A Guide to Peranakan Food
It’s become a buzzword we throw around, but do any of us actually know who the Peranakans are? And why do we, quite suddenly, seem so enamoured with their food? Quisine has some questions and answers to help you out next time the conversation turns to Peranakan food.
What does ‘Peranakan’ mean?
Peranakan refers to the descendants of any foreign immigrants to the Malay Archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries. The initial migrants were usually workers and almost always men. In Singapore, however, the term now only refers to distant descendants of Chinese immigrants.
What’s so special about the Peranakans?
Many Peranakans from around the Malay Archipelago flocked to Singapore to find work after it became a British colony in 1819. In the first census taken in British Singapore, these Peranakans were labelled Chinese and they adhered to many beliefs and customs influenced by China.
Their language, fashion and food, though, was more like the indigenous Malays. They also became very cosy with the British colonial rulers who found them useful when trying to develop Singapore as a major global port. The Peranakans in colonial Singapore therefore held a much higher social standing than the Chinese or Indians.
But, the Peranakans’ affluent lifestyle was a distant memory after the Great Depression and WWII. Since then, the Peranakan community has been vulnerable to disappearance. All except their architectural style and, particularly in recent years, their cuisine.
What is Peranakan food?
An oversimplified explanation of Peranakan cuisine is to call it a blend of Malaysian and Chinese. An even simpler one is to say it’s distinct enough from each to be its own beast. On the surface, some Peranakan dishes are indistinguishable from Chinese. At other times it could be mistaken for Malaysian food, especially its rich soups and stews based pastes of pounded local spices.
But some features of Peranakan food do make it unique. For example, many Peranakan dishes feature pork, which is absent from Malaysian cooking for religious reasons. Meanwhile, Peranakan sweet dishes often differ to their Chinese counterparts thanks to the addition of coconut milk, shavings or molasses. To make it more confusing, some Peranakan dishes like laksa have left the Peranakan tag behind and are now seen as Malaysian or Singaporean.
Why am I only hearing about Peranakan food now?
Peranakan food has always been available in Singapore’s hawker centres. But when Singapore became a major tourist destination from the late 1980s, Peranakan food became a tasty icon of the cultural diversity Singapore realised it could promote to visitors.
In the last half decade Peranakan cuisine has made an even bigger jump – one out of Singapore. Peranakan now pops up in cooking shows, recipe books, restaurant menus and workshops around the world. With funky, contemporary Asian eateries opening all the time, European, North American and Australian diners have become more attuned to Asian culinary intricacies. They are now discovering Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai and other Asian cuisines – and Peranakan food is the perfect vehicle for exploring even further.
Not only does Peranakan food reveal to curious eaters new dishes and unfamiliar words but also new flavours and textures. Some staples of Peranakan food are acquired tastes like pungent fermented prawn paste and rich coconut molasses. Sour tamarind, bitter melon and the Peranakans’ heavy hand when it comes to chilli were in the past not that attractive to western visitors in Singapore.