I promised to blog properly about Cendol. This dish is named after its the main ingredient, Cendol , short strands of cooked dough made with green pea flour and the green juice of pandan leaves. When we were children we called cendol 'green worms". It is served with shaved ice and plenty of fresh santan (coconut cream) and gula melaka (palm sugar). I am not sure about its origins, and variations of the recipe appears in Malay, Indian, Peranakan, Eurasian and even Indonesian cookbooks. I remember, from my long-ago childhood, buying cendol from wandering Indian hawkers who sells the cendol from a giant pot; this was always a welcome treat especially if the weather is very hot.
Nowadays, it is almost impossible to buy a decent bowl of Cendol. Good food start with good ingredients, and in the case of Cendol, here's where things can easily go wrong. Most commercially available cendol is made of an agar-like substance rather than green pea flour, they look like cendol but taste of nothing at all and no matter how much you chew, you can never quite get them soft. As for the other two ingredients, tricks abound to compromise their quality. Santan has to be freshly squeezed from freshly grated coconut. Some people do not mind using pre-packed santan, like Kara, personally, I think Kara is OK for cooking curries, but would rather not have it in my cendol. Well, most cendol stalls would go further and dilute the santan with milk or just rice-flour water, villains. The third ingredient, gula melaka, is almost always contaminated with other cheaper sweeteners like white or brown cane sugar. Which explains why some Singaporeans go crazy when they come across a place that serves decent Cendol. Last year, a group of us spent a weekend driving up to KL, over a 24 hr period, we ate Cendol three times. One version at a Peranakan restaurant Auntie Lee in Malacca, another at a famous cendol stall at Jonker Street, also in Malacca, and finally an upmarket, higher-priced version at Madam Kwan's in Bangsar. Guess which one was considered the best? Madam Kwan's. Very telling isn't it, that what used to be street food has gone so far from the street. If those Indian hawkers from 25 years ago time-travelled to 2004, their hair will curl.
All is not lost however. One can always make Cendol at home. At the wet market this morning, I came some factory-made cendol. The cendol did not look as electric green as the ones we're used to, suggesting that the factory did not use too much colouring. And it came from Malaysia. Brand name Win. So we bought two packets ($1 each). And then I picked up some freshly grated coconuts and palm sugar.
Sidetrack a bit here: The coconut stall is really interesting. There is a mini-assembly plant going on here. The man hacks away at the hard hairy husk. In the middle his helper would scrape the shell from some of the coconuts, so it becomes white. Finally the coconut pieces would be fed through an electric grater. The product comes out at one end. There are two types of grated coconut. One has some of the shell mixed in, while the other is from the 'white' coconuts, and these white coconut is lovely eaten on its own or sprinkled over putu mayam (an Indian beehoon-like noodle, eaten with grated white coconut and orange sugar).
Now, back to our usual programme.
1. We begin with the gula melaka. It usually comes in cylinders like these. $1 for 6 small cylinders.
Smash or chop it up. Place it in a saucepan with a little water, just enough to cover. On low heat, melt the sugar. Let it cool.
2. Now, the coconut, take it out from the plastic bag and put into a muslin bag to squeeze, over a bowl of course.
The coconut before squeezing. This was $0.50 worth. This makes coconut cheaper than rice.
Santan. The cream from the first extraction. The remains can be mix with water and squeezed again to produce coconut milk for curries.
3. The Cendol is almost ready. Place some cendol in a bowl, shave some ice onto it. Pack the ice a bit so it doesn't melt so quickly. A mini MT Fuji shape is the default. Drizzle with santan and gula melaka according to taste. Eat.
Absolutely Fabulous. The gula melaka and the santan goes together perfectly. The whole combination is refreshing, fragrant and rich. The gula melaka is not very sweet by itself, rather it adds aroma, rather like how good maple syrup is not cloyingingly sweet. Not a one-note sweetness, it is more delicately flavoured, yet has more body and complexity than cane sugar. The cendol itself is quite bland, but the texture is correct, being soft and "squishable" on the tongue. And there we have it, three ingredients, three steps, three gulps.
Of course, this is not the traditional recipe. I broke a few rules here.
1. Most cookbooks would call for pandan leaves to cook with the gula melaka. I forgot to buy and there was none at home. We did without. The taste was not much affected.
2. The cookbooks also ask that the gula melaka be strained after melting. I did not bother. But I scooped away the dusty foam that collects at the top.
3. Salt can be added to the santan to bring out its taste, but the coconut vendor said this step is not necessary with fresh coconut. She is right.