Such Succinct Differences between Kiam Chai Boey, Khong Assam and Kwa Chai Thng

By Ong Jin Teong

June 2022 FEATURE
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Sour and spicy version of kiam chai boey. Photo by: Cheryl Ng.

A TALK BY Pat Lim Chooi Ewe at the Penang Peranakan Festival in December 2021 about her family's version of kiam chai boey and khong assam expedited the completion of this article.

Many years ago, when I was first asked to write about kiam chai boey and khong assam, I tried to think of how the dishes were prepared in both my mother’s and father’s families. Our own family’s version of kiam chai boey remains clear in my mind, but the khong assam (hu) is a sour fish dish. Strangely, the word hu or fish in Penang Hokkien has been left out of the dish’s name in our family. When I asked my cousin, Yoong, about khong assam, she thought I was referring to the sour fish dish.

Trawling the internet and leafing through classic Malaysian and Singaporean cookbooks into the origins of these two dishes, however, led to an interesting connection to the soup dish, kwa chai thng. My mother used to make this with ingredients like chai sim and roast pork. But I don’t recall her adding in kwa chai.

Kwa chai thng and khong assam.
My family’s version of kiam chai boey.

Some versions of kiam chai boey are surprisingly similar to kwa chai thng and khong assam; these mostly use fresh kwa chai, with very few exceptions. The cookbook Cooking for the President calls for both fresh kwa chai and kiam chai (salted vegetable) in its recipe. Ingredients like roast pork and trotters are used in both dishes as well, with garnishes like dried chillies, lemongrass, assam gelugor, and occasionally, ginger, galangal and even belacan. Some versions opt for buah belimbing for a sourish note, and in Penang especially, nutmeg is used for an added flavour profile.

My first inkling of the difference between the kiam chai boey that I enjoyed growing up and of other versions was when I was served kiam chai ark by my cousin in Singapore. It tasted very sour and quite unlike my mother’s.

Kiam Chai Boey

In Penang Hokkien, kiam chai is salted or pickled kwa chai, and boey refers to the tail end or the leftover soups and dishes from the Nyonya table. This explains why my family’s version of the dish had a significant amount of kiam chai in it. In Cantonese, this is called choy keok, a literal reference to leftover vegetables and meat.

During grand Nyonya celebratory dinners, weddings, birthdays, and festivals such as the Chinese New Year, staple dishes of kiam chai boey, ju hu char, pnee hu char, hu chee char, chicken curry, lor bak, achak awak; and soups like kiam chai ark, tu tor thng and hu piow thng were traditionally served on a Tng Tok (long table). But to commemorate important death anniversaries, there must also be roast pork, steamed chicken, fish and the likes, in addition to the dishes mentioned.

Kiam chai ark, lor bak and ju hu char.
Kiam chai boey, ju hu char and pnee hu char.

The Nyonyas do not throw away food, and leftover ingredients, especially vegetables used for dishes like pnee hu char and hu piow thng that require them to be evenly chopped can result in much wastage. These are used to make kiam chai boey.

In my family, the leftover kiam chai ark thng provides the base for making kiam chai boey; other soups are also added in if there are any leftovers, but not curried or spicy dishes. My family’s version of the kiam chai ark includes salted mustard greens, mushrooms, pork’s leg, duck (ark in Penang Hokkien), sour plums, pepper corn and nutmeg seeds, to give it flavour. It is tradition in my family to cook a large pot of kiam chai ark on Chinese New Year’s Eve. The vegetable, tng sua kiam chai, which I believed was imported from China, was used for the soup, as was the leafier “local” kiam chai that my sister would buy. We also made it a point to have enough ju hu char and roast pork for leftovers. Together, these would be made into kiam chai boey for the coming days.

Two types of kiam chai – “tng sua” (thick stem) and “local” (leafy).

But if there was a banquet serving suckling pig, this would be an excuse to make kiam chai boey from scratch, using the bones for broth. Invariably, kiam chai is added in as are roast pork, bang kwang, cabbage, carrots, various types of sour plums, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and sometimes, sliced ju hu, to simulate the vegetables and ingredients used in preparing traditional Nyonya dishes. Personally, I would add meatballs with prawns to make up for the missing hu piow (fish maw) soup, and occasionally, grilled or fried pork skin as a poor man’s substitute for hu piow. My Jee Kor (second aunt) sometimes added fishballs as well.

Kiam chai boey is a very morish dish that can be eaten with porridge or rice, and with a side of sambal belacan. Yap Joo Kim’s recipe for kiam chai boey in Penang Palates is similar to how the dish is cooked in my family. She also wrote about how one has to prepare a full-course Peranakan meal to get the leftovers, and that serving friends and relatives kiam chai boey is by no means an insult to them.

When I was in London, roasted pork knuckles or hock were inexpensive and I bought them to make kiam chai boey. Effectively, I was making khong assam, just without some of its ingredients like dried chillies, assam gelugor and lemongrass.

KIam chai boey is most probably peculiar to the Nyonyas and Babas in Penang and those from other northern states. I am not able to find a similarly named dish in the South, although I did come across dishes using leftover meats, some using kiam chai or leftover food, but cooked with kwa chai.

Kwa Chai Thng and Khong Assam

I came across several recipes of khong assam and kwa chai thng that are very similar. Yap Joo Kim’s kwa chai thng is one such example; the dish also includes sio bak. Pearly Kee also has a similar recipe for khong assam. Both Yap’s and Kee’s recipes use roast pork and trotters, as well as dried chillies, lemongrass and assam gelugor.

Cecilia Tan has a recipe for roasted pork with mustard and kiam chai as does Mrs. Wee Kim Wee in her daughter’s cookbook, Cooking for the President. The Wees use pepper corn and nutmeg in their recipe for sio bak kiam chai thng, but does not mention the use of leftovers, other than the roast suckling pig.

Interestingly, there is no recipe for kiam chai boey or kwa chai thng in Penang Flavours (edited by Julie Wong), but there is one for khong assam that has tamarind, lemongrass, fresh red chillies and roasted trotters, without kwa chai or kiam chai. This is described as a sour soup, but classified as a pork dish rather than a soup dish.

I tried recreating my mother’s kwa chai thng using roast pork without trotters and chai sim, but found it tasted too sour from the assam jawa and assam phoi. On my visit to KL, my cousin Sandy advised that I should add dried chillies and smashed lemongrass, and that I should also use the leafier kwa chai variety. She mentioned that pork leg could be used instead of or in addition to roast pork.

Coincidentally, another cousin, Evan, took us out for dinner at a bak kut teh restaurant at Kepong. Besides the soup-based and dry versions of bak kut teh, Sandy also ordered kwa chai thng. I noticed that there were pieces of assam phoi in it and the kwa chai was of the leafier kind. It tasted just right because of the bone stock they used.

Different varieties of kwa chai – from thick to thin and leafy.

Khong Assam (Hu)

This appetising sour-soupy dish uses the bok kok hu (a small fish), cooked with the scales intact. Sandy describes it as assam pedas without the onions. The fish she uses is chee ya hu or selagin. Ikan cincaru, or hardtail scad, is also used by others for this dish. Other ingredients for khong assam hu are lemongrass, kunyit, dried chillies, belacan, smashed pepper and assam gelugor or tamarind. The ingredients are not ground and most versions do not use kesum, while some others use whole shallots. The ingredients are boiled in water and the fishes are added in later.

To surmise, I am convinced that there are two versions of kiam chai boey, the original version and a spicier one which evolved from khong assam and kwa chai thng, both of which are virtually the same dish. In the old days, there was a large surplus of leftover dishes and especially soups from Nyonya banquets, hence there is no need to add any other additional ingredients except for the kiam chai. Over time, there is less leftover food from banquets; this could have led to the evolution of khong assam and the kwa chai thng to the spicy kiam chai boey.

Ong Jin Teong

is an engineering and food consultant. He conducts cooking classes, does research on Nonya and heritage cuisine, and hosts the occasional supper club. He has published two award-winning books: Penang Heritage Food – Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook and Nonya Heritage Kitchen – Origins, Utensils and Recipes.