The Rundown on Peranakan Food in Singapore
We can all agree there’s nothing better than sitting down for a rich bowl of ayam buah keluak, laksa lemak or beef rendang.
However, have you ever stopped to wonder how these delectable dishes made their way to your table? Nope, they didn’t just fall from the heavens (good guess, though). Rather, you have the wonderful Peranakans to thank for some of Singapore’s greatest dishes found on the menu of restaurants on the island and all around the world.
The term ‘Peranakan’ has become quite the buzzword in today’s society. But who actually are they? Where did this multi-layered culture originate? And why is everyone so enamoured with their food? Here’s all you need to know for when the conversation turns to Nyonya food.
What does ‘Peranakan’ actually mean?
Peranakan is an Indo-Malay term that literally translates to native or local born. Their history can be traced all the way back to around the 15th century in the Malaysian state of Malacca. It was here that immigrant Chinese traders began to settle down and marry local Malay women. Over the next decades, local and Chinese traditions began to blend and form a whole new colourful and complex culture of its own. This is what makes Peranakan culture so unique to the island of Singapore.
Also known as…
Since many Peranakans were born in British-controlled areas of Singapore, Penang and Malacca, they were more commonly referred to as Straits Chinese or the King’s Chinese during colonial times. You may have also heard the word nyonya or baba thrown around a bit. Respectively, these terms refer to the Peranakan female and male descendants of these Chinese immigrants.
While the majority of Peranakans are linked to Chinese ancestry, there are small groups of Peranakan Indians, Arabs and Dutch in existence too.
What is so special about Peranakan culture?
The children of these mixed households were surrounded by a blend of Malaysian and Chinese beliefs, language, fashion and food. This early exposure to living in coexistence has positively influenced the way Peranakans express openness and embrace modern ideas. For example, Peranakan sons and daughters are given equal access to family fortunes as opposed to just the males (the standard common approach in traditional Chinese families).
They also developed close ties with the British colonial rules who found them useful when trying to develop Singapore as a major global port. Many of them were fluent in English and so were appointed leadership roles in the community. This is one of the reasons why they held a much higher social standing than the Chinese or Indians.
But, the affluent lifestyle of nyonya and babas was a distant memory after the Great Depression and WWII. Since then, the Peranakan community has been vulnerable to disappearance. All except those colourful two-storey shophouses and, of course, their distinctive cuisine.
What is Peranakan food?
Also known as nyonya food (named after the women who would traditionally cook the meals) Peranakan dishes are much more than just a blend of Malay and Chinese flavours.
On the surface, some Peranakan dishes are indistinguishable from Chinese. At other times their rich soups and stews that use local spices and coconut milk could easily be mistaken for food rooted in Malaysian or Indonesian cooking.
But if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll be able to spot the unique features of Peranakan food.
In a typical Peranakan kitchen, expect to find remnants of turmeric, gingers, galangal shallots, limes, tamarinds, pungent shrimp paste, mangoes, the signature rempah spice paste and more. These are people that weren’t afraid to get bold with their flavour combinations and invent epic dishes.
Five typical Peranakan dishes
1. Babi Pongteh
Unlike in Malaysian cooking, many Peranakan dishes are based around pork – one of the most famous being babi pongteh. Simply put, it’s braised pork in a fermented soy bean sauce with flavourings of cinnamon and star anise. A good babi pongteh should be tender and juicy, thanks to fatty cuts like pork belly or shoulder used.
2. Nyonya Laksa
Although Malaysia and Singapore are often given all the credit, the original laksa lemak is the handiwork of Peranakan nyonyas. Loved all over the world, this rich dish is a combination of rice noodles and seafood in a spicy soup made from rempah paste, chicken bones, prawn shells and coconut milk. A real hug in a bowl.
3. Ayam Buah Keluak
A lot of time and preparation goes into creating Ayam Buah Keluak, a flavour-packed stew made by braising chicken in a spicy tamarind sauce and enriched with the addition of keluak nuts. These large black nuts are found in Indonesia and require several days of soaking and scrubbing, to ensure all poison is removed. A labour-intensive task but one that is rather necessary.
4. Inchi Kabin
Inchi Kabin is not your average fried chicken, but it’s definitely just as delicious. The chicken is marinated in coconut milk and a blend of over ten spices (beat the KFC). Best served with a finger-lickin’ sweet, sour and spicy dipping sauce.
5. Kueh Salat
Sticky rice, coconut egg custard and pandan juice come together to create this two-layered quintessential Peranakan dessert. The rice is pressed together to form the base before pouring the fresh green custard layer on top. The results are beautiful and make for the perfect sweet snack.
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 food now pops up in cooking shows, recipe books, restaurant menus and workshops around the world. With funky, contemporary Asian eateries opening all the time, the world is becoming 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.
Where can I eat delicious Peranakan dishes?
Although the aforementioned dishes have sprung up in restaurants across London, Paris and Melbourne, the best Peranakan restaurants are of course in Singapore. The quickest way into Peranakan food is the famous nyonya cakes. These colourful morsels are often found in Singapore’s markets and stores.
However, those wanting to delve further into Peranakan flavours should definitely visit one of the city’s super cool and contemporary joints. Michelin-level chefs are even embracing the traditions of Peranakan food and using its fundamental principles to push Asian dining in new directions.
One such restaurant is Malcolm Lee’s Candlenut. This is a go-to for star chefs when they’re in town and has garnered high praise from foodies the world over. One of Lee’s most celebrated dishes is an updated version of ayam buah keluak. This iconic dish features the famous black nut along with a top-secret balance of spices, tamarind water, and – in place of the traditional Peranakan pork ribs – 120-day aged, grain-fed beef short-rib, cooked sous-vide for 48 hours.
Some may say such a twist is a bastardisation of Peranakan cuisine. However, this is a culture that understands the value of having an open-mind to outside influences and new ideas. So let’s hear it for the Peranakans: the most cosmopolitan, chameleon people in the island’s history.