Thursday, February 1, 2007

Singapore Food: The Cuisine of the Peranakan Chinese

One of the joys of living in Singapore is the wide variety of food that is readily available because of our multiracial society. It is not at all extraordinary for one to have Roti Prata for breakfast [Indian pancake eaten by dipping into a curry of lentils, vegetables and potatoes]; Nasi Padang for lunch [Malay rice with an array of many small side-dishes of meat, fish, vegetables], Chinese Claypot Chicken for dinner [ chicken, Chinese sausages, salted fish, and mushrooms cooked together in a claypot]; and Frog congee [porridge] as a late night supper. But one of the rarer cuisines of Singapore is Peranakan cuisine

Peranakan is the Malay word for " descendants". Peranakan Chinese are the descendants of Chinese immigrants to the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, who came without their wives, but eventually married the local Malay women, and partially adopted their customs, cuisine and dressing.

The Peranakan, also known as Baba [male] Nonya [female] or Straits Chinese developed a unique cuisine which was a fusion of Chinese and Malay elements in food and cooking. Making use of the plentiful spices available in their new home, their womenfolk concocted elaborate dishes which often took hours to prepare. On my mother's side, I am a Peranakan, and on my father's side, I am a Fukien [Hokkien] Chinese. In contrast to the rough and ready, hearty peasant dishes of Hokkien cuisine, Peranakan dishes are delicate and require great cooking skill.

Above, are two Peranakan dishes: Right: Peranakan Sausage Left: Chap Chye, A stew with at least a dozen ingredients. The topmost picture is 'Sambal Belachan', which is a dried shrimp and chili paste, that is a staple of Malay and Peranakan cuisine. It can be likened to a Salsa dip, and is eaten as an accompaniment to most meals, much like Korean Kimchi or Vietnamese fish sauce. It is fiery hot! The two dishes shown are often eaten during Chinese new Year, and I cooked these dishes for just such an occasion, while back in Singapore. It would be very difficult to replicate these dishes, here in the USA, as some of the ingredients would not be available, and even if available, would not be of the quality demanded.

Description of Peranakan Sausage This dish is pork, shrimp and water chestnut, minced, seasoned and wrapped in bean curd skin. The seasonings are Light Soya Sauce, White Peppercorn, a touch of Rice Wine, and a whiff of 5-Spice powder. The mixture is then wrapped up in the bean curd skin, and deep-fried in a wok until the bean curd skin is crispy, and the ingredients inside are cooked but still moist and tender. This dish is best served with a side dish of sliced tomatos, cucumbers, and pickled radish and cilantro. Eaten with sweet plum sauce and chili sauce, it is delicious as a snack food to accompany beer or wine.
Description of Chap Chye Chap Chye is a unique stew, mostly, but not entirely vegetarian in it's ingredients. The stew's flavor is from the pork bone stock, and the brown color stems from the soya bean paste. Below is a list of the ingredients in this stew: Exceptions and additions can be made by the individual cook.
Dried Tiger Lily Buds
Mung bean transparent vermicelli [ like noodles]
Belly pork
Dried Cuttle Fish
Pig's ears fungi
Dried Shrimp
Soya Bean Paste
Rice Wine
Light Soya Sauce
White Pepper
Chap Chye is best eaten poured over a plate of steamed white rice, with a dollop of Sambal Belachan stirred in.
On Sambal Belachan . Sambal Belachan is a whole subject by itself. Every cook has his own recipe for Sambal Belachan. Although the basic ingredients are Chili and Dried Shrimp, Sambal Belachan can be very different from cook to cook, because of various additional ingredients that they may add. Minced garlic, onions, lime juice, tamarind juice, different types of chili, slices of a sourish fruit called Belimbing, etc can make each Samble Belachan unique. A common topic of conversation among Singaporeans is : which food stall has Sambal Belachan that one would die for.
Good, authentic Peranakan cuisine is seldom found outside the home. Because of the time taken to prepare, it is not something commercially profitable for restaurants to feature it. If and where there is a Peranakan restaurant, it will usually have premium prices. Another reason for the lack of this cuisine is that there are fewer cooks who are familar with this old cuisine, as the older generation of Peranakans pass away.
Peranakan cuisine is something to die for! I do not think there is a single restaurant in the USA which has authentic Peranakan cuisine. Malaysian cuisine yes, [even then, it's usually a disappointment], but not Peranakan cuisine. Some other classic Peranakan dishes are:
  • Buah Keluak: a black colored stew of pork and chicken made with the Buah Keluak nut. A bitter tasting nut that is like Ambrosia to true-blue Peranakans.
  • Fish Maw soup: Fish maw [stomach], cabbage, pork balls and fish balls in a clear soup.
  • Mackeral Fish filled with Sambal Belachan and grilled in Banana leaves and sprinkled with lime juice.
  • Shrimp and Pineapple cooked in a slighly sweet, sour, spicy soup made yellow by Tumeric and flavored with Lemon Grass
  • Duck and Pickled Mustard and Tomato soup
  • Belly Pork marinaded in a mixture of Chili, Tamarind juice, Cinnamon, Lemon Grass and Ginger
  • Fried Ladie's Fingers [Okra] with Chili and Dried Shrimp
  • Pig's Stomach Soup with White Peppercorn and Ginko Nuts.

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