If the mention of buah keluak only pops question marks in your head, then allow us to clue you in:
The fruit of the keluak tree.
So, what is it exactly?
Well for starters, it’s called by a number of names like football fruit, kepayang and black nut. A by-product of the towering kepayang tree (or pangium edule), the hard-shelled keluak seeds are harvested once its cocoon of fleshy pulp has ripened. If you are on a quest to find your own stash, you’ll probably have luck treading the mucky mangrove swamps in Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of Papua New Guinea.
Identifying features of the keluak tree. Use gloves to handle!
When you spot the tree with large, glossy heart-shaped leaves in spirals with three lobes, you’ve hit the jackpot. Spiky green flowers embellish the tree while large, brownish, roughly textured, pear or football-shaped fruits grow in clusters and are about the size of a coconut.
Judging the Cover
Before and after cleaning.
These egg-shaped or three-cornered seeds are great to knock-out anyone as the shells are rock-hard. Other than rendering people unconscious, the outer shell is also poisonous. Yes, poisonous… the Hydrogen Cyanide kind. The fruit and seeds are rife with them but an easy ritual of washing, fermentation and more washing will make it safe for consumption.
Sometimes known as the puffer fish (fugu) of Peranakan cusine.
Apparently, our ancestors (mainly women) used to sprinkle a little bit of shell shavings into food to induce short-term dizziness, body weakness and many others to people that they just don’t like. Talk about hell hath no fury! Up the dosage and it will be lethal to anyone. So, remember to wash those hands thoroughly after handling them.
Say “Adios” to Toxins
A tedious cleaning process for sure!
Cracking the secret of ridding toxins from the shell is by way of modern-day scrubbing. While getting your arms toned with all that vigorous scrubbing, the muddy-like, toxic coating of the seeds will be expunged down the sink drain as well. After a good rinse, soak it in full water for a minimum of 6 hours or for some people, even for as long as 10 days!
Sorting out the seeds by shaking it.
How they used to do it back then requires more work. The seeds were placed in a deep pit and covered with a huge pile of ash for a 40-day fermentation process, and this is after it has been boiled twice. Some will wash, boil, leave it under running water for a day, and then boil them again. Yes, thank goodness the ones sold in markets are mostly pre-cleaned, but give it a good wash and soak it anyway, just in case. After all that soaking, give each seed a jiggle to weed out the bad nuts. If you hear the insides moving around, it’s a sign that it has shrivelled up and dried. Discard them and concentrate on the goodies left behind.
Mushy black gold of the inner paste.
Now that it’s safe to consume, let’s dig into the inner secrets of the seed. You’ll discover that it’s filled with a dark, mushy paste which would probably put you off at first sight. Some would say that it is akin to the highly prized black truffles, where its rarity and even taste are similar. Others compare the taste and texture to that of mashed versions of cacao (unsweetened cocoa paste), mushrooms or black olives. Yup. It’s an acquired taste. But once mixed with complementing spices, it’s super-duper yummy-licious!
Using a pestle to crack open the ridge. Other methods include using the back-end of a cleaver or pliers
For any culinary magic to happen, you have to hack the ridged part of the seeds first in order to release the creamy paste into whatever keluak-based dish you’re preparing. The simplest trick is to place a seed on the top rim of a mortar. With the seed ridge facing up and the bottom part balanced on the rim, use a pestle and pound away until the entire ridge reveals the black. Some will scrape out the paste and use it without the shell (something to do with the fear of being poisoned) and some just cook it with the shells and the paste intact in one slurp-worthy dish.
One method of cooking – blending the paste with spices and stuffing it back into the shell. Makes for a tastier, richer dish
On the Melakan Menu
One of the most popular keluak dish, Ayam Masak Buah Keluak. Found in Peranakan and Portuguese (Kristang) households.
If you were to ask a Melakan or anyone who grew up eating it, they’ll sing lyrical about their mother’s Keluak dish till no end. This truffle of the eastern culinary world paved the way to drool-worthy creations that even non-Melakans just love! Among the staple dishes are Ayam Masak Buah Keluak (Chicken Cooked with Keluak), Sambal Keluak Fried Rice and many more. When you eat keluak dishes with piping hot, fluffy white rice, the explosion of senses and taste bud will send you to foodie heaven. It’s THAT delicious. In fact, why don’t you try cooking Ayam Masak Buah Keluak yourself with this step-by-step recipe:
There are pre-packed keluak pastes sold at a few local mom-and-pop grocery shops if preparing the seeds are too tedious. In fact, let’s make it easier by just popping into a Peranakan restaurant and ordering it from the menu. Minimum effort with maximum foodie satisfaction!
Pre-packed keluak paste for the modern chef on the go.
From bygone eras until now, the keluak cooking oil is still in demand in certain countries such as Indonesia.
It turns out that this seed is useful in other ways. Apart from making delicious fare, the seeds can be crushed to extract the oil and used for cooking. Of course, they were boiled, soaked and dried before the oils can be extracted. Cold-pressed oils are also used as an antiseptic and disinfectant, even as far as to treat boils and leprosy. Some natives in Borneo still use the oil to make soap. It doesn’t get more organic than this, with natural disinfectant properties to boot.
Modern day soaps that could use a bit of keluak oil to enhance its organic appeal to the health conscious.
When the seeds are crushed, it was spread all over fishes including the insides, to make the fish store longer when it was carted to the market. Why? Because buah keluak has anti-parasitic worm properties and will keep maggots at bay. How ingenious our ancestors were! The leaves of the keluak tree also works almost the same way and prepared in different ways in different countries where it grows.
Meats wrapped in keluak leaves were used, acting as another form of preservative.
So, now that you are informed on the wonders of the buah keluak, head to Melaka and get to know it even more with every spoonful of as many keluak dishes that you can try. Here’s to your happy foodie keluak adventures!