Those who know me well will know that I am an advocate of Peranakan home-cooking being approachable and simple, unlike what is typically heard and said about Straits Chinese cooking being laborious and tedious. While there are indeed dishes in the Baba Nyonya cuisine which are more painstaking to prepare, there is a repertoire of Peranakan dishes which require little time to cook and even less time to enjoy as they are so delicious, they are gobbled down in no time!
When I run out of ideas for what to prepare for a simple dinner, the ” tempra” sauce is my to-go-to style of Peranakan cooking which could be used with a wide variety of ingredients, all delicious and simple to prepare. No rempah to pound, no long hours of stewing, it usually manifest as “ikan tempra” or “ayam tempra” in our household but when I want something really fast and furiously done, “telor tempra” is most definitely the dish I would whip up as it requires just a bare few minutes from the chopping board to the dining table.
I practically grew up eating laksa lemak, amidst other local delights and I’m quite sure there are well many others like me. The laksa which I remembered first eating was not any of those “branded” names along Katong . In fact, I had my first “Katong laksa” when I was much older in my 20s, and it is not even at Katong but the now defunct Jackson Kopitiam in Macpherson area. The very first bowl of laksa I had when I was really young was from an unassuming looking neighbourhood stall near my old place. This was way before the times when people were aware of Hepatitis B and way before it became fashionable to buy coconut milk in terapaks off supermarket shelves. In other words, it was the time when cockles were really large, fresh and bloody, and one could almost be certain that fresh coconut milk was used to ensure all the “lemak” awesomeness! This is the type of laksa which I grew up eating. How about you?
I bought quite a bit of bamboo shoots, tau kwa and shrimp the other day for making the filling for Kueh Pie Tee and thus the perfect opportunity to make one of my favorite soups, Pong Tauhu. Peranakan cuisine is known for its rich flavours, be it spicy, sourish, savory or sweet but once a while, we come across a gem like Pong Tauhu whose flavours and presentation perpetuate simplicity and bliss. Unlike the Loak Mejah Panjang dishes, i.e. food cooked for a Tok Panjang like Hee Pio Soup, Pong Tauhu uses far less ingredients and requires less time to prepare. This lovely soup which bears the essence of Peranakan daily home cooking is nonetheless flavorful and gratifying.
Ayam Buak Keluak… such a love-and-hate relationship with this classic Peranakan dish. As much as I love eating it, I loathe making it. The preparation work that precedes is so much more laborious than the actual cooking of the dish itself! So so much more laborious! Work starts days ahead with the soaking and daily scrubs of the black nuts imported from Indonesia. While most recipes call for prep work three days in advance, I make it a point to soak for a minimum of five days, sometimes up to seven! And to make things “worse”, I do water changes and scrub not once but twice, literally day and night, making sure that they are good to use and safe for consumption. Not taking any chances here. Perhaps it has come to a point of being obsessive. What to do?! Most Peranakan restaurants charge them by the nut nowadays, how else can one enjoy the unique flavours of this dish without having to empty my pockets. Yet to enjoy this dish periodically is a dire need and not a mere want! Now you know why I love it to bits but hate it to the core at the same time!
Ask any food lover for the Peranakan cuisine and they would surely babble ceaselessly and incessantly about their “favorites”! From simple kerabus like Sambal Belimbing Timun Nanas to the more elaborated Sambal Jantung Pisang, from the delicately flavoured Bakwan Kepiting, to the robust and full-bodied Buah Paya Masak Titek, from the popular Babi Pongteh, to the elusive Babi Tohay, from the healthy Nyonya Chap Chye to the not-for-the-faint-hearted Hati Babi Bungkus… the list just runs on and on, and I’m sure the rattling would too! And this doesn’t not even include an equally, if not even more comprehensive list of sweet and savory desserts, snacks and nyonya kuehs! Clearly one could not settle with just one, and I’m pretty sure he would not bear to, but instead, produce a collective “menu” , often macam panjang panjang, of dishes close to one’s heart. Sounds like much of an oxymoron I know, but that’s just one of the many dilemmas of a Nyonya foodie!
Ask again, for one single signature nyonya dish, and the options often narrow down to an invariable small range of dishes. And the name that would pop up most frequently has to be Ayam Buah Keluak!
Peranakans love cooking with fruits, spanning from the usual tropical varieties like pineapple in Sambal Nanas to durian in Apam Balik and banana in Pengat, to using more exotic varieties in lesser prepared dishes like young jackfruit in Sayur Nangka Masak Lemak, banana blossom in Kerabu Jantung Pisang and unripe papaya in Buah Paya Masak Titek. Some fruits are used almost exclusively in culinary cuisines from this region, and buah belimbing is one such fruit.
As you guys probably know, I’m thoroughly intrigued and in awe with the heritage and culture of the Peranakans. From furniture, to beadwork and embroidery, to jewelery and silverware, the nyonyas and babas of the not-too-distant past decorated their lives to such levels of luxury and extravagance, it is almost unthinkable, put in today’s context. This royalty-like lavishness is perpetuated in everything that they ate and used. For me, nothing speaks more about a culture than its food. Peranakan cuisine is most certainly a sparkling jewel amongst Southeast Asian culinary delights, a melting pot of many others with the Chinese and Malay cuisines as their primary influences, alongside others like Portuguese, Thai, Indonesian and even Dutch, depending on the region. What’s more interesting is the Peranakans developed and maintained different types of porcelain ware that’s been used for every family dining occasion, from the every day lunch and dinner, to eleborated fanfares like Tok Panjang. Even ceremonial ware for offerings to the deities, ancestors and mourning for a newly deceased have their own unique set of crockery, differentiated largely by motifs and color. Made primarily from Jingdezhen 景德镇 in Jiangxi, China, nyonya porcelain ware are largely influenced by the “famille rose” 粉彩 coloring style during the Kangxi period, accentuated by the bold use of colors. The favorites amongst the Peranakans include fuchsia pink, turquoise green, yellow, cobalt blue and purple. The Peranakan Museum located along Armenian Street houses a lovely collection of peranakan porcelain ware especially the colored ones, is a good place for one to begin to get to know more on what and how the Peranakans eat.
For me, the Peranakan culture is probably the most intriguing bit of Southeast Asian history. There are so many stories and theories which attempt to explain their origins but none so far has been rock solid. And precisely because of this shroud of vagueness that lends the Peranakan heritage a veil of mystery. Yet, the inter-marriage between the Chinese and Malays then yielded the “Straits Chinese” community which encapsulates the very essence of these two cultures, alongside influences from the Indians and even Europeans which colonised this part of the world. It is this “melting pot” of cultural and historical bearings that nurtured the Peranakan culture to be rich and colorful as we know it today. Through their architecture and handicraft like sewing and beadwork, we saw how the Peranakans brought together elements of the East and West and slowly over generations yielded it to become their uniquely own. But personally, I feel that the spirit of Peranakan culture, like many other cultures, lies in their food.
My first experience with Peranakan food outside of the household was actually at the most uncanny of all places, Pow Sing Chicken Rice 報喜 at Serangoon Gardens. Their chicken rice is fairly decent but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the standard of the Nyonya dishes on their menu. Alas, the quality of the food wasn’t fantastic but the liberal use of tau cheo (fermented bean paste) in addition to a hoard of spices, and the eccentricity of buah keluak’s appearance which can only be matched with its taste… the dining experience left quite an impression, both good and bad…