The ayam buah keluak is a staple in Peranakan cuisine. With the black nut’s natural touch of bitterness, the dish could be tricky to balance and pull off. Candlenut’s head chef and owner Malcolm Lee shows us how he tempers this dish.
Candlenut’s chef-owner Malcolm Lee prepares ayam buah keluak
The ayam buah keluak is a spicy, tangy dish, often thought to be labour-intensive because of the many ingredients for the rempah (spice paste) and work involved cracking open the black nuts. But the calm and methodical chef Malcolm Lee attests that the unique flavours you get with buah keluak is well worth the effort. He says, “I love buah keluak. It brings back memories of my childhood when my grandmother and mother would cook this dish, especially during Chinese New Year. It also has an earthy, smoky flavour that goes very well with rice, chilli and proteins especially beef. If the last dish I have is buah keluak with rice, I’m a happy man.”
Melding his Peranakan heritage with a modern approach, chef Lee’s version of ayam buah keluak involves scraping out the filling after the black nut is cracked open, removing piths and any other “broken debris”, seasoning and then grinding the mixture finely before stuffing them back into the nuts. He also adds part of the mixture to the gravy to thicken it and intensify its nutty flavour.
Taking your time to stir the gravy and letting it caramelise is a step that is as important as the blending and frying (over medium heat) of the rempah, says Lee. At Candlenut, Lee has also served beef cheek, beef tongue, and even wagyu and king prawns with the buah keluak.