The Peranakan food label is unique because unlike most ethnic identities, it is based on ethnicity and geography. From an ethnic perspective, the Peranakan Chinese (or Straits Chinese) people are descendants of Chinese immigrants, however, what makes them Peranakan is that their Chinese ancestors moved to the regions that are now Malaysia and Singapore and Indonesia from in the 15th century. Check out some of our fun facts about this unique Peranakan cuisine.
Peranakan Food Is Also Called Nyonya
The word Peranakan itself translates roughly to ‘locally born and bred’ and the popular idea is that the Chinese immigrants of the 15th century married locals and the result was a unique culture with entirely new traditional clothes, beliefs and cuisine.The Peranakan Chinese in Malaysia use the term ‘Baba Nyonya’ to refer to themselves. This comes from the Indonesian language where baba and nyonya are respectful and endearing terms for men and women respectively. As the women were primarily responsible for providing meals for the family and community, the result is that this style of cuisine is referred to as ‘Nyonya’.
China Meets Malaysia and Indonesia
Peranakan cuisine is a mix of Chinese ingredients and the spices and cooking methods used in Malaysia and Indonesia. This means that Peranakan cooking is paralleled to when chefs make dishes influenced by a variety of cultures – it becomes an interpretation of each dish based on preferred flavours and ingredients. Some of the signature ingredients used in Peranakan cooking include coconut milk, laksa leaves, lemongrass and tamarind. There are of course countless others as Peranakan cuisine is known for being highly flavourful, precisely because so many different ingredients are used in each dish.
Peranakan cuisine is also prone to be influenced by the region where it is being prepared. Whether in Penang, Malaysia or Singapore, the flavours start to reflect both the more popular tastes but also the availability of ingredients. An example of this can be seen through one of the most popular and well-known Peranakan dishes, laksa. When prepared in Penang, or northern Malaysia, Peranakan food is flavoured by Thai influences, leading to a more sour assam laksa as compared to southern Malaysia and Singapore where the Indonesian influence has resulted in the coconut milk-heavy laksa lemak.
Peranakan cuisine cannot be whipped up quickly but rather requires a high level of patience and advance preparation. In order for the meats and seafood to properly absorb the essential spices, they must be marinated for many hours before they can be added into the cooking process. Even the spices require preparation since fresh spices are ideal for strong flavours. The person cooking the dish will often use a mortar and pestle to grind the lemongrass, wild ginger and turmeric root that give Peranakan food its strong and distinct flavour.
As previously mentioned, the most well-known Peranakan dish is laksa. Regardless of whether it carries Thai or Indonesian influences, laksa is a soup with thick noodles, vegetables, cockles and prawns with the seasoning altering, depending on the regional influences. Penang was the place to first try this dish as it has earned the title of ‘hawker food capital’ in Malaysia. Mee Siam is another popular dish, which is a noodle dish unsurprisingly influenced by Thailand. In this dish, thin vermicelli noodles and shrimp are stir-fried in a tamarind sauce and then seasoned liberally with kalamansi limes (tiny limes that are sweeter than regular ones) which give this spicy dish a fresh-tasting finish. Finally, the last food that you must know about and sample while visiting Malaysia or Singapore is rojak. Rojak is a spicy salad with pineapple, guava, green mango, peanuts and sesame seeds. The dressing is made from a thick prawn paste and Thai chillies to give the dish an extra kick.
Don’t Forget About Dessert!
Finally, the most important part of the meal. Because of the disparate influences on Peranakan culture, there is a huge variety of Nyonya desserts. What you will commonly see are Malaysian ingredients, like sweet potato and yams, combined with coconut milk or glutinous rice. Chinese ingredients like red beans and even mung beans also make frequent appearances in Peranakan desserts. Two very popular desserts are burbur cha-cha, which is a porridge made with sweet potato and sago then flavoured with rock sugar and pandan, as well as cendol, where a bowl is layered with what look like green candies which are made from green pea flour and then covered in red beans. These two layers are then covered in a mountain of shaved ice and rice which is then drizzled with coconut milk.