The Science & Philosophy of Chai Buay: There is still life yet in your leftovers

Saturday, January 14, 2017

What has science or philosophy to do with this traditional Hokkien "leftovers" dish, you may ask.

As always, what goes on behind a dish always piques my curiosity, especially something as unique as Chai Buay or Choi Keok.

Yes, this is what makes Chai Buay great: the way it uses leftover dishes. Roasted bones and meat are great for the stock. You can also add some fresh pork bones and chicken feet. 

This we should know by experience: there is still life yet in your cooked meat and bones. The flavors are never completely extracted through normal cooking or even the first round of stock making. Most households will discard the least desirable boney parts. But these make for a great stock. I remember this huge pot in my Mum's restaurant kitchen where she 'dumps' meat and bones, some fresh, some cooked. If you know what you are doing, that is a very efficient way of cooking, making the most of your meats.

While good meat stock is essential for Chai Buay, the heart of the dish is the Mustard Green veg or "kai choy." This veg absorbs flavors very well. Sponging anything you cook with it, and with a luscious texture, it is fantastic for this.

Hum Choy - Salted/Brined Mustard Green
There are two types of Mustard green, the round stem version, and the leafy one. As the latter's leafy texture makes for good eating and is cheaper, it is more popular during CNY. If you can't find any of these, you can add some pickled or brined salty version: hum choy. Hum choy, whether the round stem or leafy one, is basically pickled mustard green. It is salty of course. Soak it in water for half and hour or more. You may have to do it  a few times. The texture of the pickled version will be different from the fresh one and I will normally prefer to use both.

Getting down to it

Make the meat stock first. What meat you have for it will be good for eating. Lots of bones will be good. Roast duck or roast pork will impart a smoky flavor to the dish. However, leave out the duck head and neck as your soup will have a strong smell the next day. Add lean pork, spare ribs and roast pork if you have any. Add a lot of dried chillies (or fresh red chillies) as it is important that this is spicy. For the sour, you need a a lot of  assam keping (dried tamarind slices). A good meat stock needs about 2 hours at least. If you have a pressure cooker, you can cut down the time by a third.

Then add the cut or tear up the  mustard greens and simmer for another hour or so.

Towards the end, adjust the taste. Add some chicken stock concentrate (or chicken powder), some oyster sauce and rock sugar (ping tong). Taste your soup. It needs to have a tinge of sourness. At this point, add some tamarind sauce (assam) and taste to get the balance right. The texture of the veg needs to be soft enough and yet, have a nice bite to it.

Good ChayBuay= Good meaty stock + Mustard Greens + Chillies (Spicy) + Assam Keping & Tamarind Sauce (Sour).

This is best eaten the day after as the flavors will continue to develop. We will normally leave it overnight on the stove. Just boil it and leave it undisturbed. This pot can be "rolled over" over  a few days, i.e. stuff, meat or veg can still be added. While you can add other veg into the pot, I advise that you stick to just mustard green. Almost any meat (and especially skin) will go well in it. Chicken or duck feet taste great in it. I will not add any leftover Chinese sausages or fish bones. These will spoil the taste. Yes, use your leftovers but not any leftovers.

Eat this hot in a bowl with chopsticks. Some white rice if you like some carbo to complete the meal.

Don't let the CNY end without at least cooking this once. After all, you need to do something with your leftovers. They will be delicious in your Chai Buay. The funny thing about Chai Buay is that the "second rate" meat there actually tastes very good.

As I reflect on this, I think of the verse from the Bible in Isaiah 41:3

"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice..."

Yes, God specializes in turning nothing into something. Chai Buay reminds me of this. If you think your life's usefulness is exhausted, think again. In His hands, the best is yet to be.  

Have fun cooking the discards this CNY.

I add here a recipe list as a guide. 

5 litres (1.3 gals) water
1 roast duck or leftover meats
10 dried chillies
4 slices dried Garcinia Cambogia fruit (assam keping)
400 g tamarind pulp (assam), rendered in 240 ml (1 cup) water, seeds removed
4 stalks round-stemmed mustard greens
2 stalks leafy mustard greens
Salt and rock sugar to taste

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  1. I LOVE Chai Buay! The slightly spicy, tangy yet aromatic taste is unbeatable. A real comfort food for me.

    A friend's aunt's recipe actually included adding a small can of sardines (I know you said no fish!) and I love it. For those who love Penang style assam laksa, I think it will work.

    And we actually buy a whole roast duck just to cook chai buay. Silly I know...but that's how much we love the dish!

    Thanks again for sharing! Am craving for it now!

    Happy New Year!


  2. My husband likes Chai buay with fish and fish add better taste to the dish.