My Koh Poh Beng Neo (Koh Poh is the term for grandaunt, Beng Neo her very Nonya name) is one of the old relatives I had interviewed for my project. Sadly, she passed away two years ago. The reason I bring her up is because of the agar agar recipe I tested last week, which I will detail as well.
Whenever Chinese New Year rolled around, Koh Poh was one of the most important relatives whom we had to visit. She was a grande dame within the extended family and particularly for me, the closest I had to a grandparent considering that all of mine were not alive when I was born. There were three things I did whenever we visited:
i) it was absolutely customary to 'soja' (kneel before her) to wish her "Panjang panjang omor" (which literally means 'long life'). She lived into her 90s so all such blessings work indeed.
ii)mill around the dining room to gaze at her wedding photo
iii) partake of her signature golden agar agar
Koh Poh got married at around sixteen years old. I believe that she was matchmade. Yet, while she in many ways embodied the old-fashioned Nonya in her traditional garb, her patois and her manners, she was also modern. She attended a girls' school, played the piano and swing-danced. She spoke and wrote English fairly well. I even tried to get her to dance at my wedding but by then, she had downed more than her fair share of Courvoisier. She once came in her sarong kebaya to swoop away into a taxi the Pekingnese puppy that I had dognapped. To me, she was a most elegant lady and I am glad to have known her.
Here is an excerpt from the manuscript:
This agar jelly often came in the shape of a rabbit or a fish. The classic moulds were white porcelain containers made in England which over time, bore the vintage fine gray crack lines.
Koh Poh’s secret in the early days was to apparently use rainwater collected in large dragon pots. She said that rainwater produced the clearest and hence most exquisite jelly. Sometimes, crushed egg shells would be added while cooking the agar agar to gather up the froth from the surface. The shells would clarify the jelly in the same way that consommé is prepared.
To produce the golden color, the jelly syrup was boiled in a brass pot, just like the way pineapple tart filling was cooked in the same type of pot to achieve its golden shade. Nowadays, there is skepticism in using brass pots, so a large non-brass pot would have to make do. To produce the golden sheen these days, you will need to use food coloring.
The longer you keep the jelly, the more "crunchy" it gets. In fact, the Nonyas would sun the jelly for a few days. It could then store without refrigeration and still be served several months old.
So what was the outcome of my tested recipe? My mother was right - I can be too impulsive. Without the benefit of a brass pot, I had to make do with food coloring and alas, I added too much red and yellow drops at the same time and produced a beautiful orange "koi carp" jelly as opposed to the golden classic. The lesson I learnt - "Add a few drops of yellow coloring first and then sparingly, add drops of red coloring until you achieve a golden hue. Stir."
See recipe in 17 February 2011 entry.