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 their descendants became “Straits-Chinese” or Peranakans.
You might think you know nothing of this unique culture, but Peranakan ladies have inspired the striking, beautiful and iconic costume worn by Malaysia Airlines staff that is loosely, or more accurately, tightly, based on the Peranakan kebaya. The traditional dress for Peranakan women is a long skirt adapted from the Malays’ batik sarong, with a chiffon embroidered blouse called a kebaya. These gorgeous creations are enhanced still further by the traditional three fastening brooches called kerosang. The costume is completed by a pair of intricately beaded slippers called kasot manek. These were originally made by sewing Bohemian glass beads onto canvas-topped shoes. The designs tended to be floral and reflected the patterns found in the colourful Peranakan dinner services and tea sets.
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. Female Straits-Chinese descendants were called nyonyas. The word nyonya or nonya comes from Javanese and is thought to be a corruption of the word ‘donha’, the Portuguese for lady. Baba is a Persian word borrowed by Malay speakers as a respectful name for grandparents. The term is thought to originate with Hindi-speaking traders.
Baba Nyonya heritage is celebrated at the private museum, called the Peranakan Museum, run by the Babas and Nyonyas of Malacca. This traditional 19th century Peranakan house is located along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. The building shows some of the typical elements of a Peranakan house: it’s a long house as properties were taxed by width, and has an interior courtyard which allows both light and refreshing rain into a home that would otherwise be rather gloomy.
From the Malay and Chinese influence Nyonya cuisine has developed, and it’s becoming more popular as food-lovers search for regional or speciality dishes. There is too much exciting food in Malaysia to even consider a burger or even the ever-popular fried chicken on your visit, and it’s unlikely you’ll find Peranakan dishes outside the Peninsula. Peranakan cuisine takes advantage of a larder of regional spices, and a battery of unique dishes has evolved to entice and intrigue the diner – they range from the mild and comforting to the spicy and complex. The visitor might have had Peranakan food in Singapore and that is also authentic, but the Peranakan food in Malaysia is said to be hotter.
Laksa Lemak – rice noodles in coconut sauce – is a popular dish in Malaysia with each restaurant offering its own interpretation. Ayam Buah Keluak – Chicken with Keluak nuts – Is one of the most famous Peranakan dishes. 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 result when cooked is a nutty-sweet preparation which is often returned to its shell for final presentation. Ayam Buah Keluak is thought by many Peranakan food aficionados to be the characteristic expression of how well a chef has mastered the Peranakan culinary arts.
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. Here is a delicious and vibrant fish recipe that uses easily found ingredients. This is a spicy dish but one could cut down the number of chillies for a milder flavour. Other fish could be used but be sure to choose a fish with firm flesh so that it doesn’t disintegrate in the sauce.
Assam Pedas Mackerel
500g mackerel, in fillets
8 dried chillies soaked in water
2 cloves garlic
1 stalk lemongrass, crushed
1 tsp turmeric powder
20g shrimp paste
10g daun kesum / vietnamese coriander, or a combination of mint and coriander
2 cm ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 tomatoes, cut into quarters
50ml tamarind juice or extract
Oil for frying
Salt to taste
Process the shallots and garlic together to form a paste.
Process the dried chillies and the shrimp paste together.
Remove the top and bottom parts of the okra but keep them whole.
Cut the aubergine into bite-sized chunks.
In a large pan or wok, heat a little oil and sauté the shallots and garlic paste for a few minutes but without browning.
Add in the turmeric and dried-chilli-and-shrimp paste, and fry until the oil separates slightly.
Add the tamarind juice, tomatoes, okra, aubergine, ginger and herbs.
Add salt to taste.
Simmer until the vegetables are just tender.
Add in the fish and simmer for a few minutes until the fish is cooked through.
Serve with steamed rice and other Peranakan dishes.
Malaysia is famed for its fine food and friendly faces. Restoran Peranakan in Malacca offers a good selection of Nyonya dishes, many of which show the Chinese influence. The restaurant is superbly furnished with the dark wood and heavy furniture which is so much a hallmark of traditional Peranakan homes, and now restaurants.
107, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock,
75200, Melaka (Malacca)
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018