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Fusion, or cross-cultural, cuisine is actually old hat. It’s been happening for centuries and in the process, has spawned many unique and distinctive cuisines and cultures such as that of the Peranakan of Malaysia and Singapore.
What is Nonya or Peranakan?
The Peranakan (Malay for ‘born here’) is an amalgam of Chinese and Malay cultures and cuisines arising from the inter-marriage between immigrant Chinese and local Malays.
It started back in 1459 when the Chinese Ming Emperor betrothed his daughter Princess Hang Li Po to Sultan Mansur, the ruler of Malacca which was then a strategically important and flourishing trading port in Asia. The members of the Princess’s entourage were the first to marry the local Malays.
The Peranakan is also known as Straits-born Chinese as the growth and development of this ethnic group over the 17th and 18th centuries was concentrated in the ports of Penang, Singapore and Malacca that collectively constituted the British Crown colony in the Straits of Malacca called the Straits Settlements.
Peranakan men are called babas , and the women, nonyas . The cuisine is also often referred to as Nonya cooking as the latter are the executors and guardians of the fine art of this complex spicy cuisine which uses primarily Malay techniques and both Malay and Chinese ingredients.
Spice pastes and coconut milk are used extensively in Nonya cooking. Their curries are known as gulais .
Sambal blachan , a pounded paste of chillies, prawn paste (blachan ) and a squeeze of lime juice, is an indispensable condiment on the Nonya table.
Pork, a favourite Chinese meat but which is taboo for Muslim Malays, features in Nonya cuisine with dishes like satay where the spicy peanut sauce includes a dollop of grated pineapple in the sauce, and spicy stews like Babi Pong Teh or Hong Bak, an essentially Chinese dish of soy sauce pork but spiced up with a paste of shallots, ground coriander, salted soy beans and sometimes, kencur (a type of root).
There is also regional diversity in Nonya cuisine. Southern Nonya, being that of Malacca and Singapore, is more akin to Indonesian cuisine.
Northern or Penang Nonya cooking carries strong Thai influences with abundant use of fragrant herbs and roots, chillies and sour elements such as tamarind and lime. It is spicy, hot, sour as well as rich (from coconut milk).
Classic examples are Penang Laksa , fat slippery rice noodles in hot sour fishy soup topped with mints, cucumber, pineapple and fresh chillies; and drizzled with hae koe (a type of shrimp paste) and achars , spicy vinegared preparations of vegetables or fish, usually served as side dishes.
Recipe: MEE SIAM
Literally, this dish means "Siamese Noodles" and despite the fact that the word "mee" refers to yellow wheat noodles, it is rice vermicelli that is used for this dish.
Tip: It's worth making up 1 - 2 batches of the spice paste and freezing surplus in small containers. Then you have it ready to use for smaller or larger portions of this dish. The quantity of vermicelli given in this recipe is sufficient for 4 - 6 people.
500g rice vermicelli
Oil for deep frying
2 cakes hard beancurd
500g bean sprouts
375g cooked peeled prawns (small prawns are preferable)
1 cup coarse chives (kuchai), garlic chives or spring onions, cut into 2.5cm lengths
3 hardboiled eggs, peeled and quartered lengthwise
6 - 8 Calamansi limes, halved or 2 large limes or lemons, cut into wedges
20 - 30 dried red chillies, soaked in hot water until soft
24-30 shallots or 4 medium red or brown onions
2 stalks lemon grass or piece of thin lemon peel
2 tsp dried shrimp paste
6 tbsp oil
4 heaped tbsp salted soya beans, lightly crushed
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
For The Gravy:
4 cups thin coconut milk
2 tbsp dried tamarind pulp
1 cup warm water
- Prepare the Spice Paste:
Grind chillies, shallots, lemon grass, and dried shrimp paste in mortar and pestle or food processor until fine, adding a little oil to keep the blades turning if using the latter.
Heat oil in a wok and gently fry the spice paste for 3-4 minutes, stirring all the time. Sprinkle in salt and sugar and continue cooking for another minute.
Remove half this mixture to use for the gravy. Set aside the wok with the remaining spice paste.
- To make the Gravy:
Put the reserved spice paste into a deep saucepan and add the coconut milk. Bring to the boil, stirring all the time to prevent curdling.
Soak tamarind in warm water for 10 minutes, then strain through a sieve to obtain juice. Add to the spicy coconut milk mixture, simmer a couple of minutes, taste and adjust seasonings and set aside.
- To Assemble:
Soak the rice vermicelli in hot water for 5 minutes, then drain and set aside.
Heat oil in a pan and deep fry the beancurd until golden brown on both sides. Drain, cool, then slice coarsely.
Have all other ingredients prepared and place on a plate for easy assembly.
- To Serve:
Just before serving, heat the spice mixture left in the wok.
Add bean sprouts and cook over high heat, stirring constantly for one minute.
Add half the cooked prawns and half the coarse chives. Stir, then add the drained vermicelli, a handful at a time, stirring constantly to mix well with other ingredients and heat through thoroughly.
Put into a large serving dish. Scatter the remaining cooked prawns and chives on top. Arrange eggs, beancurd and limes around the edge. Serve the gravy separately in a deep bowl.
Each diner puts the noodles into his bowl, adding gravy and squeezing plenty of lime juice over the top.
If you like really hot food, serve additional freshly ground red chillies or make sambal blachan paste as a condiment.