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!
Kerabu making is part and parcel of Penang Peranakan cooking, owing much to the influence from Thai cooking. I love love love Kerabu Kacang Botol for the crunch which the winged beans have, on top of the freshness they render without any hint of the harsh rawness which some vegetables have. It is for the same reasons that I like Kerabu Bok Hnee as well! 木耳 Bok Hnee is the Hokkien anglicisation of “cloud ear fungus“, to literally mean “wooden ear” owing much to its appearance. It is a very common ingredient used in Chinese cooking and typically comes in two forms. The “white” form 白木耳 which is actually more translucent is softer and has an almost jelly-like consistency, thus making it very suitable for desserts. The “black” form 黑木耳 is more resilient to cooking and thus lends textural contrast to accompany vegetables dishes like Nyonya Chap Chye where the rest of the vegetables are cooked until very soft.
I have access to a couple of buah belimbing trees in my vicinity and they fruit in abundance all year round. When I was discussing with Wendy on what to cook for Malaysia Food Fest Pahang, I requested her to find me a dish which makes use of these little wonderfully sour torpedoes. My first dish for MFF Pahang, is a recipe I knew I would like. When Wendy was telling me about it after she prepared the dish, way before this month’s event commenced, I knew I would love to try it. Not only because the recipe is incredibly simple to follow, but more importantly, the flavours are exactly what I crave for! Spicy, sour and savoury!
Due to its geographical advantage, the culinary speciality in Terengganu seems to revolve much around seafood. From Pulut Lepa, Laksam to Ketam Sumbat and Gulai Ikan Tongkol accompanying Nasi Dagang, not forgetting the ever-popular pasar malam fanfare of Ikan Bakar and Keropok Ikan Lekor, a lot of Terengganuan dishes, together with those from the eastern coast of the Peninsula tap heavily on the abundant resources of the vast South China Sea, some of which are almost exclusively found only in this region. Ketupat Sotong versi Terengganu is one such intriguing dish where squid is filled with glutinous rice before being cooked in a rich coconut milk gravy doused heavily with local spices.
Pulut Lepa aka Pulut Panggang versi Terengganu is a delicious savory snack made from glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk and an “inti serunding ikan kembong“, i.e. spiced mackerel fish floss filling, wrapped with banana leaves and finally grilled for the extra oomph of wonderful smoky flavours. This is a simple “kuih” enjoyed freshly “panggang” i.e. grilled over a charcoal flame for breakfast or tea. Being very affordable, it is a common “walk and eat along” treat for many Terengganuans, especially amongst folks on their way to work and children to school, grabbing one or two as they pass by their favorite stall in the pasar pagi, i.e. morning bazaar.
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!
Geylang Serai is a place that reminds me much of my childhood. Apart from the Orchard Road shopping belt, the stretch around City Plaza and Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre was one of the earliest built-up shopping areas in the eastern part of Singapore, more affectionately known as “Yokoso” in the past. It is also the major stronghold for the Malay community in Singapore, likening Chinatown and Little India to the Chinese and Indians respectively. Long before Geylang Serai became the infamous weekend rendevous spot for Pinoy domestic helpers and their Bangladeshi boyfriends, this place was the hub of the Malay culture and heritage in Singapore. Apart from visits during the month-long pasar malams (night markets) during the pre-Hari Raya Ramadan (fasting) period to soak in the festivities, my mother, together with her sisters visited this place frequently throughout the year to shop and makan(feast), since Orchard Road was often deemed as being too “atas” (haute couture) and out-of-place for heartlanders like us. My cousins and I would simply tag along, usually an ice-cream or a paper cone of kachang putih at hand. So “Yokoso” became the port-of-call de facto for all our shopping needs, from fabrics for making curtains and cushion covers from Joo Chiat Complex, to clothes from “2nd Chance” at Tanjong Katong Shopping Centre and not forgetting shoes and Casio watches from shops at City Plaza. And no trip to Geylang Serai is complete without a visit to its wet market and food centre, where one can sample the essence of Malay as well as Indian Muslim culinary delights, from an assortment of kuih-muihs (sweet pastries) and light snacks, to more robust Sup Kambing and Tulang Merah. The wet market section was also fantastic, where one could find a wide variety of fresh ingredients from the usual produce of fruit, fish and meat, to the more exotic, like to garner a whole entourage of herbs for Nasi Ulam.
Truth be told, I haven’t been there for eons, despite passing by the area ever so frequently. I often wonder how the place is like now, or if my favorite Indian Rojak stall was still in business. But I’d never really felt compelled to go in. Strange I know, don’t ask me why. Alas as fate has a funny way of coming around, my ventures into Peranakan cooking has brought me back here again, to buy buah keluak, or source for the freshest petai beans still in their pods. And thus when I have a craving and was looking for ingredients to make Sambal Jantung Pisang, I knew the perfect place to start hunting.
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.
Ikan Gerang Asam is one of my favorite Peranakan dishes. It is also amongst the first nyonya dishes that I’d learnt to cook and experimented with. The intermingling of tang and heat often calls for additional servings of rice just to finish up any remnants of kuah (gravy) and assortment of stewed vegetables that went with it, even when the fish was long gone. Often times, more kuah than what the dish required would be prepared, so as to add more fish or other seafood, as well as vegetables and fruit for second helpings the next day. As with most stew or curry-based dishes, the flavours develop over time making it more sedap nia!!!
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…