Learning to cook with local ingredients can help a person feel more at home in a new country. Before moving to Singapore, Australian Sue Mannering had never heard of the Peranakans and thought a wet market meant making purchases whilst wearing galoshes. A cooking course on the East Coast also turned out to be a lesson in culture, food shopping and ‘targeted pounding’.
Who are the Peranakans?
According to the Peranakan Museum’s Visitor Guide, Peranakan means ‘child of’ or ‘born of’ in Malay and is used to refer to people of mixed ethnicity in South East Asia, particularly in the Straits. The majority of the Peranakan community is made up of Chinese Peranakans who initially settled in Malacca, Java and Sumatra but in the 19th Century, drawn by trade, migrated to Singapore and Penang.
Some cooking magic Peranakan-style
Intrigued by the word and the culture, I decided to participate in a Peranakan cooking course at Cookery Magic, hosted by Ruqxana Vasanwala. The recipes on the course sounded charming with names I found hard to wrap my tongue around like Ayam Tempra (chicken in soy sauce and lime) and Gulai Ikan (hot and sour fish).
Accompanied by my mother and daughter, who were on holiday in Singapore, we entered a kitchen in the back of Ruqxana’s East Coast home. There were woks sitting on portable gas burners, cooking utensils hanging from every available space and five cats resting in various poses.‘The style of cooking associated with the Peranakan culture is called Nyonya, the Peranakan name for women,’ said Ruqxana. Soon we were pounding garlic, shallots and chilli into a paste with a mortar and pestle. ‘The rempah (spice paste) is the most important part of the cooking process,’ said Ruqxana,. She inspected our work. ‘You’ll have to do some targeted pounding,’ she said and pointed out specks of chilli and garlic that were almost invisible to the naked eye. ‘You want the rempah smooth.’ Our hands were aching but Ruqxana said using a food processor doesn’t release the spice flavours as well as pounding. Nor will it produce a paste of the same texture.
Ruqxana dry roasted belachan, a dried shrimp paste, by taking a teaspoon of it and placing the spoon over an open flame for a few seconds. She added it to the rempah. This shrimp paste, which has a sharp odour, is a common ingredient in Peranakan cooking. As Ruqxana added spices to a heated wok to release their flavours, she sprinkled her cooking with stories of Peranakan traditions. For example, a Nyonya woman could tell if her future daughter in law was a good cook by listening to her pound the rempah.Then the magic happened. ‘Taste this,’ said Ruqxana and proffered a spoon she had dipped in the sauce in the wok. She wanted to know if the flavour should be adjusted for sweet, salty, spicy or bitterness. It was perfect, I thought. I could detect each flavour and yet it was a delicious complex mix that ended with spicy. Ruqxana insisted I taste again. Sweet, I decided, and in went more palm sugar (gula melaka), and more chilli.
The wet market
All the ingredients we used that day can be purchased at my local wet market, a market that isn’t wet but sells fresh fruit, meat, seafood and vegetables. I also discovered belachan, coconut cream, assam (tamarind), dried chilli, dried prawns, a variety of bottled sauces and pink torch flower (which the stallholder presented to me for free). It makes a nice contrast to strolling down a supermarket aisle with a trolley.Now, my favourite purchase from my local wet market sits beside the food processor on my kitchen bench – a heavy, black mortar and pestle.
Peranakan food facts
There are regional differences in the preparation of Peranakan food. A dish from Penang could use more tamarind, making it Thai in flavour. One from Malacca might use more coconut milk, which is an Indonesian influence.
Sue Mannering is an ANZA member who contributes to the ANZA Guide to Singapore and the ANZA Magazine. She’s also the author of the Singapore Food Diaries blog.