Taking center stage at this year’s Ubud Food Festival, Peranakan fare is an amalgamation of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian cuisines. Also referred to as nyonya cooking, an old Malay term of respect for women, Peranakan flavors were spotlighted at the festival during two workshops hosted by Debbie Teoh, a chef, author and a loyal supporter of the flavorsome cooking style.
Debbie is a true nyonya—her mum is a nyonya from Penang and her dad a baba from Malacca—who grew up in a family of food enthusiasts. She says that she got interested in cooking after finding out that the Peranakan dishes served at restaurants were not the same as she had grown up with at home. “My background is purely nyonya. I actually like to use the term Peranakan straits born,” Debbie says. “Peranakan means locally born and refers to the descendants of the Chinese settlers who started coming to the Malay archipelago way back in the 1600s, many of whom married local women. You can find many of us living in Malaysia, along the straits of Malacca, where Peranakans originated, hence the name straits born Chinese.”
For Debbie Peranakan cuisine is not just about food, it is a culture. Over the years, Peranakans have developed very distinct customs, dialect and forms of dressing, she says. Peranakans speak a form of Malay with Hokkien words thrown into the mix. The Peranakan way of dressing comprises the nyonya kebaya, a tight-fitting embroidered blouse, said to have been inspired by Malay baju panjang, a knee-length tunic worn over a sarong. “We have a lovely attire that includes the kebaya with different colors and motifs,” Debbie reiterates. “And since food plays such a huge role in Peranakan culture, we have different dishes for festivals, weddings, birthdays, periods of morning or other special events. Unfortunately, nowadays most restaurants mix all of these dishes together.”
Originating with Chinese immigrants in Malacca, Penang, Singapore and Indonesia, Peranakan cuisine is heavily influenced by region, as well as local tastes and ingredients. Peranakans have come up with their own interpretations of Indonesian and Malaysian dishes, and have infused Chinese dishes with Malay spices. The rich cuisine also incorporates colonial cooking styles, including Dutch, Portuguese and English, as well as elements of Thai and Indian fare. For example, the recipe for enche kabin skewers, or Penang nyonya fried chicken skewers, is made with Worcestershire sauce, a tangy condiment from England.
The flavors of Peranakan dishes are to a large extent determined by the spices used, which usually come in a variety of textures and densities. The intricate cuisine is also an antithesis of fast food in that it usually takes a long time to prepare. In particular, the meat and seafood need to be marinated for many hours prior to cooking to absorb the spices, which are often prepared in the traditional way using a mortar and pestle. “I would say that Peranakan dishes are similar to Malay cooking but the spices need to be ground more finely and sautéed for longer. This results in stronger flavors and fragrances,” Debbie says. “My favorite is a spicy paste made from lemongrass, galangal and shrimp paste, which gives the cuisine its distinct flavor.”
Peranakan cuisine can be divided into southern nyonya and northern nyonya cooking. The northern variation, which can be found in Penang, is flavored by Thai influences, and is more tangy and sour. Meanwhile, southern nyonya cuisine of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia is sweeter and contains more coconut milk. One of the most well-known Peranakan dishes is laksa, a soup with seafood and thick noodles, which has different seasoning depending on where it is prepared. Not surprisingly, the Northern take on the dish, asam laksa is more sour while the Southern taken on the dish, laksa lemak contains a lot of coconut milk.
While laksa is probably one of the most well-known Peranakan dishes, some of Debbie’s favorites include nyonya lepat kacang, glutinous rice and soya bean wrapped in triangular packets using attap leaves, and char siu pau, or buns filled with baked chicken. And while the dishes are all open to interpretation depending on whose kitchen they are prepared in, Debbie believes that any culinary experimentation should be approached with caution. “Do not try to change a recipe before trying it out. Follow it to the letter and change it later.”
Peranakan Cuisine in Bali
Hungry for some Peranakan dishes? Here are a few Bali restaurants where you can get a taste of the aromatic cuisine.
Nyonya’s Secret – nyonyassecretresto.com/id
Andrawina Restaurant – www.rumahluwih.com/
Tugu Bali Restaurant – www.tuguhotels.com/hotels/bali/dining/
For an in-depth insight into Peranakan recipes, check out her book “Debbie Teoh’s Favourite Recipes.”
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