Sure, the Chinese New Year meals are good – curry with gigantic prawns, roast pork, steamed chicken, soup with pig’s intestines, fish maw and abolone, mixed vegetables, lor bak (meat rolls), jiu hu char (stir-fried yam bean with cuttlefish). But what I look forward to most is kiam cai boi – which literally translates to leftovers with salted vegetables. I don’t know if this is a uniquely Peranakan dish, but it’s how we turn leftovers into a new delicious dish.
This stew’s dominant notes are sourish but not tangy, with the slightest of spicy tinge. But kiam cai boi is only good when it’s not flat, but rich and robust with layers and layers of flavours.
At its best, kiam cai boi is more-ish, you want more and more of it because all your taste buds come alive. It’s deeply satisfying; it tastes great in the mouth, warms your belly and leaves you satiated.
Then maybe two weeks or three months later – in the midst of a mundane errand or while being stuck in traffic or after a dismal meal – a sudden craving for kiam cai boi will hit you. Your memory will only hint at how the stew tastes like; it’s all just blurred lines and dull edges.
And so you wait for an honest to goodness pot of kiam cai boi, and relive the intensity and pleasures of having its nuanced flavours chasing at your taste buds.
The next big day on the Lunar New Calendar is on the ninth day when the Hokkiens worship the God of Heavens (Ti Kong). At the stroke of midnight, families will put out a huge spread of offerings and pray for blessings and prosperity.
Most well-to-do families will offer a roast pig, which they will then distribute to families and friends. The roast pig and other leftovers from the prayer tables are bounty for the kiam cai boi pot.
You can also make this soup when you don’t have leftovers; using bones and meat. Some duck rice and economy rice stalls sell kiam cai boi, but their version is often thin and one dimensional. Somehow a ‘constructed’ kiam cai boi lacks the depth and nuances that bona fide leftovers give to the mixture.
Throw in lots of mustard leaves because they absorb the soup's flavours
There really isn’t much of a recipe for this dish, but there are some essential basic building blocks. The sourness comes from salted vegetables and dried tamarind slices (asam keping). Dried hot chilli is essential too for that spicy edge.
And I love lots and lots of mustard leaves – they absorb all the flavours in the soup. The vegetable stems become soft after all that stewing, so soft that you take a bite and all the soup’s flavours just burst forth.
The mustard leaves and tamarind make kiam cai boi a yin dish. In Chinese food philosophy, this means it has cooling properties; it’ll cool down the body but also bring dampness to the bones.
Mustard leaf is a yin vegetable. My grandmother used to cook mustard leaves with glass noodles and sweet potatoes for my mom when she has fever because it’ll bring down the body’s temperature. In those days, they don’t go to the doctors and have paracetamol and antibiotics shoved down their throats.
Because kiam cai boi is considered a very yin dish, those with rheumatism or arthritis or a bad back are discouraged from eating this. So are those with cold or flu or asthma.
To balance some of all that yin properties, add a knob of old ginger (which is a heaty or yang food) into the pot.
Some people put in a stalk or two of lemongrass for its aroma.
Some people also like nutmeg seeds in kiam cai boi. You can buy this from the Him Heang dragon biscuit shop on Jalan Burmah, Penang or at the Chowrasta market on Penang Road. We used to save the seeds when we buy fresh nutmegs to make cordial. But it’s all right even if you don’t use nutmeg seeds.
And of course, the most essential imgredient is the leftovers – don’t throw in your curry chicken, but roast pork , mixed vegetables, pork bones and ribs, chicken etc etc can join the party.
Let the soup simmer and simmer until everything is soft and squishy, and all the flavours come together
So, basically you throw everything into a big pot, and add enough water to cover all the ingredients and bring it all to a boil. Then, you lower the heat and let the mixture simmer gently. My mom says if the soup is not sour enough to your taste, do a short cut and add some tamarind juice. It gets better the longer you keep it – in our house, a huge ass pot only lasts a day and a half. Serve it with sambal belacan (of course) and hot rice.
I also love love love the aroma of this soup…it’s my ultimate comfort food after all. It’s what I request for every time I came home on my university breaks. And I still remember how wonderful the aroma of this soup simmering away is as I walk through the door early in the morning after an all-nighter on the night train from KL.
So, yeah, I love kiam cai boi.