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What it means to be Peranakan - the customs and dishes made by the straits born Chinese

Updated on July 29, 2012
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Michelle is a professional freelance writer who loves music, poetry, pets, and the arts. She is a techno-geek as well.

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.


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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.


The Language

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!


A Peranakan Wedding
A Peranakan Wedding | Source

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!

Costumes

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.

  1. Pregnant women cannot touch wedding gifts or enter the wedding chamber for fear of disrupting the couples’ ability to procreate.
  2. The nonya bride wears a Phoenix Collar to ward of demons.
  3. Ladies who have not celebrated their babies first month in the world are not “clean” and cannot partake of the marriage celebrations.
  4. Guests cannot wear all black or white clothing during the wedding. The colors portend ill luck and are usually worn at funerals.
  5. 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!


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Ayam Pongteh

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.


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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.


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Nonya Acar

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.


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Nonya Laksa

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).


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Assam Prawns

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!

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    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Insights into the customs and traditions of the Peranakans, the fascinating straits born Chinese community.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 4 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I enjoyed the wedding ceremony, especially the pre-ceremony attention paid to the bride and groom...so colorful! Thank you for this introduction to a culture I knew nothing about.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Sally, thanks for stopping by! Peranakan marriages are complex ones indeed....definitely the customs and costumes are hard to toggle with! I dressed like that when I got married. A fascinating though demanding culture!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      That was fascinating Michele; as a former history teacher I am always interested in stuff like this. Thank you for sharing a rich history and culture.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Welcome Bill! It's a culture not many are familiar with. Many know about Chinese culture, but not specifically the Straits Born Chinese! Hope that it's been useful.

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      Michelle, that was incredibly interesting and enlightening. Thank you for sharing a little of your fascinating culture.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, TT! Will be your tour guide if you get to come to Singapore for a visit!

    • LS Bailey profile image

      LS Bailey 4 years ago from Los Angles, CA

      Let's see, colorful weddings, women rule, great food, okay, I love the Peranakan culture! I visited china 11 yrs ago. If I'm ever in Singapore I'll check out the Asian Civilization Museum.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Michelle, this is a very interesting hub and the pre-wedding was fun to read. The white sheet on the bed is a tradition best left in the past in this day and age :0) The dishes look nice too. The stew and prawns dishes would certainly be 2 I would like to try.

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I enjoyed learning more about your culture Michelle. How neat that we will be able to learn more about it from your hubs; and a good platform for you to share too. Wow, you speak 3 languages - impressive!

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 4 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I'm curious about the older woman to the right of the bride throughout the wedding procession and ceremony. She's turning the bride this way and that, never taking her arm away from the bride, almost as if she's pushing the bride into something the bride is reluctant about doing. Is she the mother or the mother-in-law, or someone else?

      I'm also curious about the young man to the left of the groom who seems to be coaching the groom about how to use a fan. Who is this man and what is his role?

      Your hub prompts so many wonderful questions!

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Michelle,

      Thanks for sharing with us a glimpse into your culture. Very informative and fascinating read! Thanks Michelle!

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      LS Bailey, I am so glad you've enjoyed this hub! I will be glad to be your tour guide the next time you come to Singapore. And you'll get a chance to sample some of these lovely dishes!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Jools, thanks for stopping by! Yes, thank goodness the white sheet was a pre-WW2 tradition and no one does it any longer. What made it more stressful was that the weddings were usually match made and ladies did not have the chance to make the choices we do today. I'll share the stew and prawn dishes in recipe hubs, I've asked my gran for her recipes!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for coming in again, Sally, and you've asked very interesting questions! The lady turning the bride about is the Mak Adam or the Chief Mistress of the wedding ceremony, guiding the bride throughout. As you can see, this one is a little older and probably a nag to the bride, a much younger lady.

      The young man, who could be the groom's older brother, probably also has the function of being the Pak Cindek or master of ceremonies who guides the groom throughout. They act somewhat as best men or bridesmaids! So sorry for the late reply!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Yo Josh, so glad to see you as usual and I always look forward to your hub visits. Thanks for reading! Will share some Peranakan recipes you can pass to your mum!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Christy, thanks for stopping in! Yes, will share some interesting Peranakan short stories and recipes. Yup, I speak English, Mandarin, and Malay, though my Malay is not as fluent as the other two! Still learning from grandma!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 4 years ago from Dubai

      Enjoyed reading your hub, very informative. The wedding dress is so very beautiful. Fascinating hub, voted up and shared.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you, Vellur, for stopping by! I really appreciate the share as well! Thanks so much for voting!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      Very much enjoyed reading your Hub about being Peranakan Michelle. I have to admit I never actually knew much about your heritage, but after reading your article am finding your customs and culture down right fascinating. Thank you for writing this one and have shared and voted too.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Janine, glad to share! I'm getting down to passing the recipes around as well. Planning hubs for those! Thanks for dropping by, my dear, and sharing!

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      KDuBarry03 4 years ago

      I absolutely love culture; so diverse and so different among people. You definitely gave a great lesson in this culture, especially the food :) I'm probably weak of heart for the dishes; however, I would definitely love to try it one day!

      Great hub, Michelle! I highly enjoyed it :) voted up and SHARING!

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 4 years ago

      Great hub! I just love how open and willing you are to share your culture with us. The recipe hub tease was brilliant as well ^_^ I'll be keeping an eye out for those.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Keith, glad to share the culture, it's a rich one, with many learning nuggets. Food's delicious, though it can be a little overwhelming at first, so I'd sample slowly in order to enjoy it! Will begin with a recipe. Thanks so much for sharing!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Sure, Kim, am always glad to do that. We all have nuggets of our cultures to share!! And the recipes are delicious. WIll be doing a few recipe hubs on the dishes here! Thanks for coming by!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 4 years ago from Michigan

      Beautiful photos and a wonderful guide to the Peranakan culture. Thanks for sharing this wonderful hub.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Clara, very happy to share! Will be sharing recipes soon. Thanks for coming by!!

    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 4 years ago from Chennai, India

      Wow! An extremely engaging & insightful hub! I enjoyed learning a lot from your informative hub! The Peranakan wedding customs are somewhat similar to Indian wedding customs. The list of dishes sound and look very tasty and nothing beat the homemade food cooked by loved ones like your grandmother. A wonderful hub! Well-done!

      Thanks for SHARING. Useful, Awesome & Interesting. Voted up & Socially Shared

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Ish, for coming by and embracing a little of my culture. it's rich, pretty much like others of the world. Yes, they are similar wedding customs....because Indian gentlemen married Malay ladies and the culture spread! It's very interesting and a lot to learn. thanks for coming by!

    • mizjo profile image

      mizjo 4 years ago from New York City, NY

      Wonderful hub, Michelle. I happen to be in KL at the moment and have been able to indulge on nonya food a couple of times. Just love it.

      Always fascinated by the Peranakan culture. Malacca is where I go for it. I missed the Museum in Singapore - wasn't aware of it till I read your hub.

      Looking forward to your recipes.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Mizjo, sure, will share Peranakan Buah Keluak soon! Thanks for coming by even though you're busy in KL...it has lots of food, do enjoy!! Will share Peranakan recipes soon!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for sharing the customs of your part of the world. I always enjoy learning more about distant lands. I have read about Singapore in travel magazines: now I know a little more about your customs.

      Voted UP, and will share.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 4 years ago from United States

      A wonderful work, midget, and the beautiful culture that you present is breath taking in its entirety.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Mary, glad to share! Yes, Peranakan Culture is fascinating. The food is fabulous too though a little time consuming to make. Will share more about the culture in future!

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Yes, who, it's a wonderful culture....not least because of the food! Will introduce you to it when you come to Singapore! Thanks for coming by!

    • Magdaleine profile image

      Magdaleine 4 years ago

      I like the Peranakan Food! very delicious :)

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Magdaliene!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 3 years ago from New York

      You certainly did spark our interest with this fascinating hub Michelle. So many honored traditions, though of course a few wouldn't quite make it today, at least not in their original form.

      The pictures are stunning, even the ones of food and I have to say your borders are beautiful and add a certain flair to this very interesting hub.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and shared.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 3 years ago from Florida

      I love the customs, the clothes, the rituals and everything else. I came back for a reread and will reshare and Pin.

      Happy 4th of July....

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 3 years ago from United States

      Very interesting hub my friend and well done. whonunuwho

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Mary!

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 3 years ago

      Its always interesting to learn of another's culture and customs. Voted up.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 3 years ago from Nepal

      Michelle,

      We should never forget who we are. Our roots make our personality.

      Thanks for sharing about yourself. I did not know, had never heard, about Peranakan and straits born Chinese.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Mary!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Who!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Torilynn!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Vinaya, glad to share a little of my culture!!

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