Southeast Asia’s 600-year-old fusion cuisine

Peranakan cooking, a Southeast Asian cuisine with multicultural roots was created by Peranakan (a person of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage) women. It is often time-consuming and may take several days to prepare one dish.

Peranakan food is colorful and full of local herbs and spices that create complex flavors. They can be spicy, salty and slightly sweet at the same time, like babi pongteh (pork braised with fermented soybean gravy); or sour, spicy and bursting with umami such as ikan asam pedas (spicy tamarind fish). Since most dishes require the ingredients to stew for long periods of time, the flavors are released into the gravies, creating a tasty mixture you can pour over rice or noodles, or dip your bread into.

Under a patriarchal system, the women were in charge of the home. They cooked in a style they had learned from their Malay and Indonesian mothers, making stews and curries cooked in local herbs and aromatics. They blended their food and cooking styles with ingredients introduced through trade.

"The local wives transformed [traditionally Chinese] dishes into babi pongteh [braised pork stew] and mah mee [stir-fried seafood noodles], which were more robust and varied than the original Fujian [a province in south-eastern China] dishes," said Violet Oon, a Peranakan chef.

Many elite Peranakan families employed servants. The wives were freed up and had time to experiment in the kitchen. "It was the combination of innovation, wealth and openness that led to an amazing fusion cuisine," said Dr Lee Su Kim, a sixth generation nyonya who has written books about Peranakan culture.

"It's not just about taste, but also color, variety and finesse in presentation," said Lee Su Kim. Kueh (cake) had to be carefully cut into small diamond shapes with a serrated knife, and displayed neatly on fine porcelain.

In the 1930s, Peranakan recipes began to appear in cookbooks. The first cookbook to label itself Peranakan was Mrs. Lee's Cookbook: Nonya Recipes and Other Favourite Recipes.

Six-hundred years on, Peranakan cuisine continues to evolve. Whether served in restaurants or in the home, for modern-day Peranakans, the delicious recipes passed down over generations are a reminder of their rich, intricate heritage and the connection they have over family meals.

Source: Southeast Asia’s 600-year-old fusion cuisine
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