Malaysian cuisine: Peranakan food

by Kathleen Pokrud
H. E. Dato’ Jojie Samuel 

With a foreword from H. E. Dato’ Jojie Samuel 

I was delighted when Kathleen first told me that she was interested to write an article about Malaysian food for Expat Life in Thailand. I knew that I could not refuse her proposal because I believe there was no better way to introduce Malaysia to our foreign friends than the delicious Malaysian cuisine. 

Trying out Malaysian food is a real gastronomic adventure. Our cuisine is literally a melting pot of different flavours that truly reflect the diversity of our country. Our cuisine is strongly influenced by Malay, Chinese and Indian ingredients, as well as the different cooking techniques. As a result of that, once you are in Malaysia and eating, you are already immersing yourself in the history and culture of our beautiful country. 

I am happy that Kathleen wrote about Peranakan food, which is a delightful fusion of the mixing Chinese and Malay cultures. I would like to congratulate the author for producing this article. I also thank her for the initiative to help us to promote Malaysia through “gastrodiplomacy”. 

To our dear and readers of Expat Life in Thailand which I believe is an excellent magazine, I do hope that you enjoy reading this article and that it makes you want to visit our wonderful country soon – rest assured my countryfolk will make you feel very welcome. 

Dato’ Jojie Samuel

Ambassador of Malaysia to Thailand

The culture of Malaysian cuisine

Malaysia is a multicultural country. This encourages the cultural diversity of the Malaysian cuisine. Many culinary traditions coexist in Malaysia, such as Indian, Chinese and Malay. Malaysian national cuisines are inherited from various generations and descendants. Multiple evolutions using different local ingredients combined with unique assimilations create delicious and stimulating dishes. The term “Gastrodiplomacy” is recently introduced to the world kitchen on how countries used their national cuisines to promote their countries. Malaysian cuisines with their rich combination of spicy, sweet and sour flavours are well placed to make Malaysia as one of the best practitioners in the world.

In 2018, Expat Life in Thailand wrote about Korean “kimchi”. Last December, the article on “Eight great traditions of Chinese regional cuisine” was very well received. This year, Expat Life is fortunate to have the assistance from The Embassy of Malaysia in Bangkok, to introduce our readers one of the cuisine that is woven into the fabric of Malaysian culture: Peranakan food.

The cultural significance of Peranakan cuisine

The word “Peranakan” comes with multiple meanings to signify “locally born” or “the offspring of intermarriage between a local and a foreigner”. Peranakan cuisine echoes the cultural identity of the Peranakans, which are both Chinese and localised. It is the creation that derives from cultural borrowing and innovation through combination of utilisation of local ingredients and non-Chinese principles of food preparations. According to Peranakan context, food serves three main purposes. They are to act as offerings to the deities and ancestry, to seal vows in society social relations, and celebrations for marriages and festivities. Despite the fact that the Peranakans have adapted many local cultural elements into their ways of life in Malaysia, the symbolism of Peranakan cuisine remains significantly Chinese. To simplify the understanding of Peranakan food, it can be broadly categorised into three main divisions. The first is traditional Chinese food with Hokkien flavour; the second is Malay style dishes and lastly comes the innovated versions.

The birth of Peranakan ethnic group

The Peranakans are localised Chinese that develop into a defined ethnic group with its own separate customs from the blending of Malaysian and Chinese cultures. The Peranakan communities in Malaysia are concentrated mainly in Melaka and Penang. They were descendants of the male seafarers who sailed from Southern China to the islands of Malay Archipelago. The first confounding settlements were believed to exist from the 13th century although the more official record settled on the 15th century. The Peranakans in Malaysia use the terms “Baba Nyonya” to refer to themselves, where baba and nyonya are respectful and endearing terms for men and women respectively. The Peranakan communities also address themselves as “Straits-born” or “King’s Chinese”.

The intermarriages between the immigrants and indigenous women were crucial during the early expansion of the Peranakan culture. However, the intermarriages lasted basically for one generation and with the hundred of years that followed, the Peranakan families married exclusively among their own communities.  Although these localised Chinese accepted and adapted various aspects of Malay life (food, dress, etc.), the religious practices faithfully remain Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucius without embracing Islam. 

Embodiment of the best of home cooking

Peranakan cuisine is extremely popular across Asia. Boasting rich food traditions with unique and mouthwatering flavours, these dishes offer travellers a taste of the celebrated history in Malaysia. Their women in the Chinese patriarchal custom households created this enriched and labour intensive cuisine, so this is fondly known as Nyonya food among the Peranakans. In the past, the Peranakan women were constantly in charge of the elaborate preparations of Nyonya dishes, as the kitchen was where they were confined without the privilege of getting an education outside the house. The family recipes of creating this cuisine are often closely guarded secrets and they are passed down from mother to daughter among generations. The perception of excellent cooking skills is the paramount benchmark of a “good woman” drove the Nyonyas to become meticulous cooks who vigorously aim to achieve perfection in their dishes in every aspect, from preparation to final presentation.

Adaption to the usage of local ingredients combined with the indigenous cooking fundamentals empowers the Peranakans to modify their Chinese food to the native surroundings. The Peranakans apply the Chinese cultural principles artistically with the local environment; result in new novel ones being innovated.  Peranakan cuisine can be readily distinguished from the mainstream Chinese cuisine based on the usage of local non-Chinese ingredients in the preparation process. The significant difference between Peranakan and Malay cuisine is the consumption of pork. In addition, this elusive cuisine received influences from Indonesia, Thailand, India, Holland, Portugal, and the UK resulted from colonial rule and commercial trading routes in the past.

There are many comparable ingredients used by Nyonyas and Malays. Common items include aromatic roots such as galangal, ginger, and turmeric together with fragrant leaves, namely betel, coriander, kaffir, laksa, and mint. Prominent spices being used include cloves, cumin, nutmeg and star anise. Chilli is the most significant spice commonly used by both groups, in either fresh or dried forms.  Other distinguished ingredients are coconut milk, curry powder, dried shrimps, lime juice, palm sugar, and spring onion. To preserve the meat under the tropical heat, the Peranakans used heavy spices in the seasoning. Dried ingredients borrowed from Chinese culture include dried mushrooms, fish maw, glass noodles, lily buds, rice vermicelli, salted soya bean paste, and wood ears. The Nyonyas creatively incorporate the widely available local fruits and vegetables such as banana flower, cucumber, sweet potato leaves, and young jackfruit into their dishes. 

The 3 distinctive categories of Peranakan cuisine

The first is traditional Chinese (Hokkien) food with some modifications by the Peranakans. Many of the common dishes in this category can be traced through their original Hokkien name, such as braised pork (sek bak) and mixed vegetable stew (chap chye). The Hokkien influence is significant in the fish and soup dishes such as fish maw soup (heepeow pioh) and salted mustard duck soup (kiam chye ark th’ng). There are unique dishes with names resulted in combination of Malay and Hokkien terms. Roasted chicken (ayam sio), roasted duck (itik sio), and stewed chicken (ayam tim) are good examples, as ayam and itik are Malay words for chicken and duck respectively while sio means roasted in Hokkien.  

The second category of Peranakan food is Malay style dishes, namely cooked chicken with keluak nuts (ayam masak buah keluak), fish in tamarind juice (ikan masak asam), herbal rice (nasi ulam), and prawn in chilli paste (sambal udang). Sambal is a typical Malaysian dish as it is a fusion between the Malay and Nyonya. It is widely served in many Malaysian households which main ingredients are chilli paste, red onions, shrimp paste, tamarind juice and seasoning.

The last category of Peranakan food is the fusion dishes innovated by the women in the households. Common dishes include fried tamarind prawns (udang goring asam), stewed chicken or pork with fermented soya bean (pongteh), glutinuous rice cake with coconut filling (kueh koci) and glutinuous rice dumplings (kueh chang Nyonya). Many of the variation of dishes in this category can be detected through their names in most cases. One example is pongteh where pong was mispronounced from the Hokkien word hong for stewing in soy sauce, and combined with the term teh being derived from the Hokkien word te for pig’s trotters, as Hokkiens in Malaysia still stew pork in soy sauce.

Aside from the main dishes, there are delectable condiments such as chilli with vinegar (chilli chukka), pickled mixed vegetables (acar awak), and shrimp based paste (cincalok). Laksa is another prominent dish of the Peranakans, which resembles an old Hokkien dish that used ground peanut that give it a sandy texture. 

As we understand Malay and Hokkien food cultures heavily influence Peranakan cuisine, the Nyonya cuisine of Melaka South and Penang North has diversified due to local inspirations. Drawing insights from Indonesian and Portuguese cuisines, the southern dishes are usually sweeter and less spicy with more generous usage of coconut milk. The northern part of Malaysia favour to enhance a significant sweet-sour or tangy taste with hot chillies and fragrant locally grown herbs. Due to the proximity to Thailand, Penang dishes are tinged with other elements and South Indian tastes. Another visible dissimilarity is the method of cooking. One good example is a local snack called otak-otak, spicy fish custard. Penang version is steamed to form custard like product while in Malacca, the snack is charcoal grilled to produce a rich smoky aroma.

In terms of desserts, the fastidious Nyonyas create fabrication of a vast array of colourful, delicate and flavourful cakes or sweets (kuehs), with culinary influences from the British, Dutch and Portuguese cuisines. The delicacies are consumed all day round as light breakfast, afternoon snacks and desserts. Steamed, baked or fried versions are readily available on the streets. One example of Chinese version is red tortoise cake (kueh ku or angku kueh in Hokkien), a red oval pastry made from milled glutinous rice stuffed with coconut or mung beans filling.  Peranakans claimed that kueh koci, a famous Penang dessert wrapped in banana leaves that made of glutinous rice flour filled with grated coconut and palm sugar, is related to them although it is also a popular Malay kueh.

The importance of ceremonial food in Peranakan culture

With the Peranakan communities, kinship is priced and food plays a special role in bonding families and forging friendship. The symbolism of Peranakan cuisine remains traditionally Chinese despite its localisation in Malaysia. Even though Malay culture such as customs, dress, food and language are readily embraced, keeping certain Chinese traditions, especially their Chinese identity and religion is still paramount. In the Peranakan context, food serves the purposes as offerings to the deities and ancestors, to seal vows and to build social relations during festivities. Special occasions such as birthday and wedding, or festival celebrations (Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival) call for different kinds of appropriate ceremonial dishes. 

Rediscovery of Peranakan culinary culture

The Second World War caused the demise and downfall of the Peranakans, as the women were forced to marry non-Peranakans with the loss of their male family members and fortunes. The long tradition was broken up and began the dwindling numbers of community. The Chinese community outnumbered Peranakans and their culture was slowly diluted as the century progressed. Modernisation and globalisation have further taken their tolls on the culinary eclipse of Peranakan cooking. Few Peranakans are willing to learn the labour intensive art and the knowhow is lost when the elders passed away.

Since the 1980’s, the Peranakan culture started to be rediscovered with the gradual realisation of the prior existence of this great heritage. Cookbooks started to enter the market and they act as an indispensable tool in rescuing the heritage from oblivion; paving a way for cultural reproduction, preservation and reinvention. In July 2008, Melaka and Georgetown are blessed to have their names inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. With more tourist arrivals, restaurateurs played cultural ambassadors’ role in emphasising the Peranakan identity.  

Malaysia is a country rich in wonderful blend of cultures. The Peranakan is dignified as a mark of national goodwill as it was born out of a unique synthesis of two opposite cultures. The Peranakan cuisine is strong representation of the cultural identity of the people who are both Chinese and localised. Although the food is very much bounded with the local environment, its symbolism remains traditionally and faithfully Chinese. The rich culture of Peranakan merits greater attention to be cherished and commemorated.

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