Malacca was a crossroads of the sea, where traders from all over the world would meet to trade valuables, including foodstuffs and spices. Malay Chinese cuisine got a boost when a Chinese Emperor sent the Princess Hang Li Po as a bride for the Sultan of Malacca, marking the first official Chinese presence in the Malayan Peninsula. The Peranakan culture arose from the early settlers who intermarried and integrated with local Malays, creating a unique culture and a delicious array of dishes.
It was the Peranakan that played a crucial role as traders during the British Colonial era, when thousands of Chinese men came to the peninsula looking to make their fortunes in the tin mines and spice plantations. The majority of these much-needed workers were from the Southern provinces of China, and while a few of them did make enough to return home wealthier, the majority never made the trip back, and died poor, exhausted and opium addicted.
Quite a few of these early Chinese migrants became merchants and craftsmen, serving their fellow countrymen and a growing European gentry. Many became very wealthy and contributed to the overall growth of Singapore, both economically and culinary.
Making their mark on the local foodscape, in different neighborhoods of old Chinatown you could find the aforementioned styles of provincial Chinese cuisines, mainly Cantonese, Hainanese, Teochew and the Hakka styles of cooking. While not as spicy as Malay or Indian food, Straits Chinese dishes are definitely influenced by the local spice rack. Many Straits Chinese dishes are unique to Singapore and are not found anywhere else, such as the famous Singapore Chili Crab.
Lauk Embok Embok is known better locally as Nonya, named after the women who cooked it, or by the British as Straits Chinese. A 400-year old cooking tradition that is an interesting fusion of Chinese and Malay dishes beginning with the Peranakans of Malacca, it’s the result of intermarriages between Chinese immigrant workers (babas) and local Malay women, the nonyas. ‘Peranakan’ by the way, means ‘descendants’.
Nonya food can be found throughout the Straits from Penang to Singapore. Due to geographical separation and the passing of the centuries, subtle yet distinct differences have separated the cooking styles of the Penang and Singaporean Peranakans from those in Malacca. Due to proximity, there is a notable Indonesian influence on nonya cuisine of Singapore. Malaccan nonyas prepare dishes that are on the whole sweeter, with more liberal use of coconut milk, dominated by Malaysian spices like coriander and cumin. In Penang, the Nonyas drew inspiration from neighboring Thai recipes, resulting in a preference for a more sour taste, seasoned by hot chilies, fragrant wild herbs and the liberal use of beelacan, a pungent black prawn paste which westerners might be more inclined to toss out than keep in their fridge.
Regardless of the influences, nonyan dishes are not simple to make, many of the recipes that look simple actually take hours to prepare. This is the result of the cultural habit of restricting the nonya women to the inside of the family home, where they had ample time to experiment in the kitchen, the tasty results of which many people still enjoy today. Fiercely proud of their cooking tradition, it was said that nonyan mothers would not let a marriage go forward for their sons if the wife was in any way deficient in making the traditional pastes, such as rempah. To listen for the pounding of spices by the young potential brides was all it took to determined if she was a suitable candidate!
This is because spices play such a very important role in nonya cooking. Many of the families were involved in the spice trade, and a firm knowledge about blending spices was critical to financial success. A lot of the world’s most famous spices, such as plant roots like galangal, turmeric and ginger and the aromatic leaves of the pandan, lime tree and laksa plant come from Peranakan trade. Other ingredients like Asian shallots, candlenuts, shrimp pastes and a variety of chilies were staples of nonyan recipes and spread around the world because of them. The widespread use of lemons, tamarinds, carambola and green mangoes give nonyan dishes that tangy zest so favored by many.
The laksa leaf give us the traditional dish of laksa, a spicy noodle curry soup which varies from stall to stall between the sour asam laksa of Penang style, and a coconut milk-based laksa lemak more popular in Southern Malaysia and here in Singapore. Be warned however, that a bowl of laksa can play havoc on your intestines.
As mentioned, what gives laksa its unique flavor is rempah, a combination of delicate spices pounded into a paste by hand until it reaches a particular texture and density. Laksa lemak is made with a rich, slightly sweet and strongly spiced coconut gravy; in fact Lemak is a Malay culinary description that specifically refers to the presence of coconut milk in a dish.
More popular here in Singapore is Katong laksa, from the, you guessed it, Katong area of Singapore. The noodles are traditionally cut into smaller pieces so that the entire dish can be eaten with a spoon alone eliminating the need for chopsticks or for us barbarians, forks. Next to Chilli Crabs, Katong laksa battles for first place as Singapore’s number one national dish.
Popular with the multitude of guest workers here is Sarawak laksa from the town of Kuching on the island of Borneo. What makes it so different from the curry laksas is that the soup contains no curry at all! Instead there is a base of sambal belacan, with sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemon grass and coconut milk. Traditionally topped with chopped omelet, chicken or prawns, fresh coriander and a wedge of lime, it’s a hearty meal for a long day of working.
There are just some of the many laksas available from the Peranakan kitchen (perhaps because it is the one nonya dish that doesn’t require hours to make), and other variants of this wonderful curry dish include Penang laksa with hints of tamarind, mint and is made with mackerel; Johor laksa with dried prawns, lemon grass, bean-sprouts (taugeh), pickled white radish and spaghetti instead of the normal rice noodles; Ipoh laksa from the Malaysian city of Ipoh, with a more sour flavor; Kuala Kangsar Laksa which uses rice flour and is very different in shape, taste and smell than any of the others.
It’s so popular the municipal council of Kuala Kangsar even built a complex called “Kompleks Cendol dan Laksa” near the river bank of the Perak River; Perlis laksa is almost the same as Penang laksa, but sliced boiled eggs are added and the soup is made of eel flesh; Kelantanese laksa has distinctive white noodles served in rich, creamy white gravy with curry and vegetables, and is made differently in every part of Malaysia; Laksam, a specialty of the Malay state of Terengganu, is made with very thick flat rice flour noodles in a gravy of coconut milk liberally sprinkled with chunks of boiled fish, so thick it is eaten with hands because of the gravy’s thick consistency.
Other examples of nonyan specialties include the ever popular otak-otak, usually served with laksa as a side, made by mixing mackerel or prawn paste with a mixture of coconut milk, chili paste, shallots, galangal and herbs, then wrapped in a banana leaf to be grilled or steamed. The word ‘otak’ in behasa Malay means ‘brain’, as the dish somewhat resembles brains, being all soft and squishy and has a similar color. Not sure about the taste though…
Buah Keluak, the hallmark of Peranakan cooking, is a distinctive dish combining chicken pieces with nuts from the kepayang tree to produce a rich sauce; once you acquire a taste for it, you’ll rather quite enjoy it, a bit like durians. Prepared the traditional way, each of the big dark nuts has to be hand cut with a slit large enough to get the meat out. A dangerous task, but it needs to be done to dig out the contents of the nut mixed with gravy with thin round chopsticks. Itek Tim, is a duck soup made with salted vegetables and the meat of a pig’s foreleg, boiled, then simmered, to bring out the flavors of the tamarind and ginger, you’ll end up with a soup that is salty, savory and yet sweet due to the preserved sour plums.
Nonya desserts are most famous of all, like nonya cakes (kuih) made from ingredients such as sweet potato, sticky glutinous rice, palm sugar and coconut milk, all guaranteed to add inches to your waistline if you overindulge.
Three worthy places for Peranakan in Singapore:Plaza Market Café (Level 2, Fairmont Singapore) 80 Bras Basah Road Singapore 189560 TEL +65 6339 7777 FAX +65 6337 1554 email@example.com www.fairmont.com
Chilli Padi Peranakan Restaurant, 11 Joo Chiat Place, (S) 486350
Opening Hours: Lunch: 11:30pm – 2:30pm, Dinner: 5:30 pm – 10:00pm, Tel: 6275 1002, www.chillipadi.com.sg
Guan Hoe Soon Restaurant, 214 Joo Chiat Road (S) 427482 Opening Hours: 11:am – 11:00pm, closed on Tues. Tel: 6344 2761, Fax: 6440 5650, www.guanhoesoon.com
Ivin’s Peranakan Restaurant, 19/21 Binjai Park (S) 589827, Opening Hours: Lunch 11:00am – 3:00pm, Dinner 5:00pm to 9:00pm, Tel: 6468 4060
Text by Jeffree Benet for The American Club Singapore. Photos courtesy of the Fairmont Hotel.