When we were young, we met up a lot with our other relatives at my grandparents’ place. My parents moved out after they got married but always made it a point to go back and visit whenever we could. It was the same with our uncles and aunts who had moved out. Gatherings were a noisy, but also joyous affair, playing with cousins and also neighbours’ children whom we all grew up with. Apart from the regular weekend visits, what was particularly worth looking forward to were the “important days”. Usually it was the numerous marked Chinese-related festivals and celebrations, from Chinese New Year, and Chap Goh Meh at the beginning of the lunar calendar year, through Cheng Beng and dumpling festival right up to “bulan tujoh“, mooncake festival and finally Tang Chek. Apart from my own grandparents’ birthday celebrations, there were the birthdays of deities and of course the “ari see kee”, i.e. death anniversaries of our ancestors. Most of these “ari besair” were marked with an elaborated prayer session in the late morning or early afternoon and of course a pig out session that followed, enjoying the laok semayang that were prepared to honour the gods or ancestors first before being devoured by us. Many of the dishes were eaten as it is, but some were “transformed” into other delectables, and sambal timun was one of them.
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.
Like Kangkong Masak Lemak, Pong Tauhu and Ikan Pari Kuah Lada, there are many Peranakan dishes do not require time-consuming or laborious preparation. Neither are they fiendishly difficult to prepare as some had claimed them to be. One such dish is Ayam Tempra. What is essentially chicken cooked in a sweet and sour sauce, there is a hint of heat in Ayam Tempra as well from the red chilies used which very subtly they lend their flavours to this dish.
We cook asam fish all the time at home. In fact, whenever the belimbing trees are laden with fruits, those few days are asam fish days. For us at home, Ikan Gerang Asam is the default way of cooking asam fish. But of course there are geographical variations to how asam fish is cooked. Ikan Gerang Asam, the Melakan peranakan of preparation depends heavily on the use of daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves) amidst other fresh ingredients like lengkwas (galangal ginger) to work up the aromatics! And that most certainly helped to work up an appetite! When I was preparing Laksa Belut Perlis, the famous eel laksa from the most northern Malaysian state in the Peninsula, all the rempah (blended ingredients) were basically boiled together with the broth base without any sautéing. But yet, it was still very delicious. And this month’s MFF brings me down all the way to the far south, to the bordering state of Johor for Ikan Pari Asam Pedas.
Nasi Dagang, i.e. Trader’s Rice is a very common breakfast fanfare enjoyed by the masses along the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It uses a mixture of white rice (beras wangi) which is first soaked and subsequently steamed with glutinous rice (pulut) with coconut milk added for its wonderful aroma and flavour. This likens another popular breakfast dish, Nasi Lemak over here in Singapore. However, instead of pandan leaves, sliced shallots (bawang merah) and fenugreek (halba) are added. This concoction seems to be the preferred combination for many dishes, as we’d seen in Pulut Lepa and Ketupat Sotong. As we have seen in several dishes from Terengganu, fish is a staple amongst the folks from this region, and Nasi Dagang is no exception. It is eaten with Gulai Ikan Tongkol, a spicy fish red curry cooked with tuna and a hoard of spices as well as buah belimbing, one of my favorite ingredients I love to use in Straits cooking. And this month’s Malaysian Food Fest seem like a timely affair to visit and pay tribute to this time-honoured dish.