Pandaning To the Masses - WHB#27
You cannot claim to be a true Peranakan if you do not like pulut hitam or bubur hitam, depending on which country you come from. I’ve always loved pulut hitam and it was the dessert of choice served at home.
Making it is so easy that I’ve always wondered why the hawker centre and food court versions are so pathetic. Watery, starchy or overly-sweet, the insipid pulut hitam served at these places seldom satisfy my black glutinous rice craving.
Recently I saw Brendon at Something in Season call it Forbidden Rice. I’m not sure where that came from as I’ve never heard it called that. At home, it was always just pulut hitam and my grandmother used to import ours all the way from Melaka. In fact, to this day, I still have a preference for the inky grains from Melaka. Unfortunately, I have not found these in Singapore so I just make do with the ordinary versions here.
But today’s star for this week’s Weekend Herb Blogging is actually not these deeply regal, deep purple grains but the emerald sheafs of fragrant grass that flavour the pulut hitam – daun pandan aka pandan leaves or screwpine leaves. The Sinhalese call it rampe, the Thais bai toey, but to us, it was always daun pandan. But call it what you want, the pandan evokes strong responses from everyone.
The pandan plant is like a politician. There are those who swear by them and those who detest them. There is seldom a lukewarm reaction to this strong-smelling plant. Even its Latin name, pandanus odorus, gives you a hint of its distinguishing feature.
This extremely hardy plant has long, broad, flat, fibrous and spikey-looking leaves which comes armed with prickles, hooks and spines – as if the smell itself is not weapon enough! Besides being a flavouring agent in food, the pandan leaves are used in the home by the Malays and Indonesians. You’d find it woven into mats, used as brushes, twisted into ropes and tied into bundles as natural air fresheners. However, the last attribute is debatable. A Scottish colleague gasped “What a pong!” and had to be let out of the taxi in a wheezing fit because of the overpowering scent of the pandan leaves the taxi driver had placed in his car as an air freshener.
Some species of the pandan plant apparently has edible fruits and it is used even in Australia where the aborigines are said to harvest the seeds to roast and consume as food.
The leaves of the young pandan plant are the ones which are normally used in the kitchen though. Being more tender and delicate, which is really not saying a lot, the leaves are used to impart a distinctive aromatic flavour and a light green colour to cakes, soups, curries and just almost every type of food there is. Some have likened it to vanilla but I think that is an inadequate comparison. The pandan leaf has an aroma and flavour all of its own. There is no substitute for this unique leaf.
I’m very lucky to have a wet market nearby which allows me to buy the entire plant but the pandan leaves are easily available in the supermarkets nowadays all nicely cut into strips and packaged into neat little packets. However, a little goes a long way so whenever I buy pandan leaves, you would see me trying to find all ways to use it up as soon as possible before it stinks up my whole fridge! Thus far I’ve used it in my Rice Cooker Chicken Rice. I had a whole lot more of pandaning to go.
I decided to make a huge pot of pulut hitam as I wanted to give most of it to 3A and 3A Hubby to thank them for taking such good care of me since I have been ill. I knew that 3A Hubby in particular would be delighted, being a Peranakan.
I typically do not measure when I cook pulut hitam, in true Asian fashion, so please bear with me. Essentially, the technique is to sweeten to taste and keep stirring and checking and all will be well.
2 cups of pulut hitam aka black glutinous rice
About 1 -1 ½ inch disc of gula melaka aka palm sugar – use the dark brown type or you can substitute with jaggery or brown sugar
About 2 tbsp rock sugar – you can substitute with castor sugar
3 stalks of pandan leaves
1 tbsp cornstarch
Santen aka coconut cream
1. Wash your pulut hitam to get rid of any grit and dirt
2. Add enough water to cover the rice up such that the water level is about 1 inch above the rice and leave to soak overnight. You do this so that the rice would cook faster, the grain would puff up and burst their skin easier to release the starchiness
3. Clean your pandan leaves and knot them together. Do not crush them as they will be too overpowering otherwise
4. Place the pandan leaves bundle into the pot and bring it to boil
5. When the pulut hitam is boiling, stir and bring it to a simmer
6. From this point onwards, you will keep adding water and stirring to ensure the rice does not stick to the bottom of the pot. Do not be lazy and try to add a whopping amount of water to speed things along. Add just enough water each time to cover it to about 1 - 2 inches above the rice level. You want the rice to be a fairly thick porridge at all time
7. Once half the grains appear to be busting out of their skins, add the gula melaka and rock sugar. Taste and if it is too sweet, add more water. If too bland, add more sugar then! *Tut, tut …* Anyway, the blend of the two sugars is to give it a smokey, nutty taste from the gula melaka and a “purer”, lighter sweetness from the rock sugar. It’s all about balance, baby.
8. Keep on cooking till it is almost gruel-like and remove the pandan leaves bundle
9. Blend the cornstarch with some warm water to make a thin paste and add this to the pot. Stir to mix well. This is to thicken the pulut hitam to a creamy consistency but if you had soaked your rice overnight you do not need a lot of cornstarch for this. An inferior pulut hitam has a lot of cornstarch in it. If you add too much cornstarch to yours and claim you learnt it from me, I will have to hunt you down and hurt you
10. Serve hot with a drizzle of coconut cream on top. Add as much as you like … I usually flood mine with coconut cream
There you have it. So simple yet so delicious and comforting. Excellent after a long, bad week.
And now I have to go “hand this up” to WHB schoolmistress, Kalyn, before I go out to dinner.