Having just returned from Chinese New Year festivities from my mother’s hometown of Malacca, my Peranakan roots have been reinforced in my psyche. Peranakan food was on sale within every inch of sight. One of the reunion lunches hosted by my relatives was held at a beautiful restored heritage building, an we were served a beautiful array of Peranakan food so good, it could have only been cooked by a chef of Peranakan lineage too.
I taught this recipe a couple of years ago at The Hive bulk store as part of a Vegan Peranakan Cooking Workshop, and felt it was time to share it with the rest of you!
An amalgamation of cultures defines the taste of Peranakan food, with flavours and cooking styles having influences from Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Portuguese cuisines.
I have written in another post my feelings about ‘bastardizing’ Peranakan recipes, and have made peace with my relationship with tradition and food. Whenever I can, I do apply old school techniques… not for the sake of keeping them alive, but simply because it makes the food taste better. I’ve grown up watching my mother, aunties and grandmothers pound onion and garlic in a granite mortar and pestle. Doing it myself now, I now understand how this practice can never be suitably replaced with the whizz of a food processor.
The secret ingredient to this dish is fermented soybean paste, also known in this region as ‘Taucu‘ (pronounced ‘T-ow-choo’). There are two types: one featuring whole beans, and the other featuring beans totally ground down to paste. You can use either type in this recipe. I purchase the paste version package-free at The Hive. If you don’t live within Southeast Asia, hopefully you are able to look for fermented soybean paste in your local Asian market.
Zero access to taucu? Perhaps Doenjang (Korean bean paste) or miso could do the job. I have never tried using it as a replacement, but I think they may be the closest equivalents and your safest bet. I would only advise that miso be added in as a final ingredient, since miso is a ‘living’ food product and cooking it would kill off all the lovely gut-friendly bacteria that lives in it.
The other key ingredient in this recipe is Gula Melaka, or Malaysian coconut palm sugar. If you don’t have access to Gula Melaka in your country, you can easily substitute it with jaggery or coconut sugar in any other form. No access to palm sugar in your area? Perhaps replace it molasses sugar or as a last resort, demerara sugar. There is a smokiness in Gula Melaka that cannot be found in other types of sugars, but accessibility to Peranakan recipes means a lot more to me than keeping things authentic.
The suggested history behind the interesting name ‘Pong Teh’ (Pronounced Pong-Tay) is that ‘Pong’ could be a mispronounced way of saying ‘Hong’ in the Hokkien dialect, while ‘Teh’ could actually be ‘Te’, which is Hokkien for pig trotter. Rest assured the only thing trotting in this dish are your feet when you discover the happiness it brings.
Pong Teh is sweet and umami, warm and mellow, earthy and caramel-like. For me, the taste of this stew is simply the taste of home.
The best way to eat Pong Teh is with rice. To amp up the nutrition value of this dish you can serve it with brown, red or black rice. I particularly how the nuttiness and extra bite of whole grain rice complements the gentle textures of vegan Pong Teh.
I hope you enjoy making this comforting bowl of Malaysian history, from my family to yours.
Pong Teh (Nyonya Fermented Bean Soup)
A hearty recipe passed down from generations, this signature dish of Peranakan food culture has been given a vegan update whilst still showcasing its intriguing gravy made of coconut palm sugar and fermented bean paste.
- 1.5 litres water for boiling (take 1 1/2 cups of this afterwards for gravy)
- About 10 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 2 large potatoes, diced into bite-size pieces
- 1 large carrot, diced into bite-size pieces
- 200g (approx. 1 cup diced) firm tofu
- 2 large onions, roughly chopped or minced with a mortar and pestle
- 1 bulb garlic, roughly chopped or minced with a mortar and pestle
- 3 tbsp fermented bean paste ('tauchu')
- 40g gula melaka
- 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 1/2 tbsp cooking oil
- Step 1 Put potatoes and mushrooms in water and bring to the boil. Once it starts to boil, cook for another 15 – 20 minutes until almost fully cooked. The fork test works (stab a fork into a cube and if it slips off clean the potato is ready). OR just cook for 30 minutes overall.
- Step 2 Remove potato cubes and mushrooms and set aside 1 1/2 cups of stock water from the pot.
- Step 3 (You can perform this first step of boiling the night before to split your cooking time, and store the potato, mushroom and stock water in the fridge until they are ready to be used, but be sure to slightly stretch out your cooking time in the later steps to take the low temperature into consideration.)
- Step 4 In the meantime, peel onions and garlic and pound roughly.
- Step 5 Heat up cooking oil.
- Step 6 Fry onion and garlic on high heat for 3 minutes.
- Step 7 Bring down to medium heat, put in fermented bean paste and stir evenly for 1 minute.
- Step 8 Then, put in stock water, cinnamon stick, gula melaka and blackstrap molasses. Stir until even.
- Step 9 Follow shortly with addition of potatoes, mushrooms, carrot and tofu.
- Step 10 Cook for 15 minutes for the potato to thicken the gravy. If you like your carrot a little less cooked and/or your tofu more intact, put it in about 3 minutes before cooking time is up.
- Step 11 Serve immediately with rice.