Some Finer Points about Nonya Delicacies

loading Choon piah.

**Although the Penang public is familiar with the spelling of "Nyonya", for the purpose of standardisation and to reflect the author's intent, "Nonya" is spelled without the additional "y" in this article.

I RECALL THE choon piah I ate at the extant Tanjong Club to have an unexpected taste; it was flavoured with ngoh hiang hoon, or five spice powder, instead of the usual cinnamon and clove like the ones typically served at old Hainanese restaurants.

How and when was the spice included in the making of choon piah? My research led me to look into the ingredients used for lor bak, heh and chim choe, and bak and tu kua kian. These are traditional dishes that I grew up with in Penang.

Over the years, modifications have been made to them which resulted in a great many variations between families, dialect groups and regions. The names of the dishes have also been mixed up; lines are now blurred between the fillings used for choon piah, roti babi, chim choe, bak kian and even, lor bak.

Cecilia Tan of Penang Nyonya Cooking: Foods of My Childhood describes “lobak or chun piah as a meat-based version of poh piah”. The Medan Nonya chun kian in Deety Lenton’s recipe looks to be lor bak, but has all the ingredients of choon piah; and when I ordered ngoh hiang in Singapore recently, I was served eight balls which resembled heh choe.

But here is what I discovered of their differences:

Choon Piah

A uniquely Penang Nonya dish, choon piah was probably adapted and certainly made popular by Hainanese cooks in the 1950s or earlier. A traditional crepe-like skin is used to wrap the choon piah filling, which is then deep-fried. I chanced upon several spring roll recipes that are similar to the Penang version, including the ones for the wrappings but they are surprisingly not called choon piah.

Some recipes, despite having similar choon piah ingredients for their fillings, use bean curd sheets or caul fat as wrappings instead. Today, some Penang restaurants serve a simplified version using poh piah skin; and to try to keep the choon piah crispy for longer after frying, the skin is first dipped in batter.

Choon translates to spring in Hokkien, and refers to the springtime vegetables used for its filling. My mother had a choon piah recipe that she used for her cooking demonstrations to members of the YWCA and later, to the Methodist Girls’ School’s Ex-Pupils Association in Penang. The recipe dates back to before the 1950s.

Ngoh hiang served at a restaurant in Singapore.

The vegetables used in her recipe are onions, cabbage, water chestnut, bangkwang (or yam beans) and carrots. These are finely diced and fried with minced meat (chicken or pork) and Chinese mushrooms. But crab meat is the key ingredient here. The filling is then wrapped in the crepe-like skin, deep-fried and served hot with sliced fresh red chillies and homemade ang moh tow eu or Worcestershire sauce.

I have noticed of late that many Hainanese restaurants include five spice powder in their choon piah filling and a condiment of thick sour sauce with sliced shallots and chillis, instead of ang moh tow eu.

Poh Piah

Of Fujian origin, poh piah literally means thin biscuit. The filling of poh piah sold at hawker stalls consists of shredded tau kua and yam beans, beansprouts and is without meat; but small prawns are sometimes used as garnish.

However, the homemade version in Penang usually has sliced meat, chopped up prawns, yam beans, some carrots and French beans, with added garnishes like blanched beansprouts, fried sliced shallots, crab meat and extra prawns, as well as condiments like freshly pounded garlic and chillis, tnee cheow (sweet red sauce) and aw cheow (savoury black sauce).

My research suggests that bamboo shoot was the main ingredient in the poh piah filling, before it was gradually replaced with yam beans or jicama as it is known in its native Mexico. There are not many households in Penang today that use bamboo shoots to make poh piah, but this is not the case in Melaka, Singapore and Indonesia. During a visit to Semarang, the poh piah I ordered had bamboo shoots in it.

In the Minnan region, seaweed is also included as a poh piah filling; while the Peranakan most probably added julienne sliced pork belly and prawns. The prawn topping has also increased in size in recent times, especially in Singapore. There is even a Mamak version of the poh piah.

Poh Piah Chnee

Poh piah chnee is a very popular finger food in Malaysia and Singapore. Chnee means “fried” in Hokkien. Its filling is similar to that of the poh piah, but the dish is traditionally paired with suan yong chor, a traditional Nonya sweet and sour garlic chilli sauce. The Indian kuih men who used to go around selling Nonya kuih in Penang would also sell poh piah chnee.

It was also a common practice at home to make the delicacy using leftover poh piah filling, though most of the garnishes like lettuce, fried garlic, sliced shallot and the condiments were omitted.

Lor Bak and Ngoh Hiang

Penang’s lor bak can trace its origin to the Minnan region, where it is known as wuxiang (five spices or ngoh hiang in Hokkien). The lor bak filling is made from pork slices with some fat mixed with chopped water chestnuts or yam beans, onions and potato flour. The ingredients are then marinated in soya sauce, sugar and ngoh hiang hoon, and wrapped in a bean curd skin to form a roll which is then deep-fried. Interestingly, caul fat was used as wrapping in the past.

Caul fat is the membrane that surrounds the stomach and other digestive organs of pigs, sheep and cows. When cleaned and spread out, this transparent lacy net is used to wrap various meat fillings. It keeps the meat moist, gives the dish a crispy texture and imparts the taste of the meat or filling that it encloses. Caul fat is also used in European and African cooking.

The lor bak is a festive dish both in the Minnan region and among the Peranakan community, especially in Penang. At hawker stalls, it is served in a platter with appetizers like heh chee (prawn fritters), fried tau kua and with chilli sauce and lor (from which it obtains its name) as condiments. The lor is made from stock, sugar, soya sauce, ngoh hiang hoon; and thickened with potato flour. Egg white is stirred in for a white-speckled effect.

Today, some Penang restaurants serve a simplified version using poh piah skin; and to try to keep the choon piah crispy for longer after frying, the skin is first dipped in batter.

A similar platter known as wuxiang guanchang is served in Singapore. Guanchang is a thick, pink sausage. A classmate vaguely remembers this item served with lor bak in Penang years ago. This paired combination of ngoh hiang and guanchang, together with liver rolls and egg slices are the four classic items that make up the wuxiang guanchang. Tau kua, prawn fritters, century egg and fish balls were later added to satisfy customers’ preference.

There are variations between the platter served by the Teochews and the Hokkiens. For example, the Teochew ngoh hiang includes mashed yam. The prawn fritters are also unlike those served in Penang, while the liver roll is more of a ngoh hiang variation with liver and chives added in. The platter is also served with fried bee hoon in Singapore; and it is not typical for the ngoh hiang to be served with lor. In the Minnan region wuxiang guanchang is usually served with lor mee, though hawker stalls in Penang do not sell both lor mee and lor bak together. Ngoh hiang is also used as a topping for lor mee in Singapore, but this is not the case in Penang.

Lor bak in a platter with tau kua served with chilli sauce and lor (bottom, left).

Heh Choe and Chim Choe

I came across a copy of my mother’s chim choe (crab roll) recipe prepared for her YWCA cooking class in 1958. Although her chim choe is a bit different from the heh choe served at the Teochew restaurant on Lebuh Kimberley, the ingredients are essentially the same. Heh is prawn and chim is crab in both the Hokkien and Teochew dialects.

It took me a long while to realise the meaning of “choe”, even though I came across it earlier in a cookbook. My mother’s chim choe is quite different from the others I have eaten. She would spread the pre-cooked chim choe filling over a long strip of soya bean skin to make a long cylindrical shape to be tied at both ends. At three to five cm intervals, kiam chow was used to tie the long roll into segments, forming a chain of rotund cylindrical beads to resemble Chinese dates or choe in Hokkien, hence the name. The penny finally dropped!

But it was not until recently that I came across such a shape again. I found it at the Pulau Tikus market. The heh choe served in restaurants are made into long rolls (without being tied up), to be steamed and cut into short cylinders before they are deep-fried. They don’t look like dates at all!

I have skimmed through recipes from books, trawled the internet and ate at restaurants but I cannot find a clear distinction between the fillings used for ngoh hiang and heh or chim choe. The main ingredients for the heh / chim choe filling are minced pork, prawns, water chestnut, shallots / onions and spring onions. Some recipes include five spice powder. Other ingredients I have found are dried Chinese mushrooms, carrots, yam beans, bamboo shoots and leek.

The differences found in ngoh hiang and heh choe are quite subtle. For example, the prawn to meat ratio is higher for heh choe. The prawns are also coarsely chopped and not minced to give it texture. Its shape is also what distinguishes ngoh hiang from heh choe. As was mentioned earlier, the latter is rounded or slightly elongated like Chinese dates, while ngoh hiang resembles a sausage. To confuse the issue, some recipes include liver as an ingredient for the filling.

Heh / Chim choe.

Tu Kua Kian and Bak Kian

Bak kian is similar to tu kua kian, but without the addition of liver. Tu kua kian is a classic Nonya delicacy adapted from its Chinese origins. I discovered that most of its recipes are similar. Besides liver, the main ingredient is bang say eu or caul fat which is used to wrap the tu kua kian filling. Its other ingredients are minced pork and shallots, as well as certain spices that were not originally used in the Chinese version.

The spices used by the Nonyas include coriander, pepper, and in the Penang Nonya version, cekur roots. I have come across a few recipes that use five spice powder. Interestingly, I have also come across bak kian recipes which have the same ingredients as ngoh hiang. The dish is served with pickled radish, carrots and ginger or pickled mustard greens (kua chai).

Additionally, the tu kua kian from Melaka and Singapore, better known as hati babi bungkus, are round in shape, while the Penang version is more like a sausage. The difference in the names used for what is virtually the same dish reflects the different Peranakan patois spoken by the Nonyas and Babas from the North and the South. In Penang the Nonyas speak Hokkien with a mix of Malay words while in the South, they speak Malay with a lot of Hokkien words. I was very excited when I came across something similar to Penang’s tu kua kian in a Turkish restaurant in London but that’s for another story!

Tu kua kian from Penang prepared by my cousin Sandy.

Tu kua kian wrapped in caul fat before steaming.

Dr. Ong Jin Teong is an engineering and food consultant. He conducts cooking classes, does research on Nonya and heritage cuisine, and hosts the occasional supper club. He has published two award-winning books: Penang Heritage Food – Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook and Nonya Heritage Kitchen – Origins, Utensils and Recipes.

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