Sample a Peranakan feast and discover innovative influences from multiple cultures.
I’ve heard people go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over Peranakan food in voices they usually reserve for supremely delicious treats. On a recent visit to Singapore, I decided to put this to the test. For the uninitiated, Peranakan food is a fusion of multiple cuisines. Chiefly Chinese, modified with local Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Indian and European influences. With every morsel of a Peranakan meal, you’re also sampling a piece of the country’s melting pot history.
In Singapore’s dynamic food scene, where emerging restaurants pop up each time you visit, true bliss lies in discovering authentic little places that have survived the brutal tide of morphing fashion and changing taste. True Blue’s chef Benjamin Seck, or ‘Baba Ben’ as he is fondly known, tells me that he’s sixth generation Peranakan and that he’s always innovating with this 200-year old cuisine.
Now I admit to having relished chicken in many parts of the world and yet when I think of the meat, it is always ayam buah keluak I’m thinking of — the welcome mat of any feast-day Peranakan meal. This translates as chicken stewed with Indonesia-style black nuts from the Panglum Edule tree, served with jasmine rice. The subtle sweetness and complexity of the meat and the gravy catches me off guard at first, but gradually wins me over. In fact, as the meal progresses I want to eat the gravy with just about everything. Soon I’m tucking into the leftovers of the friend sitting across from me, and I can see why many a cook’s reputation is sealed by how well he or she can prepare this repast.
But both Baba Ben and Peranakan cookbooks will attest to the fact that there are many ways to its preparation. Peranakan women of the past were skilled cooks who modified recipes depending on their cultural ancestry, to suit the palates of their families. This explains the regional variations and unique family versions of well-known dishes and desserts.
With the dessert of black glutinous rice — known as pulot hitam before me, we move on to sweeter things. Peranakan ladies, distinctly influenced by colonisation, love their teatime. They’d gather in the kitchen — that was always a female domain, a multipurpose station used also for ironing and minding the children — and over a session of cards and gossip, partake of tea and the most colourful desserts. The taste, the quality and presentation of these sweet-treats were of course paramount, if she were to showcase her skill adequately to her friends.
These mini-narrative histories are, as dish after dish arrives with breathless assault, like a man showing off his fleet of vintage cars: bakwan kepiting (crab and chicken meatballs), ngoh hiang (seafood rolls), beef rendang (beef braised in coconut milk), chap chye (mixed vegetables), and the celebratory longan tea — low in caffeine, as it uses not dried tea leaves, but just dried longan, and is believed to help blood circulation — appear before us.
Not just because I am in a fuzzy good mood from all that food, but objectively, The intimate Peranakan Museum next door is a find for anyone who wants to know more about the food and culture. Through a guided tour, via interactive panels and lively installations, one learns that the blue-and-white porcelain on which one eats at local Peranakan restaurants is only the stuff of everyday meals. The striking Nonyawear with its combination of bright colours and auspicious motifs, made of polychrome enamel porcelain, is reserved for festive occasions and special functions like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and the lunar New Year.
You’ll learn here the most singular facts. For instance, the reason why insects were painted on their dining-ware was because they wanted their rice bowls to overflow with food, the same way insects fill their garden in good weather. Or the reason one can eat with one’s hands or with fork and knife — thanks to Indian and colonial influence, but not with chopsticks — is because chopsticks are used for ancestor worship.
At a hawker centre that evening, I meet a man gobbling down the one-dish meal of Laksa, a heady mix of noodles, prawns, fishcake and cockles. He tells me it’s the real deal — as good as it gets away from his wife’s cooking. The next evening, thanks to his generous invitation, I find myself trying Laksa in his family home. And true to the Peranakan tradition, everywhere that I’ve tasted Laksa it has been slightly different. I delight in recipes that have passed down from one Nonya (Peranakan woman) to another. I admire the lion’s paw and eagle claw on the traditional furniture. But what I enjoy most is that when I taste the cuisine, I taste not just a multiplicity of cultures, but also openness to innovation.