Pearly Kee is a food ambassador for Penang, and a culinary rebel. The Nonya (a Straits Chinese lady) turns her back on mortars and pestles for blenders, uses a dehydrator instead of relying on the sun, and buys, rather than cooks, her own bak chang.
But the cookbook author remembers very well how to make a mean glutinous rice dumpling. Squatting down to scrub bamboo leaves clean for a good six hours isn’t something one forgets easily—even if it has been 25 years since.
Growing up in a Straits Chinese household, which, more likely than not, made the best bak chang in town, Pearly had a good supply of dumplings through the year. Sometimes she ate four at a go. She was a kitchen assistant to the matriarchs at home but honed her skills only at the classes with a local Baba (a Straits Chinese man) and master chef, Datuk Lim Bian Yam.
Before she started giving cooking lessons from her home in 2006, Pearly took dumpling orders from family and friends to supplement her income. It went on for more than 10 years until she decided it was more sensible to pay and let others labour instead.
Bak chang, according to legend, derived from rice stuffed in bamboo that was fed to the river fish, so that they would leave the remains of the loyal Chinese court official Qu Yuan alone. Although elaborate and challenging to make, it has become symbolic to eat bak chang on Duanwu.
We visit Pearly at the semi-detach house she shares with her husband, to bring her out of her retirement from making bak chang, and to teach us the recipe. Even when juggling four burners that are processing different ingredients, the gregarious lady does not forget to dish out cooking tips: “Add more seasonings because they will be diluted in the boiling water. You fry the yolks to firm them up, so they don’t fall apart inside the bak chang. Add split green beans to take away the saltiness of the yolk.”
Then, she slips in a code of conduct for cooks: “We don’t criticise other people’s food. We impress upon people to cook.” She has forsaken traditional methods for more efficient solutions so that cooking would still be relevant to modern lifestyles. Until Pearly or someone else discovers a more efficient way of making bak chang, there is at least her recipe that will keep this traditional dish alive.
Have Your Convenience And Eat It
If time or the hot weather forbids sweating out in the kitchen, there are old establishments in Georgetown selling bak chang that are worth your entire daily calorie allotment. For regional varieties, go to the 78-year-old Cintra Food Corner. Besides the most common kiam chang, from Fujian province, there are pyramid-shaped Cantonese dumplings seasoned with salt and lard, and a Hakka variety where the black eye beans, chestnuts and pork belly combine to demonstrate the true elegance of simplicity.
Feng Yi’s dumplings have textures that witness the culinary prowess of their producers. They are moist and soft but the grains distinguishable and still firm to the bite—a balancing act even seasoned cooks cannot achieve. The wholesaler that started business in 1975 opened their first retail store last year, an effort of the second generation to promote their mother’s (affectionately known as Aunt Feng) brand. They have been very selective about their ingredients, even specifying to their supplier the number of days their duck eggs should be salted. No wonder the yolks melt in our mouths.
Pearly’s Penang Home Cooking School
85 Taman Berjaya, 10350 Pulau Tikus, Penang
Tel +016 437 4380
Cintra Food Corner
40 Lebuh Cintra, 10100 Penang
Tel +012 480 3308
Opening hours: 9am to 6pm, daily.
Feng Yi Dumplings
Wisma KGN, 123-G-04, Taman Harbour View,
Pengkalan Weld, 10300 Pulau Pinang
Tel +604 262 2506
Opening hours: 10am to 10pm, daily. Closed on Wed.
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