What do you get when you take people of Chinese origin, plant them in British/Dutch colonies in South Asia and stir in local, i.e. Indonesian and Malay, as well as Japanese and Indian influences? You get Peranakans (that literally translates to ‘descendants’), and a cuisine that has soaked up the best of the many worlds it has been exposed to.
Originally Chinese migrants, Peranakans moved to the colonies of Malaya and Indonesia in the 15th and 16th centuries and married locally while imbibing local cultures and influences. With such varied influences, it is no wonder that Peranakan cuisine is as unique as it is familiar, and Singapore, one of the world’s smallest nations, is where you can find the best of it.
“Peranakans pay a lot of attention to food so most of their dishes involve elaborate preparation,” says Iris Chan, a 40-something tourist guide in Singapore, as she steers me to Blue Ginger, a well-known Peranakan restaurant in Singapore. Iris is Peranakan herself. “My grandmother used to tell me stories of how she was taken out of school just so she could learn to cook and embroider. The better a girl’s cooking and embroidery, the more marriageable she was, so girls weren’t allowed to study after they reached puberty,” she says.
But since times have changed, women work too and no one has the time to make such elaborate dishes, most classic Peranakan dishes are only found in restaurants.
Confluence of cultures
One such dish is the Kuah Pie Tee, a wafer-thin, cup-shaped tartlet that has shredded turnip cooked with spices at its base, a steamed shrimp on top, with a dollop of a tangy tomato-based sauce. Another is the Otak Otak, mackerel pounded with spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. But the dish that perfectly marries all cultures is the Ayam Buah Keluak, a spicy chicken dish made with Pangium Edule nuts. Locally known as ‘keluak’, these poisonous nuts are found in Indonesia and Malaysia. They contain hydrogen cyanide and have to be washed, fermented and steamed before they can be eaten. The entire process takes over a month. These hard nuts have soft insides, which can be scooped out and mixed with the chicken curry and rice. Their bitter-tangy-spicy flavour compliments the spices used in preparing the chicken (ayam). The nut is Indonesian, the method of preparation Chinese, and the spices are mostly Indian. “I think these dishes were originally prepared with Chinese herbs. But since those weren’t available, Peranakans started using spices brought by Indian and Indonesian migrants,” says Chan. The spices used are blue ginger, coriander, star anise, ginger and turmeric.
Indians love it
Dessert is the Peranakan version of a kheer: black, glutinous rice, cooked in coconut milk and gula melaka, or brown, palm sugar. “The rice is soaked overnight to soften the grains. It is then simmered on a low flame with coconut milk,” I used to watch my grandma make this. It’s a tedious process. You have to keep stirring the rice and periodically add more coconut milk and sugar,” she says.
The result is a creamy, textured rice pudding, usually served hot. This cuisine is popular not only with local Peranakans but also with tourists from China, Indonesia and India. Moreover, the food may be rich, but it’s very healthy and easily digestible.