煮炒 “tze char“ is a very common culinary concept in this part of Asia. Analogous to the makeshift stir fry and noodle stalls in Bangkok and 大排档 Dai Pai Tung in Hong Kong, the term “tze char” is a kind of street food culture unique to Singapore and Malaysia. In Singapore, the popularity of “tze char” rose gradually after the post-war years and thrived all the way up to the 1980s when these pushcart stalls could be seen in practically most living quarters as well as areas known for night entertainment like amusement parks and cinemas. With the popularising of “HDBs”, these makeshift “tze char” stall owners abandoned their practice to deck out foldable formica-plastered tables and wooden chairs for al fresco dining every evening, and of course the need to brave through bad weather, pit their wits and avoid harassment from the “teh gu” 地牛, a colloquial term for government officers in charge of raiding illegal street hawkers, not to mention the collection of “protection money” from triads who were “in charged” of the “turfs” the stalls were located in. They made their way into the heartlands, and became “anchor tenants” of kopitiams while some of their names grew so big, like 肥仔荣 Fatty Weng and 香港珍记 Hong Kong Chun Kee that they were able to own the entire coffeeshops for themselves, while others went on to open their own restaurants. Depending on the culinary background of the 总铺 chong po or head cooks, one could order a wide range of dishes representative of different dialectal communities from these “tze char” stalls, from the more standard dishes like pai guat wong 排骨王, frog legs with ginger and scallion stir-fry 姜葱田鸡腿, braised fish head 红烧鱼头 for communal family dinner eat-outs, or opt for takeaways of one-dish meals like mui fun 烩饭, yuet kwong hor 月光河, fried rice vermicelli “Singapore style” 新州炒米, and of course my favorite 煮炒福建面 Tze Char Hokkien Mee.
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.
Since young, we learnt to eat simply. Not only were the dishes whipped up in our kitchen simple, but more importantly, we are taught to be contented with whatever is provided on the dining table. Thankfully, mom and grandma were both excellent cooks, able to conjure up a range of yummy food with the simplest of all ingredients. Eggs, the cheapest source of protein are a common sight for our meals but despite being so common, the dishes were never boring. From an assortment of omelettes to sunny side up soups, my mom knew exactly what makes us happy and our tummies filled. Sometimes our dinners were just a simple one-rice cooker or one wok meals, simplified versions of claypot rice, cabbage rice and even chicken rice all done within the comforts of one pot. One wok meals were also something worth looking forward too, first sending aromatic wafts from char kway teow, mee goreng, SPAM fried rice from the kitchen that permeated our small flat, whetting our appetites as we rushed to finish our homework, before tickling our palates. One particular one-wok dish stands out being most memorable, so simple to cook yet so immensely gratifying, and that is Mom’s 猪脚罐头炒米粉 Canned Braised Pig Trotters Bee Hoon.