One of the highlights of each Chinese New Year is going to Auntie I’s home. Her spread of Chinese and Peranakan dishes is legendary. And it’s not surprising that I remember her saying once that it took 3 weeks of preparation to get ready for Chinese New Year cooking. Ayam Buah Keluak is also one of those Peranakan dishes that is, to me, a pinnacle of cooking achievement. It takes a good amount of love to prepare the nuts also. The buah keluak nuts come from Indonesia and apparently need to be boiled then buried in ashes for 40 days to get rid of the cyanide in the nut and shell. They are sold for a princely sum especially at Chinese New Year and also because of some supply restrictions, I suspect, in the Covid19 pandemic. The love also goes into soaking the nut several days before cooking the dish – this is not a dish that can be cooked without planning! Then the labour intensive careful preparation of the nut – painstakingly removing the nut flesh and stuffing a piquant mixture of nut, pork and prawn filling back into the shell. Hats off to all the Peranakan women who have been making this dish for generations!
Every family has a version of this dish. Years ago my granny from Kuching taught me her version of this, but I still prefer my Auntie I’s version which this recipe is modeled after. Plus I remember being freaked out by how I was taught by grandma to use the heel of a cleaver to crack the nut…I was really lucky not to have inflicted some lasting injury on myself. I now deal with the nuts with a nice neat meat mallet which is much more civilized.
Although the nuts are the highlight of this dish, I think the rempah or the curry spice paste is what makes or breaks this recipe. And I would encourage no short cuts like using turmeric powder instead of fresh turmeric root – somehow the texture and flavour is much different.
So it was fun serving this dish up for CNY. Surprisingly both my kids liked it, and my nieces were fascinated by the buah keluak – I guess the black nuts were strange to them as they hadn’t tried the dish before (yes this is a different branch of the family who wouldn’t have grown up eating Auntie I’s festive spread). Anyway after cooking up a storm this CNY I literally nestled myself in one corner of the room and fell asleep. CNY cooking is not for the faint hearted and all the effort is pure love.
Ayam Buah Keluak
- 1.5 inch piece of turmeric, peeled
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 10 slices of galangal
- 30 pieces of dried red chilli, soaked in hot water
- 6 fresh red chillis, deseeded
- 7 candlenuts
- 35 shallots
- 2 tsp belachan, toasted
- 1/3 cup peanut oil
- 150 g minced pork
- 150 g prawn meat
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp sugar substitute
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 large (1.5 kg) chicken, chopped in pieces
- 20 buah keluak
- 1.5 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp turmeric powder
- 8 tbsp tamarind paste
- 3 tbsp sugar substitute
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
BUAH KELUAK STUFFING
- Soak the buah keluak nuts for 5 days, scrubbing the shells and changing water daily.
- Marinate the chicken with 1 tbsp turmeric and 2 tsp salt in the fridge for an hour.
- In a food processor, chop the turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, dried and fresh red chillies, candlenuts and toasted belachan and blend these ingredients finely. Then add the shallots and pulse for about 1/2 a minute. The shallots should still be slightly coarsely chopped.
- Heat the 1/3 cup (5 tbsp) of peanut oil to a wok over medium heat and fry the rempah till fragrant and the rempah has darkened and the oild has separated. Set the rempah aside.
- With a mallet, carefully tap the smooth part of the buah keluak shell and create a gap in the shell. Carefully widen the gap so that a teaspoon can be inserted into the nut. Remove the nut shell and set aside.
- Put the nut flesh in a food processor and blend together with the prawn flesh. Remove and put into a mixing bowl and mix in the minced pork, sesame oil, salt, soy sauce and sugar substitute and 1/5 of the prepared rempah and mix well.
- Spoon the filling back into the shells. If there is leftover filling, set aside and refrigerate. The buak keluak shells can be refrigerated or frozen, depending on when you want to cook them.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil. Poach the chicken for 5 min. Remove the chicken and set aside.
- In another pot, add 1/2 cup rempah, the buah keluak seeds and any extra filling. Add just enough water to cover the seeds, then simmer for 1 hour.
- In a wok, fry the chicken and remaining rempah together till the chicken pieces are well covered with rempah.
- Dissolve the tamarind paste in 1 cup water and discard the seeds. Add the tamarind juice to the chicken, then add the buah keluak and the stock from the buah keluak pot. Add the remaining 1.5 tsp salt, 2 tbsp light soy sauce and 1 tbsp sugar substitute, then simmer for 20 minutes till the chicken is tender.
- Adjust the flavouring of the dish – it should be a blend of sweet, salty and sour tones. Serve hot with cauliflower rice.