In the last few blogs, I posted about traditional Chinese dinners and banquets, meals that exude a level of refinement and a level of cooking that is indicative of top-quality Far Eastern cuisine. However, in this blog, I will be writing about a Peranakan or Nyonya meal that my family members and I enjoyed during our brief reunion in Malaysia, while on a side trip to the beautiful northern island of Penang.
Penang was part of the Straits Settlement, a trio of port-cities that were run by the British for a couple centuries beginning in the late 18th century. One of the settlements is the port of Malacca, which my father hails from. In all three ports, Singapore being the last, Chinese immigrants moved to this part of Southeast Asia for commercial opportunities beginning in the early 15th. Before then, these men were transient and returned to China, but in time, Chinese traders decided to set up homes in the tropics and some married the local womenfolk, producing the germinal stage for the Peranakan or Baba/Nyonya culture. At a certain point in history, China issued edicts that prohibited the movement of traders between the two countries, thus forcing them to claim these Southeast Asian ports as their home. In my estimation, the Peranakan culture is probably the first hybrid cultures in the world, before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas and before the existence of the Mestizo culture. In this posting, I will be describing dishes from my subculture, eaten at Ivy’s Place, located in Georgetown, Penang, while pointing out its differences to pure Chinese cuisine, and the various influences to the cuisine derived from a new Southeast Asian environment.
1) Lo Bak: Very few dishes in the cuisine qualify as appetizers but only one in particular can claim such reputation, Kueh Pie Tee (see blog). However, Lo Bak is close to being called one since it is a light bite. Soybean skin have been stuffed with a minced pork mixture, mixed with crunchy water chestnuts, and seasoned with aromatic 5-spice powder (cinnamon, coriander seed, star-anise, bay leaf, and allspice). The side of sour chili sauce. a non-Chinese condiment, is the perfect accompaniment to these fragrant meaty bites. This dish brought back memories of enjoying these tasty morsels in local coffee shops for breakfast or lunch.
2) Otak-Otak: This quintessential Nyonya dish is found in all Peranakan communities. Minced Spanish Mackerel is mixed with rich coconut milk, aromatic root herbs like galangal, turmeric root, and lemongrass, and made fragrant with Kaffir lime leaves and turmeric leaves. This mixture is spooned into fresh banana leaves and steamed until slightly firm. Here we see the use of purely Southeast Asian ingredients and seasonings. This concoction was a favorite of ours made by my paternal grandmother, and eating it was definitely a trip down gastronomic memory lane. However, the kitchen ran out of these parcels and all we got was a small but delicious taste – what a pity.
3) Itek Tim: This is one of the few clear soups found in a cuisine which tends to have heavier sauces instead. Pieces of duck and Chinese Pickled Mustard Green have been boiled together to produce a slightly sour soup enriched by the strong-flavored poultry. I remember this dish being served on auspicious days like marriages and Lunar New Year. Unfortunately, this version was not as good as grandma’s (we compare dishes to the home version like Italians do) who used Tamarind slices to add more of a sour punch, a few chilis for some heat (Southeast Asian sensibility here), and a shot of brandy to counteract any strong fowl flavor (excuse the pun). No doubt, the latter version was a hit in our household. Note: Soups are not considered a separate course, thus it is savored continuously throughout the meal.
4) Inchi Kabin: The peculiar name of this dish is perhaps derived when the cook in the ships would call the sailor or Captain (Encik/Inchi) from the cabin (Kabin) down for the meal when the chicken was ready. It is basically a twice-fried chicken seasoned with mild aromatics and matched with a sauce that includes Worcestershire sauce. Its mild nature and the use of the English seasoning are telltale signs that this dish is an adaptation for the Western palate, most likely British since they ran Penang island for a long period of time.
5) Ayam Kapitan: This aromatic chicken stew is much milder than the local chicken curries, but not short in flavor. The interesting name (Kapitan meaning Captain) and its mild flavor again points to locals modifying the nature of typical dishes to suit the taste needs of Westerners that employed them in their households. Many Peranakan men and women worked for the British in their offices or as part of the house staff. This is more of a Penang Nyonya dish, thus a bit of a novelty for my family during the meal.
6) Sengkuang Goreng: Here we have Jicama stir-fried with dried shrimps and Chinese mushrooms, seasoned with some light soy and darkened with some dark soy. Jicama is indigenous to Mexico and it was brought to Southeast Asia by the Spanish conquistadores when they arrived in the Philippine islands. This northern dish was new for me, and I enjoyed savoring it as a wrap with lettuce leaves.
7) Asam Ikan: It would be amiss to savor Peranakan cuisine without ordering this quintessential dish. Fish steaks have been poached in a soup made aromatic from lemongrass and galangal, spicy from some chili, and sour from tamarind. The topping of fresh mint and torch ginger flower (Bunga Kantan) adds a level of herbaceousness that makes this fish stew completely irresistible. The pieces of fresh tomato added to the soup’s sour quality, and the al dente okra added some textural contrast. This stew brought back memories of home dinners when it was served weekly during the 8 to 10 dish dinners that we grew up on.
8) Asam Udang: Whole prawns have been marinated in tamarind paste and some sugar, providing a slightly sweet and sour element to the mild sweet shrimp meat. Although I am used to the stewed version that we grew up on, I enjoyed this grilled version that made the shells crispy and completely edible. Similar treatment to pork belly was also a favorite in our family meals while growing up.
9) Bubur Pulut Hitam: This rice pudding is made with purple glutinous rice cooked with Pandan leaf (“Asian Vanilla”) and topped with a tropical touch of salty coconut cream. This was always a favorite of my family, and it was eaten both hot or cold at anytime of the day or night. A great end to this meal.
The dishes in this meal represent the essence of the Peranakan culture pointing to the assimilation of Southeast Asian ingredients and seasonings with a Chinese taste palate. This is evident from the use of coconut milk, tropical root aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric, the use of spicy chili peppers and sour tamarind, the use of herbs like mint, pandan leaf and torch ginger flower, the affinity for Jicama/Sengkuang (although originally from Mexico), and the balance of flavors mixing the sour, spicy, sweet, and salty. Yes, this food is indeed very complex in its flavor profile and equally time-consuming in cooking and realizing the final product; I know this too well since I used to watch both my grandmothers prepare the all-important large dinners starting in the wee hours of the morning. But this meal sitting was very rewarding on many levels, and we must have attacked the dishes like wandering gastronomes returning to something familiar and extremely soul-stirring. Despite all the culinary wanderlust within, this meal was the much needed homecoming for me and my family members, food wise and location. We just cannot get enough of this wonderful yet little-known cuisine. Hopefully, you will get to try some of its dishes, and then you will understand.
Watch a brief video on Peranakan Culture.