal, lime and achar, a tangy and crunchy side dish of pickled vegetables, roasted sesame seeds and toasted coconut.
For dessert try the sage pudding or sweet glutinous black rice with salted coconut milk. Nonya tradition says to keep it unmixed so the balance of sweet and salty is perfect with every bite.
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