Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe

It has been awhile since I’ve last blogged a home recipe, so here’s one for you. It’s a rather unique Peranakan (Straits Chinese) dish that many Nyonyas and Babas would cross continents and move mountains for. As a half-Peranakan myself, it’s a dish that I’d always look forward to eating when visiting Singapore and Meleka. The anchor ingredient is an Indonesian black nut called Buah Keluak that’s almost impossible to find in Melbourne.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 9663My first attempt making Ayam Buah Keluak, one month ago (NB: the coriander’s wholly decorative, it normally doesn’t go with the dish!)

Buah keluak is a rather mysterious fruit. The whole plant is poisonous, and yet the seeds are painstakingly prepared and eaten as a Nyonya delicacy. The buah keluak tree is native to Indonesia and the fruit is about the size of a volleyball. Inside, embedded in yellow flesh, lies large clam-shaped buah keluak seeds. Detoxifying the seeds (I heard it contains cyanide…!!) involve burying the fruit for weeks and boiling them for hours to leach out the poison. Thankfully, I think they are already detoxified when they’re sold in markets. For more information on this curious nut (with photos of how it looks like, shells and all), you may want to read my post about Nyonya Food.

I consider buah keluak the ’truffles’ of the Eastern culinary world. It’s black and unpretty… and it’s an acquired taste. But once you learn to like it, you’d just want to have more and more and more of it!! The nut paste holds a rich, earthy, botanically bitter-yet-nutty flavour that’s almost reminiscent of a good single origin dark chocolate. And they’re cooked in a tangy-spicy gravy made with tamarind juice and fresh pounded spices. Indonesians also eat this nut, they call it ‘kluwak’ and it’s often cooked as a black soupy dish called Rawon – something that I’d very much like to taste (and cook) in the near future!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0075Buah keluak nut kernels

I think Peranakans in Melbourne (and probably those living in countries outside of the Straits of Malaya) face added challenges with the preparation of this dish. Many of us grew up eating buah keluak as a curry-like dish with the whole nuts in the stew. Part of the enjoyment involves picking the nut with your fingers, and with a small fork, digging out its delicious black flesh from a painstakingly pre-chiselled hole in the shell. But quarantine laws in Australia disallows the importation of whole nuts, so I’m only capable of acquiring just the nut kernels.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 04Packet of Buah Keluak kernels bought from an Indonesian grocery | Kernels pounded into a powder before making the paste

Once the kernels are pounded and made into a paste, they need to be in a vessel (like its shell) to prevent the nut paste from dissolving into the gravy. I’ve spent the past six years in Melbourne homesick for this Peranakan dish, but never got around to cooking it because of that tiny-but-huge detail! No nut shells then how to cook this yummy dish?

But the puzzle has finally been solved this year, and I’ll walk you through the failed projects that Fatbee and I went through before we came up with a more satisfactory (albeit hilarious) solution. Read on to find out!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 02Left: Lemongrass, Candlenuts, Galangal, Turmeric, Dried Red Chillies Right: Fresh Red Chillies, Prawn Paste, Shallots

I’ll first touch on how the dish is made.

It’s quite a difficult dish, step one involves making the fresh rempah (spice paste). You can already imagine how fragrant the gravy will turn out with all these ingredients! The dried red chillies imparts the deep red colour to the gravy, and the buah keras (candlenuts) works as a thickener. If you like the gravy less thick, use less candlenuts than what the recipe calls for.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 05

The dried red chillies needs to be softened first by soaking in hot water, and the belachan prawn paste is prepped by dry frying or toasting it till fragrant. Warning… toasting the pungent belachan paste tends to attract annoying flies into your home! I still can’t fathom why an ingredient so smelly can be part of such a delicious dish!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 06

To make life easier, cut the rempah ingredients into small pieces before you start pounding or blitzing them into a paste, especially the lemongrass, galangal and dried red chillies (pictured left). I was also a little OCD and had kept the pre-toasted belachan wrapped in plastic to keep the smells to a minimum! But don’t worry, once it’s made into a paste, it loses its pungency.

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And here’s another tip, fresh kunyit (turmeric) stains everything yellow! So watch your shirt and don’t leave turmeric stains on your kitchen counter for too long. Look at my yellow kunyit hands… ha ha!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 07Fatbee… pounding the lemongrass

As for making the rempah, you can either use the traditional method of using a mortar and pestle, which will take hours…

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 08

… or you can blitz it in a food processor! I prefer my paste to be finer and got quite impatient with tumbuk-ing (hand pounding). So I ended up going midway by first getting Fatbee to pound the harder ingredients a little to release their fragrance, and then blitzing everything twice through until I got a fine paste.

I found rempah-making the most time consuming part for this recipe, so you may even want to do this a few days in advance and refrigerate the paste. Here, I’d actually made double portions of rempah, one to cook with and the other half I froze for the future.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 10The pounded nut powder, after adding water, becomes a silky paste

Actually, the other incredibly arduous step involves the preparation of the whole buah keluak nuts (soaking overnight, scrubbing the shells, chiselling a hole, getting the kernels out, picking the good ones from bad)… a step that we’re skipping entirely here since we can only get the kernels! I hear that if one bad kernel gets mixed in with the good ones, it spoils the entire paste!

On this front, using the packet deshelled nut kernels has major advantages. All of the kernels are already guaranteed good and you don’t have to risk injury chiselling a hole in the shell. I find that the kernels are so firm that you risk overheating your food processor when blitzing, so what I did was break it up a bit in a mortar and pestle (thanks again, Fatbee!) before blitzing it into a powder. To turn the powder into a paste, I found that 1 tablespoon of water per 100g buah keluak powder gave it good consistency. If bitter, the paste can be seasoned with a dash of pepper, salt and sugar to taste.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 01Tamarind Paste

Another interesting step (for me anyway) was making the assam (tamarind) juice… I’d never done it before! A block of tamarind paste is mushied up in water, squeezing the pulp and seeds with your hands as much as you can. You strain the mixture but keep the leftover bits in case you need a second press of juice if the gravy becomes too thick. Tamarind imparts the delightful tanginess to this dish, and I find that as the dish ages, it gets less tangy.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0061

You have the option of using chicken (ayam) or pork (babi), and some recipes even uses both meats. To be honest, this is one of the few dishes where the meats don’t take centre stage. Having the nut paste with the fragrant gravy is what makes us buah keluak fans swoon.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 09

Once the rempah and nuts have been prepared, the cooking phase is incredibly simple. Fry the rempah till it’s fragrant, add the meats, and then sieve in the assam juice. Finally add the nuts and simmer till flavour is absorbed. Consider making this dish a few days in advance, as it tastes even better a few days later.

But here comes the funny part. I came up with a lot of harebrained ideas over how to cook this dish without actually having the nut shells. I needed an aesthetically pleasing nutshell-like alternative that would hold the buah keluak paste firmly without melting or imparting any changes in flavour to the dish.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0126

Okay, you’re not allowed to laugh… but the first thing that came to mind was to use empty escargot shells that can be bought from a French deli. It cost me about A$8 for half a dozen of them, so not exactly the cheapest of options. I stuffed these shells with the paste and dropped them into the simmering gravy. If you want to know the verdict, read on!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0080

My second idea involved trying to bind the paste with a thickener and rolling them into ‘buah keluak balls‘. The balls above were made by mixing in ¼ tsp of cornflour with a bit of water, and then pre-rolling them into balls before dropping it into the soup. Free-balling technique, anyone? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Other alternative binding agents that came to mind involved using eggs or mince meat. I have not tried either of these alternatives because I tend to like the nut paste to keep its paste-like texture. I also thought of coating the balls with a batter of sorts and pan frying it, but that also felt quite weird.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 12Free-balling vs escargot shells

And here’s the verdict.

The cornstarch-bound balls were a fail. Just like how mum warned me, they disintegrated in the gravy even with the lightest of stirring. You probably need to use minced meat in order for the balls to bind better. However, I’m not convinced how delicious these hypothetical buah-keluak-meatballs will taste like, mainly because I personally don’t like meat mixed into my buah keluak paste.

The escargot shells worked fine actually, the paste stayed in securely even with confident stirring. But two things made the escargot shells a less attractive option. Firstly, you can only stuff at most 10-12g of paste into the average escargot shell and the shell has to be biggish. Add any more than that and the paste will reach past the shell’s natural curve and become unreachable. It means you can’t dig the paste out when eating and that’s a lot of wastage. It also means with 300g of paste, you will have nearly thirty escargot shells floating and clinking away in the pot!

Which brings me to the second reason. I actually found the look of snail shells in the dish quite unappetising and it made me a bit queasy. And while reusing the shells (at more than $1 each, you probably would want to) is an option, getting the leftover paste out when cleaning was quite difficult. I found leaving the shells in a briskly boiling pot of water for an hour the most effective way of getting remnant paste out. Too much work!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 11

Fatbee finally came up with an innovative solution that worked satisfactorily. Can you guess….?

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0125

SINGLE-USE TEABAGS!

Ha ha ha ha ha!!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 13

It’s quite a marvellous idea… almost the same concept as using a bouquet garni, except you eat its contents when served! The bags are cheap, flavourless, inert and they don’t break apart during cooking. The nut paste isn’t fine enough to seep out of the bags, yet some of the good buah keluak flavours will still be able to infuse into the gravy during cooking.

It’s optional, but we used cooking twine to make the biggish bags look a little neater by parcelling them up. But to be honest, the next time I’m making this I’ll try to find and use smaller teabags so that I won’t have to tie them up. Tied-up teabags with loose string dangling reminds me a bit too much of tampons… ha ha ha! But thankfully, once it’s dropped into the gravy and gets wet, the bags turn almost transparent and become less strange-looking. In fact, from afar, they kinda look quite similar to whole buah keluak nuts!

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 14Fakegf’s Homemade Yee Sang | My Chap Chye 

Interestingly, even though it’s a Peranakan dish, many Chinese families in Singapore like to enjoy Ayam Buah Keluak during Chinese New Year. So I basically did just that and served it last night as part of a Chinese New Year (3rd Day) homecooked dinner get-together with Fatbee, Fakegf and The Angmoh.

We started off with a delightful yee sang ‘prosperity’ salad made by Fakegf, where the convivial and ritualistic high-toss ‘lo-hei’ mixing of the sweet-and-savoury salad plays an integral part to the enjoyment of the dish. And I made my usual chap chye vegetable dish (rife with mushrooms) to go with the ayam buah keluak.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0153

And that’s the buah keluak paste, freshly removed from a teabag… glistening like black gold and fully intact!

I hereby coin this method as the ‘tea-bagging’ technique. Some of my friends tell me it sounds rather naughty, but I have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about… really! :p

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0156

And this is how I like to eat buah keluak. Mix a bit of the paste into your rice and pour generous amounts of the fragrant tangy-spicy gravy… and enjoy!

Granted, using teabags doesn’t give the same nostalgic feeling as holding the clam-shaped whole nut with your fingers and digging out the beautiful flesh from its gaping maw with a little fork. But for those of us who live away from Southeast Asia, this is probably just about as close to the real thing as we can get!

And I’m glad to announce that despite its unconventional presentation, Fatbee and Fakegf loved loved loved this dish! And even The Ang Moh really liked it too despite the fact that this dish definitely isn’t the prettiest thing to look at. The flavours really spoke true to the heart.

Ayam Buah Keluak Recipe 0160

So here you go… Ayam Buah Keluak (tea-bagged shell-free version for my fellow homesick Peranakans)… ha ha ha! And before I publish the home recipe below, let me throw down the gauntlet to all of you. This is the best solution that Fatbee and I can currently come up with, and I think if we can find and use smaller teabags in future, it’ll look even better. But I’m more than happy to hear more ideas on how the aesthetic problem of not having the shells can be solved. Let us all solve this culinary puzzle together!

Ayam Buah Keluak

(Adapted from Mum’s Recipe: shell-free)
Preparation Time: Very long
Cooking Time: Not so bad
Serves 6-8

Best to cook this a few days in advance as it tastes better when it is kept for a longer period

Ingredients

250-300g buah keluak nut kernels (aka ‘Kluwak’ at Indonesian grocers)
White pepper powder
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
15-20 disposable loose tea filter bags
Cooking twine (optional)

1.2kg total of chicken and/or pork
2-3 kaffir lime leaves
100g tamarind paste
1 litre of water
6 buah keras (candlenuts)
2 stalks lemongrass (cut into thick rings)
50g piece of galangal
35g piece of turmeric
20 dried red chillies (soaked in hot water, remove stalks when soft)
2 big fresh red chillies
20g belachan (shrimp paste – toasted)
250g shallots Cooking oil

Preparation:

Rempah

Cut ingredients into smaller pieces then grind in a food processor till fine:

6 buah keras (candlenuts)
2 stalks lemongrass (cut into thick rings)
50g piece of galangal
35g piece of turmeric
20 stalks dried red chillies (softened in hot water)
2 big fresh red chillies
20g belachan (shrimp paste – toasted)
250g shallots

Cover and set aside
Can be stored in fridge for a few days until the day of cooking, or frozen for a few months

Buah Keluak Paste

Grind the buah keluak nut kernels in a chopper till you get a semi-fine powder

Remove from chopper & add gradually, mix well & taste till you get the desired taste:

Salt to taste (approx ⅛ tsp)
Sugar to taste (use only if it’s bitter)
A few dashes of white pepper powder

Add 1tbsp water to each 100g of buah keluak powder and mix well until it becomes a paste
Roll the buah keluak paste into compact balls of approx 20g
Place the balls into disposable tea filter bags
Tie them into parcels with cooking twine(optional)

Assam Juice

Put together, knead & soak for about 10 mins:
100g tamarind paste 1 litre of water

Cooking:

Heat up in a large pot:
6-8 tbsp cooking oil

Add and stir fry over medium heat till it’s fragrant & a little darker in colour:
Ground rempah

Add and stir fry for awhile:
Chicken/pork

Sift in a little at a time till you get the desired consistency:
Assam Juice

Finally add & leave to simmer for a while till flavour is absorbed then switch off the fire:
Parcels of buah keluak paste Kaffir lime leaves

Before serving, season according to taste with:
Salt
Sugar

It is okay to leave the pot of cooked ayam buah keluak on your kitchen stove overnight (without heat) to age and become more flavoursome, but any longer than that I’d probably refrigerate it

Ayam Buah Keluak goes very well with Nyonya Chap Chye, the recipe is published here.
And for more comforting recipes from my Singaporean home, feel free to check out my Recipes Index.