SINGAPORE: Without a shadow of a doubt, whenever my Peranakan family and circle of friends have a social gathering, food is the main attraction.
When you think of Peranakan culture, your mind immediately wanders to the sights and smells of Nyonya cooked.
For the uninitiated, Nyonya is the term for Peranakan women – when housekeepers took pride in pounding over 10 different spices to make rempah, a dough that eventually becomes garang assam (lemongrass fish) or sambal udang (spicy shrimp) according to the exact mixture, and set the long dinner table (tok panjang) for the family with dishes on dishes, lovingly cooked for many hours served on a stove.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
Food is such a way of life that you hardly ever hear a Jati (what we call a real blue Peranakan) says she is on a diet when we get together for a meal.
Peranakans simply flow with descriptive words about the food: Shiok lah! Sedap lah!
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These are phrases that testify to our deep satisfaction with a range of Peranakan dishes, which have found their way into traditional Singaporean cuisine, as much as these words have become standard phrases spoken by Singaporeans while enjoying a good meal.
Whether ayam buah keluak, itek Tim, itek sio, babi pongteh or chap chye, all accompanied by a spoonful of sambal belachan with a sprinkle of lime for an extra boost, there is less stuff that gets the Peranakans into a frenzy as a talking note Baba restaurants in Singapore.
Most of the time, Peranakans swear the best food is found in the homes of lovable grandmothers who go to great lengths to wash, dry, open, and pound the humble. Buak Keluak – the center of the most famous Nyonya dish, whose unique family recipe is the secret pride and joy of most Peranakans.
ARE YOU PERANAKAN IF YOU CANNOT FEED PERANAKAN MAKAN?
While most Peranakans love to eat, especially to eat our heritage dishes, does that necessarily mean all Peranakans can cook them?
I find this standard of judging itself somewhat harsh and reductive of field crops with a long history.
Do we think all Hainanese should know how to cook chicken rice? That all Malaysians should know how to do rendang? That all Indians should know how to cook rasum? Do all Scots know how to haggis?
The art of savoring a particular dish is not synonymous with mastery of the kitchen.
We cannot assume that all Peranakans are looking to cook. In fact, we also shouldn’t assume that all Peranakans will like to eat. ayam buah keluak, just as we cannot assume that all Malaysians will like rendang, Indians, rasum, or the Hainan chicken rice. I know for sure that not all Scots like their haggis.
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However, you may be richer to be able to distinguish your lengkuas (blue ginger) from your bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) and how to magically bring the different ingredients together so as to produce a truly delicious, lip-smacking dish that people talk about long after the dish has been devoured.
A CULTURE BASED ON GATHERING
The Peranakans of Singapore are very lucky. Our island is small enough to easily gather with other Peranakans. We have the opportunity to meet quite frequently to celebrate our culture and our heritage.
We can practice some of our many customs, or talk about them to keep them at the forefront of our memory. There is no doubt that we seniors live in the hope that more Anak Peranakan (our young Peranakan) want to participate and be inspired to carry on our traditions before we eclipse our clogs.
But if you ask me what images come up in my mind when someone asks me what it is like to be Peranakan, I would point you to our gatherings – for our Malam Joget, our Peranakan Ball, or Chakap Chakap Baba at the Peranakan Association of Singapore.
The first is the casual flamboyant dress party in colorful and resplendent Peranakan outfits with bling-bling jewelry for to jog or dance the night away. You might be amused to know that our Babas (The Peranakan men), are also allowed to happily flaunt their style – with shiny brooches, sparkly shirts and sarongs.
KEEPING THE LINGO ALIVE
The other part of being Peranakan is the language. AT chakap it’s talking. Chakap Chakap Baba is our attempt to keep our unique Peranakan dialect alive by making conversations in our own language.
In my growing years, we didn’t have to study Mandarin, so the majority of us studied Malay in school which is the parent language of our patois, incorporated with Hokkien words.
Of course, a lot has been lost over the years, but we persevere. We organize language lessons to remember our special jargon and sing songs.
These various activities make us an inclusive group to some extent. It is this inclusiveness that is a huge advantage in keeping our culture strong and alive.
The birth of the Peranakan Museum, Baba House and other private museums, not to mention the media influence of The Little Nonya series, all help showcase a culture that was practiced quietly in the privacy of homes.
FOOD IS A HUGE PART OF OUR CULTURE BUT NOT THE ONLY THING
To suggest that a Peranakan who cannot cookyam buah keluak cannot be considered a Peranakan is way too radical in my opinion. Cooking is just one aspect of a layered heritage and culture.
In the past, girls usually did not go to school or work. Learning to cook, embroider and make a house were her priorities.
Young women today have to have full-time jobs and be wives and mothers. Naturally, the kitchen must take a step back.
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Culture must change over time. If we are too rigid, set too many rules, impose irrelevant customs, we will scare the young. Then they will reject our inheritance. This is where all is lost.
THE WAY TO MAKE AN EXCELLENT AYAM BUAK KELUAK
Having said that, let me end with a tip for making an excellentyam buah keluak like mothers used to do in this modern age without the old hassle.
This dish is the caviar of Peranakan cuisine. It is an acquired taste. The richness of its sauce comes from Buah keluak nut that grows on a kepayang tree, now a heritage tree in Singapore.
It has a hard, grooved shell on the outside and the inside is soft and black. However, it does contain hydrogen cyanide, so be very aware. Most of the work involves preparing the fruit to remove the poison.
The producers have plucked the nuts and bury them in the ashes for months. Then they are cleaned, ready for use. But the cook still has to soak the nuts for days before using them, rub them in and change the water every day.
Before cooking it with your chicken pieces, you need to crack each nut on its lip, scrape the black inside, mash it with a little gula Melaka, and then reinsert it into the nut. The process takes time.
The way of the cheater is a modern development. Nowadays, producers market the nuts, already out of their shell. So what you get is a clean black fruit.
You can purchase these ready-to-cook nuts at Tekka Market and Geylang Serai. No more hard work and messing around to clean and scrub the shell.
You mash five or six and mix the batter with your chicken pieces. I find it does not compromise the taste at all.
But diehards still prefer the sauce with the nuts still in their shells.
While eating, they may insist on using a special spoon to hollow out the dark, natural interior. This cult of the fruit is a practice well shared by Malaysians and Indonesians who use this nut to make Rawon sauce.
The right dose of fresh chili peppers, candles, asam and coconut milk will turn this strange nut into one of the most unique and mouth-watering dishes in Peranakan cuisine.
I hope this tip will encourage young Peranakans and budding cooks to have a go at preparing the dish.
But don’t worry if you’re a struggling Peranakan unable to cook. ayam buak keluak. And be nice to the nyonya bahru (young Peranakan) who could give it a try but can’t cook up a dish as good as Nenek’s (Grandmother).
Josephine Chia is the author of numerous books, the most famous of Kampong Spirit: Gotong Royong, Goodbye My Kampong and the children’s edition, Growing up in Kampong Potong Pasir, and more recently, Big Tree in a Small Pot.