There was a show on the telly, one of those with a celebrity chef in it. These food boffins of the media can sometimes make me cranky.
Case in point: this chef was critiquing/ commenting on a contestant’s use of blue colouring in a meringue – “it looks unnatural, there’s no blue foods, change it”.
She’s got a point, blue food doesn’t happen often in nature. Purple does, blue, not so often.
Does that make the use of blue a bad thing? Not according to the Nyonya/Peranakan Straits Chinese it doesn’t.
The Peranakan culture probably originated around the 15th century when wealthy Chinese merchants and traders arriving in the new trading ports of Singapore and Malaysia took the indigenous Malay women as wives and concubines. Women of the new culture are known as Nyonyas, the men are called Baba.
A wondrous, rich culture was the result of the union. The Nyonya became renowned for their cuisine, a rich, complex hybrid of Malay and Chinese ingredients and technique.
Nyonya kueh, or cakes are a wonderful example of this attention to detail. These little darlings are made into shapes and parcels that say “EAT ME!” . A kueh platter is a kaleidoscope of delicious texture, shape and colour – pink, red, green, yellow and yes! Blue!
Often made from glutinous rice, rice flour, coconut, yam or sweet potato, these cakes are also often steamed, not baked as are the majority of cakes are in the west. Where we might use vanilla, cooks in South East Asia use pandan, a taste and aroma with the power to transport me straight back to Penang. Freshly grated coconut, banana and coconut milk are also widely used.
One of the prettiest, in my opinion, is a rice kueh coloured with the blue pea flower, or bunga telang. You know what else I love about this cake? its name. They call it Pulut Tai Tai. Pulut = rice. Tai Tai = a wealthy, “lady who lunches” wife. The Tai Tai whiles away her days shopping, gossiping and playing mah-jong. She’s as glam and fabulous as her namesake kueh.
Pulut Tai Tai is served, in slices with kaya, a local jam. Kaya can be loosely described as a rich coconut and egg spread. It can be found in two variations. The lightish green is redolent of pandan. The brown kaya tastes richer, more toffeeish from the caramelisation of rich palm sugar gula Melaka.
I remember being delighted when a McDonalds in Singapore had a kaya and toast breakfast special. Such is the popularity of this sweet delicacy.
Have a look in your local Asian grocer, see if you can find a jar of kaya and try it with hot, buttered, white toast – very, very yummy!
Bunga telang is also used to colour savoury rice dishes – looks spectacular! I love it! All natural, rich in intriguing history, looks gorgeous, what’s not to love?