In the 15th century some city-states on the Malay Peninsula paid taxes to China and Siam, now Thailand. There is a legend that the Emperor of China sent a princess, Hang Li Po, to the Sultan of Malacca as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The 500 nobles and their servants who accompanied the princess eventually married local girls and became “Straits-Chinese” or Peranakan. Dishes at Blue Ginger are Paranakan.
You might think you know nothing of this unique culture, but Peranakan nyonyas were the original ‘Singapore girls’. The Singapore Airlines stewardesses wear a striking and iconic costume that is loosely, or more accurately, tightly, based on the Peranakan kebaya. The traditional dress for nyonyas is a long skirt adapted from the Malays’ batik sarong with a light blouse (that’s the kebaya) and three fastening brooches called kerosang. Female Straits-Chinese descendants were called nyonyas. The word nyonya or nonya is Javanese, thought to have come from ‘donha’, the Portuguese for lady.
Malaysians and Indonesians use the word ‘Peranakan’, meaning descendant, followed by a qualifying indication of ethnicity, such as Cina for Chinese, and Belanda for Dutch, the term referring to the origins of someone’s great-grandparents, or ancestors even further back than that.
The new trading port of Singapore, founded by Sir Stamford Raffles at the tip of the Malay peninsula, attracted many Peranakans, who adopted some English ways including, it is said, their rectangular dining tables, in contrast to the typical round table favoured by the local Chinese population.
From the Malay influence Nyonya recipes have developed. They use a larder of regional spices, and a battery of unique dishes has evolved to entice and intrigue the population of Singapore as well as visitors to that City State. Laksa Lemak – rice noodles in coconut sauce – is a popular dish in Singapore, as is Ayam Buah Keluak – Chicken with Keluak nuts. It’s delicious but needs to be prepared by professionals: the seeds contain hydrogen cyanide and are poisonous if consumed without proper processing. The nuts are boiled and buried in ash and banana leaves and covered with earth for more than a month. They change colour from a creamy white to dark brown or black; the hydrogen cyanide released by the boiling and fermentation is washed away with fresh water.
The Peranakan food in Singapore is generally sweeter than that found in northern Malaysia, which is spicier. It is noted for its use of coconut, coriander and dill. A small number of restaurants serving Nyonya dishes can be found in Singapore, and Blue Ginger presents some of the finest examples of this vibrant food, even the chancy Ayam Buah Keluak. This classic preparation is thought of by many Peranakan food aficionados as the characteristic expression of how well a chef has mastered the Peranakan culinary arts. They are true masters here.
Nyonya cooking in the home has been in decline over the last several decades. It’s not lack of regard for the epicurean heritage but more the constraints of modern life. Long marinating of meats and seafood before cooking, and the time-consuming preparation of spice mixes make some of these dishes appropriate only for celebrations these days. Blue Ginger gives us a chance to try the food without hours of work beforehand. Fresh herbs such as lemongrass, galangal (similar to ginger) and turmeric are traditionally pounded using a heavy granite mortar and pestle. Kaffir lime leaves, pandan, bay leaves and even the leaves of the turmeric plant give distinctive flavours, whilst chillies, candlenuts and belacan (shrimp paste) are the cornerstones of Nyonya cuisine.
The Blue Ginger Restaurant
97 Tanjong Pagar Road
For reservations: +65 6222 3928
Fax: +65 6222 3860
For corporate functions and private events
contact Susan +65 9635 0983
or Alan +65 9755 8603
Lunch: 12 noon to 2.30pm
(last order at 2.15pm) daily
Dinner: 6.30pm to 10.30pm
(last order at 10.00pm) daily
Visit Blue Ginger here
Blue Ginger Kueh Pie Tee
Here is a recipe for a Peranakan Kueh Pie Tee – ideal for hors d’oeuvres and very attractive. You will likely not have the pastry iron used for making the fried fluted cases, but the filling will be just as delicious when used to stuff shortcrust-pastry tart shells.
Fills 50 small pastry cases.
1 tbsp garlic, crushed
4 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp salted soybean paste (tau cheo)
1 kg Chinese sweet turnip (bang kuang), shredded
180 g cooked bamboo shoots, shredded
40 g carrot, shredded
120 ml water
2 small blocks fried tofu (tau kua), cut into strips
300 g small prawns, shelled and heads removed
1tsp dark soy sauce
½ tbsp black pepper, crushed
1 egg, hard-boiled and chopped
A few sprigs of coriander or parsley
Red or black caviar (optional)
Fry the garlic in the vegetable oil until the garlic just turns golden.
Add the soybean paste and stir-fry for a minute.
Add the sweet turnip, bamboo shoots, carrots and water and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes.
Add the fried tofu, prawns and dark soy sauce, and simmer until the vegetables are cooked through.
Add pepper, salt and sugar to taste.
Allow the mixture to cool and then fill the cases. Top the filling with a pinch of coriander or parsley, and chopped egg, and caviar if used.
The Peranakan Museum
If you want learn more about this fascinating culture then visit The Peranakan Museum in Singapore. It’s housed in the former Tao Nan School Building. Construction of this charming house was completed in 1912 and it still retains many of its original features. The Peranakan Museum provides a glimpse into the living culture of the Peranakan community in the region. The museum is a part of the Asian Civilisations Museum, operating under the National Heritage Board of Singapore.
The Peranakan Museum
39 Armenian Street, Singapore 179941
Monday: 1pm to 7pm
Tuesday to Sunday: 9am – 7pm (9 pm on Fridays)
Visit the Peranakan Museum here.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018