Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Peranakan Cuisine has a beautiful blend of Food, Culture & Heritage since the 15th century
Many have been enjoying the beautiful flavours, colours and benefits of My Blue Tea's Butterfly Pea and Pandan superfoods. What some may not realise is that these two humble plants have actually been used for centuries in Malacca (Penang, Singapore and Indonesia) by the Peranakans.
The Peranakans were the first to create their own unique cuisine using Pandan and Butterfly Pea in their kuehs and a variety of dishes. These two ingredients have made Peranakan cuisine stand out and given it a distinctive colour and flavour that is so easily recognisable.
Today we take a trip down memory lane to savour the history of this beautiful culture.
The Little Nyonya
Recently, the drama series called The Little Nyonya has caught the hearts of viewers in Asia (and excited their stomachs too).
This is a 2020 Chinese remake of a classic Singapore drama The Little Nyonya from 2008. The leads were originally played by Singapore Mediacorp's Jeanette Aw and Qi Yuwu.
The 2020 version premiered on China Central Television (CCTV) on Sunday (June 28) quietly but it immediately topped Chinese microblogging site Weibo's real-time search rankings. A story set in the 1930s, the drama spans several generations of a wealthy Straits-born Chinese family in Malacca.
Shots courtesy from CCTV´s The Little Nyonya showing a typical Peranakan home kitchen and making of Nyonya kueh. You may watch the full episode and series on CCTV.
Food and culture is a vital part of Peranakan life and CCTV China has impressed us with their attention to this detail. We love how Peranakan food has been brought into the spotlight in a way that the original series did not. Just two minutes into the first episode, and we were already treated to idyllic scenes of a Peranakan home kitchen with beautiful images of delectable Nyonya kuehs. The camera clearly loves the colours and textures of these pert, elegant little delights. All that is missing is transmitting the smells and tastes of these kuehs. CCTV has done an excellent job and they have literally revived the heritage with these few simple scenes. It certainly made us ravenous at 2.00am with an insatiable craving for Kueh Dadar!
For those who cannot get enough of the series and want to go back in time, check out the original 2008 drama serial The Little Nyonya (Chinese: 小娘惹) from Singapore's free-to-air MediaCorp TV Channel 8 or Netflix.
It stars Jeanette Aw, Qi Yuwu, Pierre Png, Joanne Peh and Xiang Yun as the casts of the series.
The storyline, which circles around the biographical flashbacks of an extended Peranakan family in Malacca, is set in the 1930s and spans more than 70 years and several generations of three families.
So what is Peranakan?
Malacca is a state in Malaysia where it all began.
The term Peranakan generally refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage. It means locally born or the offspring of intermarriage between a local and a foreigner. Many Peranakans trace their origins to 15th-century Malacca where their ancestors were thought to be Chinese traders who married local women or Bataks from Sumatra. Peranakan males are known as Babas while the females are known as Nonyas (or nyonyas). While some Peranakans have retained many of their particular cultural practices, many have assimilated into the larger Chinese community today.
The Chinese Peranakan are the largest group of Peranakans in the Malay world, though there are other kinds of Peranakans such as Jawi Peranakan and Indian Peranakan. Nowadays, this marginalized group of people can be found throughout Malaysia and Singapore with the heartland in Malacca, Singapore, and Penang.
The Peranakans were also known as Straits Chinese as they were usually born in the British-controlled Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore. During colonial times, they were also known as the King’s Chinese in reference to their status as British subjects after the Straits Settlements became a Crown colony in 1867.
Immigrants from the southern provinces of China arrived in significant numbers in the Nusantara region between the 15th and 17th centuries, taking abode in the Malay Peninsula (where their descendants in Malacca, Singapore and Penang are referred to as Baba-Nyonya); the Indonesian Archipelago (where their descendants are referred to as Kiau-Seng. (source Wiki)
The primary role of food has evolved from what we consume merely for survival into something that encompasses culture, identity and history.
We all know the saying “you are what you eat”. Food is a powerful cultural symbol that gives a person (or group of people) their identity. Most people associate the food of their culture with warm memories of their childhood, and it becomes a form of comfort in difficult times. That is why when we feel homesick abroad, we reach for food that is familiar to us. It is our comfort blanket. Food is also what brings people together and when we share food from our culture with others, it becomes a way to bond and form connections. Food becomes an anchor and helps us feel grounded and stable in our relationships with others.
The Peranakan cuisine is a creation of the Nyonyas, women of Peranakan communities fostered by the intermarriage of offsprings of Fujian and Guandong seafarers who married native women. The Peranakan cuisine created through this blend of cultures is a way to nurture family relationships during auspicious celebrations, ceremonies, and ancestral worship.
According to Peranakan context, food serves three main functions: as offerings to the deities and ancestors, to seal vows, and as an indicator of social relations, for example, to celebrate marriages and the many seasons and festivals.
Despite the fact that the Peranakans have adopted many elements of local culture into their ways of life, the symbolism of their food remains Chinese. Three basic principles connect Nyonya cuisine and Chinese symbolism - colour, linguistic association and physical association.
Techniques of Peranakan Cuisine
Nyonya cuisine or Peranakan cuisine is the creation that came about from the cultural borrowing and innovation through contact with local ingredients and non-Chinese principles of food preparation.
Chinese cultural principles are used in the local environment by the Peranakans. Some principles have been changed and new ones created. The Peranakan cuisine combines Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients with Malaysian and Indonesian spices and flavours. The cuisine is also influenced by Thai, Indian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English techniques. This cuisine owes its existence to early Chinese immigrants who found that the local food did not suit their taste buds. With necessity being the mother of invention, as they were unable to cook their native food due to the unavailability of the ingredients, they innovated by creating their own dishes with local ingredients.
The kitchen was the dominion of the Peranakan womenfolk. These women spent hours in the kitchen as Peranakan cooking is famous for its painstaking and lengthy preparations that can take up to days.
Decline and Rise of Peranakan Culture
In the mid-19th century, the Peranakan culture suffered a setback - their wealth and status plummeted after the Japanese occupation and Malayan independence. The Peranakan culture went into a steep decline.
In the mid 80s, there was a revival of interest in the Peranakan culture with an increase in the number of Nyonya cookbooks and restaurants. It was a time of the Peranakan diaspora - globalization brought Peranakan culture to the consciousness of people around the world. Ethnic restaurants selling Nyonya dishes overseas helped the natives to reconnect with their mother country though the familiarity of the food that they served. For others, tasting a different ethnic food became a novel experience and a culinary adventure.
Characteristics of Peranakan Food
Nyonya food can be divided into three categories: The first is traditional Chinese (Hokkien) food with some alteration, the second is Malay-style dishes, and last but not the least are the innovated dishes.
The Nyonyas are famous for their colourful and delightful kuehs (cakes or sweets).
Nyonya food of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore are not completely alike.
Penang dishes are influenced by Thai cuisine due to their close proximity to Thailand with a touch of South Indian tastes. This factor gives the cuisine its special sweet–sour tangy taste. By contrast, Malacca and Singapore dishes have been inspired by Portuguese and Indonesian cuisines. The southern dishes are usually sweeter and less spicy than those made by their northern counterparts. They typically use a generous amount of coconut milk and Malay spices such as coriander and cumin.
We love our kuehs. We would be delighted to have one for each meal of the day. The good thing is, kueh is not really confined to a particular meal as one can snack on it throughout the day. These little beauties usually come in bite-sized form and are either sweet or savoury. They are not expensive and is something ubiquitous in Peranakan culture.
These Pandan pancake rolls (Kueh Dadar or Kueh Ketayap) are a hot kueh favourite. They are flavoured with Pandan and have a sweet filling made from gula melaka/palm sugar and desiccated coconut. This is a treat that can inspire the sweet tooth of anyone of any age.
The word ‘kueh’ comes from the Chinese character 粿 which is pronounced as koé in Hokkien. That is phonetically similar to how it is commonly known, kueh. In Indonesia and Malaysia, kueh is spelled as kue and kuih respectively.
Let's look at some more of our favourite Peranakan Kueh Beauties.
KUEH SALAT / PRETTY FACE
This local favourite goes by many names: kueh salat as it is popularly known or Putri Salat and Seri Muka in Indonesia.
It is a dual layer steamed cake with a base made of glutinous rice flavoured with rich coconut milk and a Pandan custard made of Pandan , eggs, sugar and coconut milk. The Peranakans have their own adaptation which often includes butterfly pea to colour the rice. Another version called Putri Salat Sago is also made by substituting the glutinous rice layer with sago.
Made with chewy, sticky glutinous rice, coconut milk and a pandan egg custard, this kueh is also super popular. The process is meticulous and arduous but once it reaches the table, it is usually gone within seconds. Occasionally, the white glutinous rice is tinted with Butterfly Pea flower for a pretty marbled effect.
Fun Fact: Puteri Salat is listed as a Heritage food in Malaysia!
Pulut Tai Tai - A Classic Nyonya Kuih with a Beautiful Blue Hue:
Pulut Tai Tai is a highly popular Nyonya kueh teatime dessert.
It is also known as Kuih Pulut Tekan which means compressed glutinous rice served with “Kaya”, a coconut jam. This petite looking Nyonya kueh has the famous bright blue colour tinted on the kueh. This simple yet elegant nyonya delight is also a traditional Nyonya wedding specialty, a must-have in any Peranakan wedding. Pulut Tai Tai is a traditional Nyonya kueh that was served only to the wealthy Peranakan ladies for their afternoon tea.
One More Dish to Whet your Appetite
Blue Rice is trending now! Nasi Kerabu is said to have originated from Kelantan in the 15th century. It is among the traditional foods of Kelantanese Peranakans, a mixture of Chinese and Malay culture due to the migration of Chinese traders.
Nasi Kerabu is a Malaysian cuisine rice dish, a type of nasi ulam, in which blue-colored rice is eaten with dried fish or fried chicken, crackers, pickles and other salads. The blue color of the rice comes from the petals of Clitoria ternatea (Butterfly-Pea) flowers (Bunga Telang), which are used as a natural food colouring in cooking it.
Besides that, the Kelantanese Peranakans dish also has some influences from Thailand due to the intermarriage between Hokkien men and women of Thai origin who were living in Kelantan at the time. As such, it is not surprising that a similar rice dish exists in Southern Thailand known as khao jam or khao yum. However, it differs from Nasi Kerabu in the condiments, flavour, and colour of the rice.
Or you can try making them at home with Jackie M’s recipe on Nasi Kerabu,
Whether you are watching Little Nyonya 2008 or the 2020 version, we hope it will inspire you to try tasting or perhaps even making some of these Peranakan beauties. They stem from a rich heritage that is a blend of the many cultures across the centuries.
Shots of delicious pandan-flavoured Nyonya Kueh from the serial - Kueh Seri Muka (left) and Kueh Dadar or Kueh Ketayap (right) - Photos and video are courtesy of The Little Nyonya CCTV 2020. You may watch the full episode and drama by subscribing to CCTV.
While we believe all this information for the article is in the public domain and we greatly acknowledge the photos and videos used herein, just as this compilation is also in the public domain, we present this article as our opinion only. Anyone can research the culture and history for themselves. It is an excellent way to reconnect and cement your knowledge and interest in all things associated with the past, here, there or anywhere.