top of page

Pengat - Bubur Cha Cha

Oh how this brings back memories of my childhood. The promise of this treat would make me jump on my red bicycle - rain or shine - and pedal like mad to the store for my mother to get whatever she needed. We had a coconut tree in our backyard, and my mother would have the gardener occasionally cut down some coconuts. When she needed, my mum would husk a mature coconut, then crack it open with a large cleaver. Hovering near her, I would hope for a little coconut sprout. Also known as the coconut flower (which is what my mum used to call it), coconut apple or coconut pearl, it is the cotyledon of the germinating coconut found inside mature coconuts. I haven't eaten one in more than thirty years (oops, letting on about my age here) but I remember it as crunchy and spongy at the same time, and sweet. I think my brothers and I would fight over it. A young and good coconut flower should be small (the size of a ping pong ball), so it was difficult to share...

To the Nyonyas, this dessert is called pengat and slightly different from the version found in restaurants or dessert street stalls, and which is more commonly known as bubur cha cha. I doubt there is a connection to the music genre of cha cha. Bubur means porridge in Malay, and cha cha could possibly be a phonetic distortion of che che which means plentiful in Hokkien. Both versions are a rich gorgeous medley of yam and sweet potatoes in coconut milk. The former is cooked in coconut or palm sugar instead of white sugar while the latter has tapioca pearls. My version is a bit of both. The pengat also tends to be thicker and richer than the bubur cha cha which sometimes also has black eyed peas and tapioca jellies.

My mum had an old-fashioned coconut grater, which was foldable and opened up to allow you to sit on it like you would on a rocking horse. It was no toy however, and I was never allowed on it because the serrated grater was dangerously sharp and it was always kept out of reach. Once the coconut was finely grated, my mum would place the grated coconut into a muslin cloth and squeeze out its thick, rich milk. That first yield would be the cream. Gradually adding water to the grated coconut, she would then extract a more diluted yield. I use coconut milk from a carton.

Screwpine or pandanus leaves have many uses in South East Asia. Every household will have this tropical plant in their garden. A green juice is extracted from its leaves to colour and flavour cakes and desserts. Cut up and dried, it is added to potpourris. The leaves can be woven into vessels for cooking with. I was surprised to find them at my local Asian grocery store.

My mum would carefully cut each potato into similar-sized diamond shapes. As you can see, I'm not so meticulous. Each type of yam and potato has to be steamed separately and then added into the cooked concoction of coconut milk later so as to avoid the cross-contamination of colours.

I use my bamboo steamer, which is stackable, but you may use whatever steaming method you like. Pengat also calls for bananas and my mum was very particular about the type of banana for this. Plantains are a good substitute for the pisang raja which is firm and full of flavour. The bananas are sliced then poached in a sugar syrup. I cheat a little here and just add some sliced raw bananas at the last minute. You don't want the bananas to turn to mush in the pengat.

Yams are also known as taro. I found them, peeled and cut in half, in the frozen section of my local Asian store. I love yam, either in savoury dishes or in sweet desserts.

Pengat is traditionally eaten on the 15th day of the lunar calendar year in Nyonya households, where families come together again to mark the end of the celebrations. This sweet rich dessert is sure to mitigate the crushing disappointment of 15 days of eating and feasting coming to an end!

With a bit of this and a bit of that, this recipe serves a large number of people. You may halve it or adjust according to the size of the yams and potatoes you find. Purple and white ones tend to be smaller. As yam is everyone's favourite, it tends to be the dominating proportion when I make it. If you prefer it creamier and richer, use more coconut milk and less water. Sweeten it as much or as little as you like. Serve warm or chilled.

Pengat - Bubur Cha Cha


serves 8 to 12

Prep Time 25 mins/Cook Time 25 mins/Total Time 50 mins

  • 60 g sago pearls

  • 2 large bananas, peeled and sliced thickly

  • 1 taro

  • 2 small purple sweet potatoes

  • 1 large orange sweet potato

  • 2 small white sweet potatoes

  • 350 ml thick coconut milk, mixed with 500 ml water

  • Palm sugar, rock or granulated sugar to taste (adjust to preference)

  • 5 screw pine leaves - washed and knotted


  1. Bring a small pot of water to boil, add sago pearls. Boil until almost translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring from time to time to avoid clumping. Drain and rinse with cold water, put aside.

  2. Peel and cut all the potatoes into diamond shapes or cubes.

  3. Prepare your steamer.

  4. Steam the taro and all the sweet potatoes separately till almost cooked, about 5 minutes each. Keep aside.

  5. Bring to boil the coconut milk with sugar, salt and screw pine leaves. Add the taro, sweet potatoes, and drained sago pearls. Simmer over medium heat about 3 minutes.

  6. Take off the heat, add the bananas.

  7. Can be served hot or cold. Store in fridge when cooled down.


bottom of page