Straits Chinese Cuisine - Comforts of Home
The har mee yoke, a soup based concoction of prawny flavours, spicy sauces, hard boiled eggs, tender pork cuts and spinach, is available throughout cafes and food courts in Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.
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The Jiu Hu Char, or cuttlefish stir fry, can be a test of cutting and cooking skills and maturity. Most of the ingredients have to be deftly sliced to a fine and consistent texture, for the resulting quality affects the taste and refinement of the dish prepared. Skin peeled yam bean, peeled carrots, cabbage, soaked dried shitake mushrooms, onions, minced garlic, shredded dried cuttlefish (which has to be thoroughly rinsed before use) are the main items to gather and prepare. Sugar, salt and pepper is utilised to taste as garnish. In addition,m this is not a vegetarian dish, for pork belly or chicken strips are also thrown into the mix. The mixture is eaten wrapped with lettuce leaves. At the height of the Straits Chinese culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this dish was a favourite of mothers-in-law to ascertain the standards of cooking by the young bride. The yam bean and carrots are especially challenging, for modern kitchen blenders unfortunately create a mash or pulp, when this dish requires a crunchy texture to be maintained of the finely sliced vegetables.
Sauces are integral to key dishes in Straits Chinese cuisine. Above photo show accompaniments to the Penang street food special of lobak, deep fried soya skin rolls wrapping finely cut pieces of lean pork, shredded yam beans, chopped big onion and chopped water chestnuts. Again, experience shows up in the outcomes as one binds such ingredients with five spice powder, tapioca flour and contents of eggs. Cucumbers are served separately in slices with the lobak rolls.
The acar awak, a spicy pickled kick starter to accompany rice based meals, comes from a blend of traditions of Thai, Malay and Indian influences, adapted quickly by the Straits Chinese as to heighten the appetite at any meal. Never taken for breakfast, a must at wedding meals, it can be viewed as a healthy concoction, as it uses cucumber, cauliflower, pineapple, brinjal, long bean, French beans, carrots and cabbage. Again all these ingredients need to be patiently and finely cut, to provide bite-sized satisfaction and crunchiness and to ensure that all are adequately soaked in the right spice paste. Vegetables are also required to be scalded by a formula to activate the pickling process - and this formula uses salt, sugar, white vinegar and water. The spicy paste is another elaborate affair to make, for it requires several ingredients like tumeric, galangal, candlenuts, toasted belacan, lemon grass, coriander seeds, dried red chillies, shallots and garlic, all pounded happily together with a mortar and pestel. These days you can find all such ingredients in an Asian outlet, preferably Thai or Malaysian. Roasted sesame seeds and peanuts are also good to sprinkle over the final mixture before serving. Belacan refers to the dried shrimp paste and galangal is a staple of Thai cuisine to release heightened flavours.
The above dishes were photographed at the home kitchen of Madam Foo Gaik Hwa.