IT’S not unusual to see a look of uncertainty spreading across the face of someone who’s eating Ayam Buah Keluak or Keluak Curry for the very first time. The seed, almost ebony in colour, is usually served on a bed of chicken or pork cooked in a thick, spicy, tangy curry the shade of sunset. But it’s the seed that cradles the real star of the dish: keluak flesh — rich, creamy, dark, slightly bitter and unmistakably earthy.
Unless you come from Malacca, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the fruit before. Dubbed “black gold” by Peranakan cuisine aficionados, the fruit is often associated with the culinary world of Malacca’s Baba-Nyonya community. But as Malacca celebrates nine years since being declared a Historical City by Unesco on April 15, the fruit remains a symbol of a rich, colourful heritage belonging to another of the state’s oldest settlers — the Portuguese-Eurasians.
ACROSS THE STRAITS
“The Seranis (Eurasians) from Malacca have been cooking keluak for a very, very long time, but more people know it as a Peranakan dish,” says Kumi cafe owner, Rueben Moissinac, with a cheeky smile.
Together with his cousin Ammos Stevenson, the two young Bandar Hilir-bred boys opened the cafe serving Malaccan Portuguese-Eurasian cuisine in Bukit Damansara last year. Keluak Curry is the latest addition to Kumi’s menu which already has Kristang culinary staples like Devil Curry, Beef Smore, Curry Seku, Fish Pimante and Ambilla Kacang.
“Normally, you’d only be able to find keluak nuts in the markets in Malacca, so when we found them in KL, we were shocked!” Moissinac confides, referring to the small market behind his house where a sizable Indonesian community thrives. “We figured that was the only reason why we could find keluak here, and since we had access to it and it is a very Malaccan dish we grew up with, we wanted to add it to our menu,” he confides.
Keluak, known to some locally as buah kepayang, has its roots in Indonesia’s mangrove swamps. Since it has always been a significant dish of Malacca’s food history, there’s a likelihood the fruit was brought from Java when Malacca was a thriving trading port in the 15th century.
In Historical And Contemporary Perspectives Of The Nyonya Food Culture In Malaysia, authors Chien Y. Ng and Shahrim Ab Karim of University Putra Malaysia note that while most Peranakan dishes have both Hokkien and Malay influence, the usage of keluak in their dishes bears a distinctive Indonesian influence.
The tree Pangium edule is said to tower above the rest, standing as tall as a durian tree. Traditionally, parts of the fruit were used as a disinfectant, while the oil came in handy as a replacement for coconut oil. “You can find up to 15 seeds in one fruit,” Moissinac reveals, adding that the seeds which he buys from the market are already processed, in a way. As Stevenson warns, the fruit is known to be poisonous. “The seed contains hydrogen cyanide, so if you don’t wash and prepare the seeds properly, it’s very dangerous.”
For Stevenson, who learnt the tricks of the trade in cooking Keluak Curry from his grandmother at 11, the most challenging aspect of the dish is its preparation. The Keluak nuts are processed in Indonesia by burying them under volcanic ash for 40 days to remove the poison. By the time the Keluak seeds get to our shores, these black nuts look a pale shade of grey and have a smoked, earthy scent. “We have to soak the seeds in water for three to four days, and we must change the water every day so it won’t go bad,” Stevenson says, explaining how soaking and scrubbing the seed is a vital part in ensuring that the dust and grime of the volcanic ash is completely removed before cooking.
“The fun thing about eating keluak is that you have to dig the flesh out to enjoy it,” Moissinac explains, adding that some people use the ends of the forks or sticks to remove the flesh through the narrow hole at the lip of the fruit. “But of course, the best is to just use your fingers lah, like how we eat at home,” he adds with a laugh.
For Stevenson and Moissinac, the process of cracking the kernel of the nut to create a narrow hole at the lip of the seed is a delicate task. “Here, we use the tip of a knife to prise it open gently and then, to ensure the bits of seed don’t fall back into the nut, we use these small pliers,” explains Stevenson, before adding: “It’s very challenging!”
HEART OF HERITAGE
Keluak Curry is cooked with the same ingredients in both the Baba Nyonya and Portuguese-Eurasian kitchens, but the difference is in the way the keluak flesh is eaten. “The Baba Nyonya usually take the flesh out, strain it, then mix it with pork or chicken and stuff it back into the nut before cooking it in curry. The Portuguese-Eurasians, on the other hand, cook it in curry without removing the flesh from the nut,” Moissinac points out.
While Ayam Buah Keluak was often served as laok semayang or ceremonial food during prayers in the Baba Nyonya culture, the dish was considered a luxury in Portuguese-Eurasian homes. “Once in a blue moon lah we were lucky enough to eat Keluak Curry,” Stevenson admits.
Moisinnac chips in: “Yeah, it was one of those dishes. Because the process is so tedious and time-consuming, our grandparents would only cook it on occasions when the whole family was together at home.”
Although the dish has been around for centuries, this ever-elusive fruit is just starting to garner the attention it rightfully deserves.
“Peranakan restaurants in Penang are now starting to incorporate Ayam Buah Keluak into their menus, although it is originally a Malaccan dish, because well, you can’t get keluak seeds in Penang,” Moisinnac confides, adding that even Singaporean Peranakan restaurants are now willing to pay up to S$2 (RM6.30) for a single nut.
Across the Causeway, the fruit has been taken to new heights. Chef and owner Emmanuel Stroobant and executive chef Mathieu Escoffier of Saint Pierre at One Fullerton have used keluak in their fine dining dishes. The chefs’ Iberico pork belly served with foie gras is sauteed with keluak mixture.
At a Peranakan restaurant called Candlenut, they’ve managed to turn this savoury gem into ice-cream. Even one-Michelin starred restaurant, The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, is starting to experiment with keluak.
There’s no doubt the unique flavours of the simple keluak may soon find a place in menus of the poshest restaurants in the region, and possibly, around the world. For now, I’m quite happy to find my pot of black gold right here in Kumi. And of course I’ll use my fingers.
Where: 21, Lorong Setiabistari 2, Bukit Damansara
NOTE: Keluak Curry is served from Thursday to Saturday only