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What it means to be Peranakan - the customs and dishes made by the straits born Chinese
There can be no denying that being a Peranakan Chinese Singaporean has to be colorful and enriching For those who may not be familiar with the term, I am Peranakan - part of a heritage that has many elements that I cannot finish sharing with a wonderful group of writers and readers. The community is quite in the minority, and I thought that I might serve a little Peranakan on a Hubpages platter.
What “Peranakan” is - a little bit of Peranakan history and culture
“Peranakan” literally means ‘descendants’ in the Malay language. This is a term referring to the a group of Chinese of mixed heritage - usually of Chinese and Malay parentage - who settled in the Malay Archipelago in the 15th and 16th century. These were usually English educated traders who were middlemen for the British and Chinese, or Chinese and Malays, serving primarily as suppliers of goods and bridges of communication. The men came to be known as the babas and the women, nonyas.
Owing to their unique cultural position, Peranakans have taken pains to carve their socio-cultural identity and their efforts have paid off. Many Peranakans, who are able to speak Behasa Melayu like my grandparents have become partial to their Malay lineage and primarily English Education, being more comfortable speaking in the English rather than Chinese language. Early Peranakan settlers soon embraced Christianity, another facet of Western culture.
However, there is a sense of Chinese rootedness within the community. Their dishes, which I shall introduce later, are an eclectic fusion of Chinese and Malay tastes - the recipes of which I shall share in further articles. The older generation of Peranakans do follow interesting marriage and other customs, and I shall introduce some of them - you may find that this unique blend of Asian cultures will spark interest within you.
If you happen to be visiting Singapore and want a taste of this rich culture, do visit the Asian Civilizations Museum. It showcases all aspects of Baba Nonya Heritage, even the structure of the stone kitchen in which Peranakans used to cook.
As mentioned, the earlier Peranakan settlers were primarily trading middlemen who served as language bridges as well - hence theyoned the linguistic skills of their British colonial masters and communicated largely in English. Many of these traders also came to speak in Behasa Melayu, having to communicate intent to the Malay community. Their chinese heritage means that they do have access to that language.
I would say that the Peranakans are a linguistically fortunate lot. Growing up amid this culture means being able to speak three languages, though perhaps not all with equivalent fluency. It does mean an added edge in making new friends though!
Peranakan Marriage Customs
Many Peranakan wedding customs are rooted in Chinese tradition. Marriage in the Peranakan community has its own flavor, though, and some customs may appear rather quirky!
Every Peranakan wedding must come complete with a segment detailing some aspects of Peranakan tradition. The bride can opt to wear what is known as a koon or formal gown or the less formal hock chew. They can also add the infamous nonya kebaya.
The groom may opt to wear the baju cina to match his traditionally donned bride. Unsurprisingly, the couple feels more comfortable as soon as the costumes come off!
Ann Chng (Decorating the main bedroom and bed)
Decorating the marital bed is not just for making the home seem more welcoming to visitors, though it is undeniably one of its functions. Primarily, it serves to encourage procreation. Symbols of fertility such as the yam plant, a comb of banana and stems of lemongrass are often used to encourage childbirth.
Veiling of the bride
The veiling of the bride indicates her parents sadness at her leaving the home. This is usually done by her parents before any other ceremonial proceedings.
Chim Pang – Unveiling the bride
In traditional Peranakan marriages, the bride is usually unveiled in the bedroom of her new home. They usually partake of kueh ee or glutinous rice balls soaked in tea.
Sohjah Tiga Hari (Respecting the elders)
The Sohjah Tiga Hari refers to paying respect to elders, in accordance to the confucian tenets of giving due credence to rank and file within the family. This can be a rather tiring ceremony, especially if the couple is expected to kneel in front of many family members.
A Peranakan Wedding
Five quirky baba nonya marriage taboos
Some of these are still given due accord out of respect for preceding generations. Some of these old wives tales may seem a little odd! These are five of the most fascinating to date.
- Pregnant women cannot touch wedding gifts or enter the wedding chamber for fear of disrupting the couples’ ability to procreate.
- The nonya bride wears a Phoenix Collar to ward of demons.
- Ladies who have not celebrated their babies first month in the world are not “clean” and cannot partake of the marriage celebrations.
- Guests cannot wear all black or white clothing during the wedding. The colors portend ill luck and are usually worn at funerals.
- This is a custom I am usually very taken with. Peranakan mothers-in-law are known to be particular about the brides their sons choose, and they make no bones about testing their quality. They test the virginity of the bride by placing a white cloth on the marriage bed. If it does not appear blood stained the next day, the bride is not given the quality control go ahead!
My personal take - thankfully this is not a custom many abide by today! Do note, though, that a Peranakan family is more matriarchal in nature and the women tend to rule the roost ( my apologies to the fine gentlemen out there. )
Peranakan cuisine - not for the faint hearted!
One of the joys of being Perankan is the ability to enjoy the rich cuisine that is a hallmark of its culture. Here are some dishes to tease the senses - the full recipes I shall share in further articles!
This is a traditional nonya chicken stew that is prepared using, of course, chicken, shallots, tau cheoh or fermented black bean sauce, dry spices, soy sauce and the optional potato.
The delicious stew is hearty and succulent, usually those who eat it wanting more. Like all other dishes, it relies on a variety of cooking styles and ingredients. The dry spices and fermented black bean sauce lend complexity to the dish.
Peranakan women usually pride themselves on being masters of the kitchen. My grandmother was no different. She still rules the kitchen roost and prepares a hearty ayam pongteh, a hit with our relatives and usually catered at the weddings and parties she attends. Into her sprightly eighties, she still prepares the hearty stew to this day.
Ayam Buah Keluak
Another mouth watering Peranakan delicacy, the ingredient that characterises this dish is the buah keluak, a black nut that grows on the kepayang tree found mainly in Indonesia. It is about the size of a flattened golf ball. Added to the food fray are pieces of chicken, ginger, buah keras or candlenuts and lemon grass.
Preparing this dish requires arduous work. When my grandmother makes it, she painstakingly digs out the insides of the buah keluak nut, mixes them with egg white and stuffs the nut again. Then comes the preparation of the dish, which I shall share in future.
This Peranakan concoction may take hours of preparation, but it is certainly to die for. Spices may be found at any Asian Food store or Supermarkets that may carry them.
This is a pickled concoction made from all kinds of vegetables, including yardlong beans, onions, carrots, cucumber and cabbage. The vegetables are dried and preserved with a vinegar mixture for a few days before being eaten with rice and other dishes.
Again, this is a dish requiring days of preparation. My grandmother adds to the mix green chillies and I was often stunned - I say stunned - by her perseverance. She used to stuff the green chillies with papaya by hand - and you can imagine how painful that must have been!
For myself, this is a must have during festivals, especially the Chinese New Year. They can be kept in a refrigerator for months on end.
This is a great dish to initiate food lovers who first come to Singapore, and is a favorite among stars like Joan Chen when they come here. To the uninitiated, this is a spicy noodle dish accompanied by condiments of prawn, bean sprouts, tumeric, lemon grass, belachan, (spicy shrimp paste) candle nuts and gelangal, a rhizome that is part of the family of ginger roots.
Another dish that takes a lot of preparation, nonya laksa, especially that cooked by the Peranakans in the Eastern part of Singapore, is magic for the tastebuds.
When grandma makes it, she adds cockles - fresh ones make the dish especially delicious. That, together with spicy coconut gravy, is a meal truly fit for a king (or at least, myself).
A wonderful mix of the sweet, savory and definitely spicy, assam prawns are definitely my favorite to go with a rice dish. Regular prawns are cooked to perfection, and chunks of delicious pineapple make the dish a true feast for the taste buds and other senses.
Tamarind or assam is essential for this dish. It adds the slight sourness that give the prawns their tart, tangy taste.
Grandma always highlights the importance of not cooking the prawns without the shell, or the juiciness of the prawns might be lost.
My take on being Peranakan
I have always enjoyed my heritage for its richness and versatility. The demands on Peranakan women are definitely there - they have to be able to cook and be the matriarchs of families - and keeping up with the countless customs can cause a constant headache with me worrying about who I will offend next if I broke any one of them.
However, I am blessed to be able to enjoy the divine cuisine the culture brings along with it. I am also thankful to be able to speak a few languages - English, Chinese and Malay - which helps in the vibrant cultural context of Singapore.
I do hope you have enjoyed my insights into Peranakan culture - I hope to share some of these recipes and insights in future, for they are rich and fascinating. As they say in Malay, Selamat Datang - a goodbye and there's more to come!