Recipe: Pongteh (Nyonya fermented soya bean stew)
This hearty, delicious stew is one of Baba-Nyonya cuisine’s most iconic dishes. Originating from the Southern Nyonya stronghold of Malacca, Pongteh has been gracing the family dinner tables of generations of the Peranakan community in Malaysia.
Whereas most Nyonya dishes are laden with a wide variety of spices, the base of a Pongteh is relatively simple and made from two key ingredients – fermented soya bean paste (‘Tau cheo’ or ‘Tauchu’) and palm sugar – the combination of which unleashes one of the most moreish, savoury-sweet gravies in all of Malaysian cuisine.
I love mixing both dark and white palm sugar when I cook this dish – I find the different layers of sweetness from the different sugars gives it a better balance. It’s traditional to use either Chicken leg pieces or Pork Belly cubes as the main protein in the stew. For added richness, I’ve used Beef Short Rib in this recipe. I find the marbling of fat makes this cut of meat perfect for slow-cooking in the Pongteh gravy. If you prefer to cook with Pork Belly, you can follow the exact same oven-braise method below for the Beef. For Chicken, you can leave the oven out of the cooking process and just braise the meat in the gravy over the stove until the chicken is tender and fully cooked through (about 30 minutes).
A tip: if you are having trouble locating a Malaysian brand of fermented soy bean paste where you live, lookout for Korean fermented soy bean “Doenjang” paste instead. It tends to be more widely available and tastes very similar to the Malaysian made pastes.
As with most stews and curries, it gets tastier as it matures, so it tastes even better when chilled down and reheated up again the next day!
Ingredients (serves 6 – 8 people as a shared main course)
- 2 kg Beef Short Ribs (on the bone), portioned into individual ribs
- 3 tbsp Vegetable oil
- 250g shallots, peeled & processed into a puree
- 12 cloves garlic, peeled & processed into a puree
- 6 tbsp (90g) fermented soya bean paste (‘TauCheo’/’Tauchu’ or Korean ‘Doenjang’ paste)
- 150g Shiitake Mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes then quartered
- 1 L water
- 6 tbsp light soy sauce
- 4 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 3 tbsp (45g) White Palm Sugar, grated
- 3 tbsp (45g) Dark Palm Sugar (Gula Melaka), grated
- 300 g potatoes, peeled & cut into medium bite-sized chunks (waxy varieties like New Potatoes or Jersey Royals work well)
- 1 stalk spring onion– finely sliced
- Crispy deep-fried garlic (or shallots)
- Heat up 3 tbsp oil over the stove in a large oven-proof casserole pot. Lightly season the Beef Short-Ribs with salt then brown in the oil for 2 – 3 minutes. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside briefly, reserving the flavoured oil in the pot.
- Saute the shallot and garlic puree in the reserved oil for 2 – 3 minutes. Add the fermented soya bean paste and cook for a further 2 minutes until fragrant.
- Return the Short-Rib to the pot and fry briefly in the shallot, garlic and fermented soya bean paste until well coated. Add the water, soya sauces and palm sugars. The level of all the liquid should just cover the meat (top up to cover with additional water if insufficient). Bring everything to a simmer over the stove then transfer the pot to a pre-heated oven at 140C and braise for 2.5 hours. Remove from the oven briefly to add the potatoes and mushrooms then return to the oven and continue cooking for a further 30 minutes until the meat is tender and starts to fall off the bone. The gravy should have reduced to a coating consistency over the cooking process.
- Before serving, skim off any excess oil that has risen to the surface. Dish out into a deep plate or bowl and garnish with sliced spring onions and crispy garlic. Serve with plenty of steamed rice to soak up the savoury-sweet goodness of that gravy.