Pandan, gula melaka and coconut cream is the South East Asian answer to the classic trio of vanilla, caramel and cream. There are many desserts that combine these three ingredients, like kaya and kueh salat but cendol is where all three flavours are presented in its most basic form.
With just three components to the dish (red beans are contentious), it is, in essence, a very simple dish. If you get all three right, you will end up with a bowl of cendol that can hold its own in any fine dining establishment. And the best part is that it only takes less than half and hour to make!
Very few stalls actually make the the green stuff themselves. Most are little more than green coloured agar agar with hardly any fragrance. Good cendol should have a heady pandan fragrance which is grassy and slightly eggy. The texture should be tender, pastey, yet resilient and lively.
This recipe is something I came up with after several trials using recipes from various chefs* as well as the internet. It isn’t difficult to do and will take you about half an hour. The only challenge is in getting your hands on a cendol press which I finally found at Ailin Bakery House. If you don’t want to buy a cendol press, you can use a ladle that has holes in them. These are used at the zi char to drain the oil from fried food and are available at kitchenware stores. If you happen to have a manual food processor with large holes, you can use that too!
Pandan leaves 80g
Coconut milk 100ml
Tepung Hoon Kueh (Mung bean aka green bean flour) 60g
Custard Flour 40g (or substitute with cornflour)
Instant jelly powder 1 tsp (can omit)
Alkaline water 1 tsp
Salt 1/4 tsp
Sugar 2 Tbsp
Wash and cut the pandan leaves and place it in a blender with 500ml water. Blend till the leaves are all very fine and strain it to get 500ml of pandan juice. Mix the juice, coconut milk, and the rest of the ingredients in a pot and start cooking it. Stir constantly until the mixture becomes a sticky paste. Continue to stir the paste for 5 mins as this will make the cendol more resilient and chewy. Next press the paste through the cendol press into ice cold water. Leave it in the fridge to set properly. Serve with coconut milk, gula melaka and shaved/crushed ice.
Notes on ingredients
Try to buy the best gula melaka you can. The good ones are made of pure palm sugar and are usually softer and have a wonderful fragrance. The poor quality ones have sugar added, so they are harder and drier. Pure palm sugar has a texture almost like toffee while the poor quality ones have sugar crystals in them. I have bought good quality gula melaka from the Tampines Round Market (large dry good stall across from the Yummy wanton mee) and Geylang Serai Market (Ummi Farah #01-09) They should cost $ 5/kg for the top quality ones.
To make the syrup, place the gula melaka in a pot and add an equal amount of water and boil till the gula melaka dissolves and becomes syrupy. Strain to remove impurities and keep in a bottle.
UHT coconut milk is fine but if you really want a tok kong cendol, you will need to make a trip to the wet market to buy fresh coconut milk. UHT will keep in the fridge for a long time after opening, but fresh coconut will turn sour in 2 or 3 days. In order to prolong the shelf life of fresh coconut milk, heat the coconut milk till you see smoke rising and small bubbles appearing (80°C-90°C) and allow to cool. This will kill all the bacteria which was on the outside of the coconut before they shredded it. Adding a pinch of salt will bring out the flavour of the coconut. 1/4 tsp for 500ml of coconut milk is just about right. If you like, you can add some pandan leaves to the coconut milk and let it steep.
My wife hates red beans in cendol, so I didn’t make it. You know what they say: “Happy wife, happy life!” and I plan to keep it that way. But if you insist, go buy the ready made adzuki beans from the Japanese grocer. That is what my culinary instructor advised me to do!
Very finely shaved ice is essential to the ultimate cendol, BUT, in case you don’t want to spend the extra money, you can crush ice in a food processor or blender. I bought one from Korea which makes very fine shaved ice just like those outside. It is made of plastic, so I am not sure how long it will last, but it does its job very well. With an ice shaver, you can freeze the coconut milk and shave it to make extra concentrated coconut flavour!
Quality of pandan leaves vary. If you are at the wet market, get hold of a bunch and smell it. If you don’t smell anything, go to the next stall. The ones sold at NTUC are as good as any that I have come across in Singapore. I have been told about the legendary pandan leaves of yesteryear which are small, slender and very fragrant. If you know where I can buy them, please let me know!
Tepung Hoon Kueh (Green bean flour)
The quality of this flour varies. I have used some which result in very hard texture. So if your cendol comes out harder than expected, you might want to reduce the amount of flour by 10g or change to another brand. I bought a 1 kg packet of Tepung Hoon Kueh from Alina Bakery House which I am very happy with. They have smaller packs on the shelves too. But you can buy Tepung Hoon Kueh from most places, they usually come packed as a cylinder about 15cm in length.
Custard Powder is essentially cornflour with flavouring and colour. This is my own innovation as I feel the slightly eggy, vanilla flavour works very well with the cendol. You can just substitute with corn flour if you like. Corn flour makes the cendol more tender. I have tried a lot of other flours like rice flour and wheat starch but in the end I settled on the combination of green bean and cornflour.
Instant Jelly Powder
This is another of my own improvisation. The jelly powder makes the cendol more lively and bouncy, rather than just pastey. You can omit it if you don’t have it. I bought my instant jelly powder from Phoon Huat.
A bit of alkali water is needed to add a bit of chew to the cendol as well as to maintain the lively green colour. You can omit it if you wish.
I finally managed to source one from Ailin Bakery House. You can buy it online from Malaysia but you have to find a way to get it shipped to Singapore. If you don’t have a chendol press, just get hold of any thing with 3-4mm holes in them and press the paste through it.
Notes on Method
1. I added some coconut milk to my cendol to give it a more pleasing colour and some fragrance. You can omit it and just substitute it with an equal amount of water. Alternatively, you can use 600ml of the 2nd press coconut milk and omit the water altogether. 600ml of liquid is what you need.
2. As the paste thickens, make sure you stir it thoroughly. The paste will get thicker and more stretchy as you stir it and the resultant cendol will have more bite. The whole cooking process should take about 10 mins from the start.
I would like to thank the following friends who have shared their recipe and tips with me!