It’s been twelve years since I last stepped into Baba Malaysian restaurant in NYC. It was before 9/11, as it seems every thing that happened in the past twenty years is defined as a ‘pre’ or ‘post’ this date. It was my birthday in April of 2000 and my partner, who was from Long Island, took me down to celebrate at my favorite restaurant and attend an Astrea Foundation concert that featured Ani Difranco and Margaret Cho. It was a weekend of shopping, eating, music, and friends. It was also the birthday when I was approached by someone of the Twelve Tribes who assumed, probably based on my Pepto colored hair, that I was a lost soul and should join them on their bus for a spiritual awakening.
One of the best moments came when a car full of friends and I were driving 80+MPH on the L.I.E. and found an ice cream truck in the lane next to us. Through a game of charades and yelling, we convinced the driver to hand over some ice cream pops while we were driving. Luckily, it wasn’t rush hour and there were no troopers on that particular stretch of highway, because we were rewarded with a couple of chocolate dipped vanilla ice cream bars. I still laugh at the memory of my pink haired self stretching a third of the way out the window as this twentyish year old guy struggled to hand over the ice cream bars while driving with one hand on the wheel. I swear, those were some of the best ice cream bars any of us had ever had.
But, as easy as I remember something as crazy and idiotic as that, I still remember the meal.
Baba was my favorite restaurant in New York(this was when I was 23, still unversed in ethnic foods and just realizing that I had more than a fleeting passion for food) and getting down to eat there was always a treat. But, it’s not overly noteworthy that I can remember what I had twelve years ago because we ordered the same thing whether we were there or at Penang. Penang’s menu was much more extensive than Baba’s so there was the occasional change or addition in starter or entree but the desserts usually remained the same.
The dessert, with the funny sounding name of Burbur Chacha, made me fall in love with Malaysian food. It was sweet, gelatinous and warming. When Baba closed in late 2002, before I got to bid it a proper farewell with one last meal, I tried to find that dessert around Albany to no avail. Sticky rice in coconut milk with taro or black eyed peas were as close as I could find in the Asian supermarkets in the area. Theywerethisclose yet it still wasn’t the same.
Then this year, when there were quick plans being made to hop on the Concord bus to Boston for Chinese New Years(where the picture above comes from). I decided to try to track down a recipe, procure the items while in Chinatown and make a go for it at home. So, between laughing at the Missus’ cousin marvel at the Lions Parade
and having dim sum at Winsor Dim Sum Cafe
I dragged their asses from one side of Chinatown to the other looking for ingredients for the recipe:
11 ounces/ 300 grams purple yam, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
1lb/ 450 grams sweet potato, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup dried tapioca pearls
2 cups/ 450 ml fresh or frozen coconut milk
¼ cup/ 200 ml water
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 pandan leaf, shredded into thin strips and knotted together
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped palm sugar
Steam the yam and sweet potato cubes for about 30 minutes or until tender. Leave aside to cool.
Prepare the tapioca pearls. Submerge the pearls in a bowl of cold water for about 15 minutes. Drain and transfer them to a saucepan filled with water. Boil the pearls, stirring constantly, until the pearls turn translucent. Drain the pearls in a fine-mesh sieve and pour cold water through the sieve. This helps to break the pearls up and prevent clumps from forming. Set aside.
In a large pot, combine ¾ cup/200 ml of coconut milk with the water, then add the palm sugar, granulated sugar, salt and pandan leaf, and bring to a boil. Add the rest of the coconut milk, the sweet potatoes and yam, and the tapioca pearls.
The Pandan leaves, very much like palm leaves, were the hardest to find, located in the back of the frozen area of the Chinatown C-Mart we finally tracked down. The scavanger hunt for these ingredients–as well as some ingredients for XO Sauce–kept us warm and out of restaurants where we would have sat and stuffed our faces.
After everything was found and I worked my way through some Eggs Benedict And Risotto, I finally got around to trying to recreate the dish.
My enthusiasm for the whole thing didn’t last long. In fact, right after I tied the leaves
I found that the tapioca, which actually eluded us for a while on our hunt, turned from this:
and completely turned to shit in the initial soaking.
Maybe it sheds or something, I thought to myself, as if it had some outer husk attached. But, it doesn’t, does it. No. I just managed to find the shittiest Tapioca Pearls in all of Boston’s Chinatown. The reality was obvious at this point: It was too late to turn back from all of this. The taro and sweet potato had been steamed, the pandan cut and tied and the coconut milk removed from it’s tin. I decided that it was best to just pack everything up for the day before I trashed my kitchen out of frustration and rage(we’ll blame the full moon for the grossly disproportionate reaction I was having).
Later the next day, I opened up my Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything in the World” and settled on making an uberstarchified version of his Kheer. The end results were ok, as the taro was undercooked, more palm sugar could have been used, the milk was too thin and I ate it cold. Yeah, it was basically a big bowl of disappointment in trying to recreate what I once had and I learned that I’m better off leaving that dish to the memory of what it was.