Peranakan food: All about this Southeast Asian cuisine
(CNN) — One of the most interesting cuisines in Asia, Peranakan food is mainly found in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Bursting with flavor and color, it stands out for its blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian ingredients and cooking methods.
Main courses are usually rich in sauce and full of herbs and spices (the Malay influence), but often use pork and fermented soybean paste (the Chinese influence).
Food was often served at room temperature, as they ate with their hands, a Malay practice.
The roots of a culture and a menu
Peranakan culture originated in the 15th century when Chinese men moved south to seek their fortunes, later marrying local Malay women.
To be “Peranakan” means to be “locally born”, a term used by the community to distinguish themselves from the new Chinese immigrants who arrived in Singapore and Malaysia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The men were called “Babas” and the women “Nonyas”. There were also non-Chinese Peranakans, such as Jawi Peranakans and Arab Peranakans, but Chinese Peranakans were the largest group.
Peranakans are known to closely guard their family recipes, especially in the past. They spent entire days preparing and perfecting their meals. And since non-working Peranakan women were in charge of the household, the appearance and presentation of a dish became a way to show off their skills.
In Singapore, interest in Peranakan cuisine has been revived over the past two decades.
Receiving the award was a proud moment for Malcolm Lee, chef and owner of Candlenut. The fourth-generation Peranakan has taken over the kitchen from his mother, aunt and grandmother.
“It shows that even simple home-cooked meals can be enjoyed,” he says.
Here are 10 classic dishes that are a great introduction to Peranakan cuisine.
Ayam buah keluak (stewed chicken with black walnuts)
Ayam buah keluak is arguably the most famous Peranakan dish.
Think of Peranakan food, and ayam buah keluak is the first dish that comes to people’s minds.
The nuts come from Malaysian and Indonesian mangroves. Freshly picked buah keluak contains cyanide and must be fermented for a few months in the ground to reduce its toxicity. After the nuts are sold, they should be soaked and rubbed for a few days to get rid of the earthy taste.
Some like to cook the nuts directly with the chicken and sauce, but Wee removes the flesh and mixes it with marinated ground pork and shrimp before tossing it back into the nuts. Then she simmers it with chicken and a sauce made with lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chili peppers, shallots, coconut, tamarind and coconut milk to create an orange-brown stew that he best served with rice.
Babi pongteh (fermented soy braised pork)
Babi Pongteh is another quintessential Peranakan dish. The pork belly is simmered in a garlic and shallot paste, served with bamboo shoots. Some have replaced these with shiitake mushrooms or potatoes because fresh bamboo shoots are hard to come by.
What anchors the dish is fermented soybean paste and roasted ground cilantro, says Candlenut’s Lee. The paste adds umami, while the coriander powder gives it an earthy touch, which balances the heaviness of the pork belly.
The dish is garnished with crushed red and green chili, and you can put it over rice or scoop it up with a buttered chopstick.
Hee pio soup (fish mouth soup)
Hee pio soup is ideal for chilly days.
Courtesy of Sharon Wee and Marshall
Hee pio soup is more than just a fish maw. It contains a treasure trove of other goodies. Wee makes his own with meatballs, fishballs, chicken, cabbage and spring rolls with fish paste rolled in them, filling a bowl with savory pork broth.
The Peranakans had the soup during their Lunar New Year celebrations, she said. It was their fish dish, while the Chinese ate whole fish for good luck.
In Chinese cuisine, fish maw – the swim bladder of a fish – is a delicacy alongside abalone and sea cucumber. Wee says the soup, while seemingly simple, reflects the efforts that the Peranakans would do to serve a sumptuous meal.
Ngoh hiang (minced pork roll and prawns)
Ngoh Hiang is a fried beancurd roll filled with a juicy mixture of ground pork, shrimp, water chestnuts, onions and ground cilantro.
Some also like to add carrots, mushrooms and five spice powder. Then it is steamed and pan-fried.
Lee says he steams his buns the night before and lets them sit in the fridge so they’ll be crispier and browner when he frys them.
Because it’s tedious to prepare, Peranakans love to make batches of these rolls to freeze and serve whenever the opportunity arises.
Sambal belachan (shrimp paste chilli)
Spicy belachan sambal is not for the faint of heart (or stomach).
Huang Yuetao/Adobe Stock
Sambal belachan is the ultimate spice bomb. It goes well with everything, even plain rice.
The chilli is prepared by mixing belachan (dried shrimp paste), red chillies, kaffir lime leaves and a pinch of sugar. Sometimes roasted garlic and shallots are also added.
Traditionally, to make belachan, people dried krill in the sun, pounded it, formed into patties and then dried it in the sun. Nowadays they are available in the supermarket.
It can be served as a dip with calamansi lime juice squeezed in, or you can marinate meat or use it to sauté vegetables.
Satay babi (sautéed pork with chilli)
Satay babi is a dish that clearly shows the fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine, Wee says. It uses pork, which observant Muslims do not eat, and is fried with a chilli paste made from local spices and coconut.
Satay babi was one of the first dishes Peranakan girls were taught to make. It was a way for 12 and 13-year-olds to learn how to pound a mixture of lemongrass, candle nuts, chillies, shallots and belachan, before cooking it with the pork and the milk of coconut.
Since there are few steps and ingredients, it was a starting point before learning how to make more complicated dishes like ayam buah keluak.
Hati babi bungkus (minced pork dumplings and liver)
Hati babi bungkus is difficult to prepare but very easy to eat.
Courtesy of Raymond Khoo
Hati babi bungkus is a rare sight in Peranakan homes these days due to the labor demand, which means you have to try this dish of juicy, bouncy meatballs at a restaurant that serves it.
The pork liver must first be deveined and cubed, before being tossed with ground pork, shallots and ground cilantro, then wrapped in a pork or cow liner. Then the dumplings are steamed, fried and served with pickled mustard greens and chilli, says Raymond Khoo, who previously ran Singapore’s The Peranakan restaurant.
Being on good terms with a butcher is also crucial to preparing this dish properly, Khoo jokes, because you have to persuade them to bother removing the liner.
Gerang assam (sour and spicy tamarind sauce)
Gerang assam is one of the daily dishes in Peranakan which is cooked with fish or shrimp.
You start with a spice paste consisting of shallots, lemongrass, candle nut, turmeric, blue ginger, red chillies and belachan, then mix it with tamarind juice and a pinch of sugar, before simmering the seafood of your choice.
The tamarind, or assam, is what gives this dish a fresh, zesty flavor that’s worth every bite.
Chap chye (mixed vegetable stew)
Chap chye is a great option for vegetarians who want to try Peranakan food.
Courtesy of Lloyd Matthew Tan
Not a vegetable fan? Chap chye will change your mind. The mixed vegetable stew is a hearty pot of cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, lily buds, soy sticks and vermicelli cooked with fermented soybean paste and broth.
It used to be made with pork belly and shrimp, but you can easily turn it into vegetarian. Like babi pongteh, chap chye is a dish used in the worship of ancestors and deities, Tan says.
The chap chye tastes better the next day once all the ingredients have absorbed the flavors. And in typical Peranakan style, you eat it with sambal belachan.
Kueh ko sui (palm sugar cake)
Kueh ko sui is arguably the best known Nyonya candy.
Chee siong teh/Adobe Stock
Here is the dessert! Peranakan food offers a plethora of sweet treats, and kueh ko sui is one of them. The moist, wonky cake is simple to make but requires the right ingredients and measurements to be perfect.
The cake is made by combining gula melaka (palm sugar), rice flour, tapioca flour and lye water. The mixture is steamed, cubed and mixed with freshly grated coconut.