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.
If Pad Thai is the national dish of Thailand, ต้มยำกุ้ง Tom Yum Goong must surely be the mother of all Thai soups. Being sour and spicy at the same time, it is perfect to whet one’s appetite, be it under the gruelling summer heat, or against a drab and grey rainy day. Like many dishes in Thai cuisine, a good Tom Yum is characterised by the liberal use of herbs and aromatics, not to mention those fiery bird’s eye chili, much loved and hated at the same time, as the melange of flavours explode in our mouths with each sip.
Taiwan is famous for many of their local snack-like delights called “小吃” which literally means “small eats“. As the name implies, many of these snacks come in small portions which aren’t enough to fill the stomach at one go. Nor is it meant to, as that is the exact intention, i.e. to allow one to sample as many of these different local “small eats” as possible. Tainan, as I’d written previously, is the origin of many local “small eats”, largely brought over by the migration wave from China during the mid Qing Dynasty. Many of these have very humble beginnings as street food stall vendors which we call “hawkers” in this part of the world. Some of these hawkers did not even have a permanent stall, but instead, carried their food, cooking ware, and everything else wherever they go , in two large bamboo baskets delicately balanced by a thick bamboo pole called 擔仔 Dan Zai or “tah-ah” over the shoulders. This was most characteristic to those who sold glutinous rice dumplings colloquially known as “bak chang” (肉粽), often heard before they are seen walking down the alleys of residential areas peddling their bak chang late in the evening. Wafts of aroma from these freshly steamed glutinous rice dumplings wrapped into a pyramidal shape by bamboo leaves permeated the cool air of the night as one hears the familiar calls “烧肉粽!” or “shio bak chang!” in Taiwanese Hokkien. This often set one’s tummy a rumbling, dashing down to buy a bak chang or two from the hawker before his calls fade away as he vanishes around the corner.
Like bak chang, many other street food vendors too make use of these baskets with bamboo poles to peddle their ware. Another signature “small eat” from Tainan comes in the form of small bowls of fresh noodles in piping hot soup, embellished with an assortment of condiments. The noodles were also initially peddled around the streets of Tainan with makeshift stoves and baskets carrying crockery straddled across a 擔仔 bamboo pole, and that is how its name 擔仔麵 Dan Zai Noodles came about…