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What is Peranakan?

This is not a history lesson, but you may appreciate a little introductory on the background of the term Peranakan.

Chinese maritime exploration and its diaspora can be traced back to as early as the 10th century CE, long before Vasco de Gama and the first Portugese explorers paved the way to global multiculturalism and imperialism. During the Tang dynasty between 618 to 907 AD many Chinese left their southeastern provinces, according to historians, and sailed along the coast of China to reach then Siam, the Malay Peninsula, the Indonesian islands and the Philippines.

Legend has it that in the 15th century when the Malacca sultanate reigned the two kingdoms sealed their diplomatic relations with a strategic marriage between the Sultan Mansur Shah and the Chinese princess Hang Li Po. Think royal strategic alliances. Its the kind of stuff that can make a tantalising Netflix series (why isn’t anyone doing it by the way?). The princess Hang Li Po was apparently accompanied by 500 ‘youth and maidens of noble birth’.

In the 18th century, the English occupied Penang and established a trading post in Singapore. Malacca had by then been taken by the Dutch. These two colonial powers signed a treaty dividing the region between them as one does, I suppose, because of geographical conveniences. To sum it up, the English took control of Penang, Singapore and Malacca - bastions of free trade - which then became known as the Straits Settlements. These ports continued to attract Chinese settlers from the region and also from China.

The Peranakan story is traced back to all these early adventurers who arrived and settled in the archipelago up till the 19th century. They married the local Malays, adopted their language and while keeping their customs and traditions, really developed an identity much different to their ancestors’ in China.

The term ‘peranakan’ refers to the local-born descendants of these early migrants. Straits-Chinese-born men were known as Babas and the women Nonyas (note: variation in spelling depending on region, otherwise spelt as Nyonyas). The Nyonya was easily identified by her dress and jewellery and her dedication to the fine art of bead embroidery.

But most of all, the Nyonya was known for her culinary prowess. Peranakan cuisine is the original fusion food if you like. Nyonya cuisine is as diverse as the Straits Settlements. It is a marriage of many flavours and can trace its influences to the local Malays, settlers from neighbouring Siam, Indian migrants and also to the Portuguese, Dutch and English colonial rulers. Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine is neither distinctly Malay nor Thai, Indian nor English. And it is certainly not Chinese. So many layers of flavours, tastes, textures come together in a really unique cuisine unlike any other.

So where am I in all this? To cut the long story short (certainly not what the Netflix series people would tell you to do), my great great grandmother was a Nyonya. My mother (you can see her in her Nyonya attire in the photo below) learnt all the tricks from her grandmother. Her paternal grandfather however, was Hakka and so she has some tricks up the Hakka lane as well.

Today Nyonya cuisine has become somewhat inaccessible, because of its reputation for being-labour intensive and complex. It is little known outside of South East Asia. Peranakan or Nyonya restaurants are few and far in between, even in Malaysia or Singapore. But it is a cuisine that continues to amaze and delight for all its wondrous flavours, aromas, textures.


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