The Peranakans of the past were known to observe etiquette and decorum notoriously. It began at home where everyone was expected to know how to address one’s relatives correctly, making sure one could differentiate the nuances in one’s relationships with their “pek“, “engku“, “engteoh“, and “chek“, terms which are often reduced to a simple “uncle” nowadays. Out of the family context, it was important to know and observe the social hierarchy put in place then and not only understand, but also be well adapted and assimilated into one’s designated role. In short, one is expected to know what the “pecking order” was like and how to will one’s means to reap and benefit the most out of it. It was important for a baba or nyonya to be seen as being “proper” or in Peranakan terms, “tau adat” which basically translates to “know your customs and practices well”. Only then can one be described as being “alus” (refined) or for the nyonyas “senonoh” (elegant and demure) rather than being “kasair” (uncouth). Social behavior was maintained to the strictest order and it was of pertinence for one to be “well placed” into his or her position in society, with the Peranakan families well connected amongst one another through intermarriages, maintaining a close relationship with the colonial masters whom they collaborated or worked for, as well as the sin kheks whom these baba towkays employed and provided for.
Protocol and formalities once perpetuated every aspect of the ways of life of a Peranakan, even in its cuisine. Some dishes were cooked specifically for certain occasions and having them appear on the dining table otherwise was a big no no. For example, “pongteh” was a dish prepared for semayang abu (ancestral prayers) and not to be confused with “chin“, a very similar dish which was associated with weddings instead. The same was with the “kueh culture” for the Peranakans, colour coded to highest levels of specifications, red and yellow for festivities while green and blue were for funerals. But over the years as the generations evolved, many converted to Catholicism or “masok Christian” and abandoned these practices, while for others the “reins” faded and eventually disappeared as they became more influenced by Western culture, married out of the baba-nyonya community or simply migrated to a part of the world where Asian culture isn’t a mainstream, let alone the Peranakan way of life. As such many aspects of the “adat” and its “rules” became relaxed, with only a handful of puristic Peranakans still stauchly following the very traditional customs to the strictest order and in full regalia. Thus, it is not uncommon, to find dishes which were previously cooked for separate occasions appearing on the same dining table nowadays. The identity of certain dishes also evolved over time, and one of them is Nyonya Mah Mee, which is sometimes just called Mee Nyonya.
Many of us love spicy dishes but find it daunting to prepare the chili mix which breathes life unto these savory delectables which are part and parcel of our culinary repertoire in this region. “Rempah” as it is commonly known in Singapore and Malaysia, otherwise called “bumbu” in Indonesia is the heart and soul of Southeast Asian cuisine in this part of the world. But there are many different types of rempah in existence, “rempah titek“, “rempah gerang asam“, “rempah kuning“, “rempah cili-bawang” are just some examples, which we will explore in the course of this blog over time but is there a rempah which is most commonly used amongst many dishes? Indeed there is. I call this “generic rempah” for ease of remembering, something I’d mentioned and used in many of the dishes I’d introduced earlier like laksa lemak, kangkong masak lemak and rendang ayam. Its versatility extends beyond these dishes of course, some of which I would prepare and blog about in time to come… hopefully. A large batch can be made and it stores pretty well but just to put it into immediate use after its been freshly prepared, I’d used the generic rempah in a simple recipe for Sambal Ikan Bilis, an indispensible condiment in our favorite nasi lemak. (more…)
As I’d mentioned on several occasions on this blog, Penang Peranakan cuisine differs quite significantly from their southern counterparts in Malacca and Singapore. The babas and nyonyas from the island state near the northern end of the peninsula has their own menu of dishes which are unique to their own culture. Perut Ikan, Inche Kabin, Jiu Hu Char and Kari Kapitan are just some examples. The art of kerabu making, inherited from Thai cuisine plays a significant part of the culinary repertoire of the Penang Peranakans. Kerabu Kacang Botol, Kerabu Hai Tay, Kerabu Bok Hnee are amongst my favorites. They are refreshing sides which can be served along with more hearty dishes, or good with just some ikan goreng and sambal belacan as part a simple meal. Speaking of simple meals, there is even Kerabu Beehoon which is perfect as one-dish meal on its own!
It is mango season again and we see an assortment of mangoes from all over. From the honey and rainbow mangoes from Thailand, to the Benishaan and Alphonsoes from India, each visit to the local supermarket often involves getting hit by heavily perfumed wafts of heady aroma they exude. Each variety has its own distinct fragrance, devised by its own unique concoction of volatile chemicals which contribute to a sometimes intoxicating brew making them distinguishable from one another. However, many cultivars nowadays are grown for certain attributes like being less fibrous and longer shelf life in place of others like flavour and aroma! As a result some varieties like the Tommy Atkins which do not taste and smell very much are still in cultivation and widely sold, though hardly anyone buys them as far as I know! As far as I’m concerned, I still prefer very much my Harumanis, buah binjai and buah kuini when they are in season!
Most rendangs that I know of are cooked with beef or mutton. Chunks of meat which have been thoroughly cooked through and through from the prolonged simmering to make the meat so tender that it just flakes and crumbles with the slightest pressure from the fork, they are the kind of rendangs which I enjoy tremendously. Chicken rendang, well… I am a bit “iffy” about this. While I love chicken dishes generally, I feel that poultry doesn’t really do full justice to the rich and exuberant sauce concocted through the melange of spices used. I prefer them in curries. Same as rendangs you would say? Though subtle, there are still underlying differences between the two.
I was searching for a fish recipe for Perak when I came across one which uses stingray. Well done, since it is one of my favorite fish! But what I read next struck me as being really weird! Stingray in a rendang, surely that is unheard of! Then again, stingray does have a much more robust texture than other fish varieties so it might just work… Well, only one way to find out!
Most of us know that Penang, Melaka and Singapore are the three strongholds of Peranakan culture in this region. This not only stems from the long withstanding establishment of the Straits Chinese communities in there three places but more importantly in recent years, the fervent promotion of Peranakan culture by the tourism-related authorities in Singapore and Malaysia. However, the existence of Peranakan culture outside these three places is much much lesser known let alone their culinary heritage. So when I first read about Telur Kesum, a Kelantanese Peranakan dish, it got me very curious.
The last installment of Malaysia Food Fest (MFF) brings us to Perak and it is just in time for Eid al-Fitr. After a long month of Ramadan, it is time for our Muslim friends to break fast and celebrate during what is more commonly known as “Hari Raya Puasa” over here in Malaysia and Singapore. One of the absolute must-haves for Hari Raya celebration is a spicy beef stew which originated from Indonesia called “Rendang“. I’d cooked Rendang Daging Rembau earlier this year for Negeri Sembilan but rendang cooking has a long withstanding tradition in Malaysia and has since evolved and developed so many varieties, with almost every state having their own unique variation. So it comes as no surprise that Perak too has its own “special” rendang and rightfully so as it is very famous, enjoyed by not only the Perakians but also visitors to the state. “Rendang Tok” as it is known, with “Tok” to mean royalty, this delicious rendang is literally food befitting the kings!