A cookbook author, a food consultant, and a custodian of Peranakan culinary heritage, Chef Philip Chia’s dedication to preserving the craft and cuisine is remarkable.

The affable ’84 SHATEC alumnus welcomed us into his modest home studio for an afternoon of eye-opening demos and a taste of the quintessential Peranakan dish: Ayam Buah Keluak, a tender braised chicken cooked with blended spice paste (rempah) and the Indonesian Buah Keluak nut.

His expertise showed in the way he swiftly cracked ready Buah Keluak nuts: the source of the dish’s complex flavour, smooth and moreish with full-bodied notes similar to that of dark cocoa or truffle.

Chef Philip also prepared Rempah Garang Asem, a traditional spice mix widely used in Peranakan households. With his batu lesung (mortar and pestle – kitchen aids he has used since age 6), he pounded the spices with rhythm. These were distinctive beats mastered byBibiks (elderly women) of yesteryear who firmly listened whether their daughters-in-law were working diligently in the kitchen.

Read on for Chef Philip’s step-by-step guide and his pro-tips to preparing the Buah Keluak nut (poisonous when unprocessed!) and rempah.

STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO PREPARING BUAH KELUAK NUT BY CHEF PHILIP

Method:

Prepare buah keluak 3 days ahead before using in the recipe of your choice. Soak the nuts for at least 3 days (5 at the most), changing the water two times a day. Make sure to scrub the shells hard and thoroughly each day.

Chef Tip! If you spot bubbles in the soaked water, that means it’s time to change it out.

Look for the “lip” of the buah keluak nut which cracks easily. It’s narrow and smooth on one side of the rough textured nut.

Position the nut securely in your mortar, and crack with a pestle.

Remove the shell using your fingers to allow a sizeable opening, while ensuring no broken shell pieces remain.

Remove the buah keluak meat with a teaspoon. A soft and oily kernel that peels open easily is good for use.

Chef Tip! After extracting the kernel from the nut, give it a whiff. A good buah keluak smells slightly fermented, close to that of liquor. Throw both kernel and shell away if there’s a repulsive scent.

Blend into an inky paste using the nut kernel, minced pork, peeled small prawns, sesame oil. Add more oil if you find the filling is too dry.

Season with light soya sauce and sugar.

Prepare for cooking by stuffing the filling into the nuts, packing it tightly with your index finger to avoid trapped air, as much as possible. 

Chef Tip!
 Using minced pork and fresh prawn texturises the paste and helps bind the buah keluak meat securely in its shell while it cooks.

STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO PREPARING REMPAH BY CHEF PHILIP

According to Chef Philip, what is essential in Peranakan cuisine is not simply about getting the recipes right, but about understanding the spices used. Various dishes across the Peranakan cooking repertoire call for variations of rempah. For example, buah keras or candlenut is not used in every spice mix.

As Chef Philip showed us his version of Rempah Garang Asem, he notes its versatility for various dishes, such as Garang Asam (fish) or squid and prawn dishes.

“To prepare, tumbok or grind all ingredients together, before you tumis or fry the rempah.”

– Chef Philip

Rempah Garang Asem

Method:

Add ingredients to your mortar and pestle or batu lesung to crush:

  1. Candlenut or buah keras
  2. Shallots or bawling merah, to introduce water content and balance with the dry ingredients
  3. Garlic or bawang putih

Once properly crushed, add in these pungent roots:

  1. Galangal or lengkuas
  2. Turmeric or kunyit

Note: Add more shallots if you find it is too dry.

Pound to the texture you desire, whether fine or semi-fine.

Chef Tip! Pound in a circular motion, and while you work, cover one side of the mortar with your left (or non-dominant) hand.

Add these ingredients to grind:

  1. Sambal Belachan Paste (Derived from Penang or Malacca)
  2. Chilli Paste – 2 tbsp or as you desire

Soak dried chillies in hot water for half an hour before adding to the rempah. Blend the chillies with water to get a fine texture.

Remove the blended spices once satisfied with the texture.

  1. Lemongrass

Chef Tip! To achieve a deeper red colour in the rempah or an intense spice level, add in more chilli.

Trim off the white root end of the lemongrass, crushing the edge of its stalk to scrape at the sides of the mortar and pestle clean of rempah.

The rempah is now ready to tumis or stir fry!