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…