We enjoy homecooked food a lot. And because of that, we enjoy cooking at home a lot. What seemed to be a chore in the past, helping my mum wash the vegetables, cut the ingredients, tumbok the rempah in the past became what I missed the most now that mum is no longer with us. The dishes are usually very simple, spanning across a good range of Peranakan fare, not forgetting dishes from Chinese cuisine which she’d learnt from my grandmothers, our neighbours, her colleagues-turned friends at work, our old neighbours, and even from the vegetable sellers, fishmongers, butchers and hawkers from whom she will steal a recipe or cooking tip from. From them, she expanded her culinary repertoire that stretched across other cuisines to cook dishes from these dialectal groups when she didn’t even know how to speak those tongues! Amazing how fast and effortless it was for her to learn new dishes, sometimes indirectly from just tasting it once or twice would she be able to decode the recipe or figure out the cooking methods. Those were the days when experimentation was the fun thing to do and authenticity was never a question in mind.
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.
Last weekend, Singapore celebrated her Golden Jubilee, 50 years of glorious nation building which saw her rose from a third world nation, separated from Malaysia and forcefully pushed onto her road of independence which she had not wished for, to become one of the major key players in the regional political and economic development. In fear that the Chinese-majority population in Singapore would threaten the rule and dilute the prowess of the Malay-dominant UMNO which controls the Federation of Malaya then, Tunku Abdul Rahman “talak” Singapore, ousting her from the Federation which she had joined less than two years back. Left largely on her own, the initial years were full of staggers and struggles, but through the sheer hardwork and determination of our parents, Singapore’s first taste of success is by no means an easy feat. While the dramatic transformation our island state undertaken had been repeatedly retold in media all over the world, like a fairytale, this Golden Jubilee marks only but the closure of the first chapter of her ongoing story, far from the climatic conclusion many seem to be perceiving and enjoying. Lying ahead are more challenges to follow, many of which are intangible and unpredictable. As the paradigm shift over the last 20 years or so deemed that our fate should become invariably intertwined with the increasingly turbulent global climate, it seems like our future no longer lies solely in our own hands. From the frustrating and stifling realities like escalating costs of living, increasing population densities beyond comfort limits, all-too-frequent MRT breakdowns, to other “softer dimensions” like the disintegration of our social fabric, attrition of our cultural bearings and extinction of our local heritage. The latter aspects seem lesser noticeable but far more important than how they are usually being played out for without our bearings and roots, we are nothing. On the whole, Singapore is a nation that grew so rapidly overnight, that she had hardly any time to reflect and ponder over what was sacrificed, eroded and forever lost. Too caught up with being and staying competitive, her people were tugged into the rat race, constantly instilled with invisible fears of the repercussions and possible aftermath for being left behind or simply not being Number One. In our concerted efforts as a nation to become richer in tangible gains like economic growth, integrated infrastructure, standards of living, global ranking, we had also become poorer, as we silently mourn for our loss, some deplorable beyond being reparable. Friends who visit Singapore seem to be always telling me how fast our country grows, some areas changed and developed beyond recognition in a matter of just a couple of years. Like a child who is all too eager to want to grow up and step into adulthood to prove her worth, much of her time is spent to better herself, with little left to enjoy her childhood and growing up years, let alone to smell the flowers along the way. As we admire the towering skyscrapers that grew like magical beanstalks, we also lament the demolishing of the old architecture built brick upon brick by our forebears. As we broaden our expressways to ease increasingly tense traffic conditions, we scramble to save our old cemeteries from being raised to the ground to make way for establishments in the name of modernisation and modernity. In short we live in an age of dilemma, torn between the want to constantly “majulah” and the need to stay in touch with our past. We see that happening all over Singapore, and even more so in our beloved Katong.
Peranakan cooking is often thought to be complicated, elaborated, time-consuming and difficult to learn. Well, this is what many people think and some, expound or expect others to think. Yes there are indeed dishes in straits chinese cooking that have long ingredient lists and/or require more time to prepare and cook than others. But that is also true for most other cuisines which I know of. So the concept of the cuisine being “complex” and troublesome is to me much of a fallacy, perhaps used to instill some sense of apprehension or anxiety to newbies and the unwary, those who are approaching it for the first time. But this is often what I hear others describe Peranakan cooking to be. Sadly so, because in order to lead one to better appreciate the cuisine and hence the colourful culture underlying it, the last thing one wishes to hear is how intimidating and unapproachable it is. How should one embrace something which is so unachievable and intangible? So that the preparation of Peranakan dishes be left only to the exclusive who have inherited their ways of making from the grandmothers and bibiks of the faded past? It is a perpetuated thought by some that only through so, would the dishes remain “authentic”? Well， I choose to think otherwise…
There are a lot of simple dishes in Peranakan cooking, many which require much less time and effort to prepare than what had been described as being atrociously difficult. These would include dishes like kangkong masak lemak, ikan tempra, pong tauhu, udang masak nenas etc. Many of these simple dishes are cooked on a daily basis, and not just for the much-revered Tok Panjang. Afterall, how often does one hosts or attend a Tok Panjang at home? But surely one’s gotta eat everyday yeah? In fact, the ability to cook with ease, a table of dishes what may impress upon others to be difficult and painstakingly prepared, is what many would hope for. Minimal efforts to reap maximal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Now that, is a true blue bibik’s secret if you ask me…
I bought quite a bit of bamboo shoots, tau kwa and shrimp the other day for making the filling for Kueh Pie Tee and thus the perfect opportunity to make one of my favorite soups, Pong Tauhu. Peranakan cuisine is known for its rich flavours, be it spicy, sourish, savory or sweet but once a while, we come across a gem like Pong Tauhu whose flavours and presentation perpetuate simplicity and bliss. Unlike the Loak Mejah Panjang dishes, i.e. food cooked for a Tok Panjang like Hee Pio Soup, Pong Tauhu uses far less ingredients and requires less time to prepare. This lovely soup which bears the essence of Peranakan daily home cooking is nonetheless flavorful and gratifying.
Yes, MFF Penang Month may be over but I still miss the flavours of their kerabus, one of the highlights of Penang Straits Chinese cuisine. Heavily influenced by Thai cooking, the northern Peranakans create an assortment of toss-in salads that are light and refreshing yet so flavourful and wholesome, many of them are good as a meal on their own. The combination of sambal belacan with lime juice and sugar in the dressing is classic, creating a medley of flavours that makes the dish all the more moreish! Last month, I’d made Kerabu Kacang Botol (winged bean salad) and Kerabu Bok Hnee (wood ear fungus salad) last month for MFF Penang. Here I “reprise” the experience with another interesting Kerabu from Penang Peranakan cuisine that incorporates a lesser known ingredient – jellyfish in Kerabu Hai Tay.