The cuisine comes from the Peranakans, the descendants of the original Chinese immigrants who had settled in Penang, Malacca, Indonesia and Singapore, and inter-married with the local Malays. It’s also referred to as ”Nonya”, an old Malay word which was used as a term of respect and affection for women of prominent social standing.
Peranakans believe that the distinct flavour of their recipes owes itself to the “rempah”, a combination of spices with a very specific texture and density that is pounded into a paste with a pestle and mortar. Small wonder that Peranakan recipes involve a time-consuming and lengthy preparation and are handed down from one generation to the next. Interestingly, a Nonya was supposed to be able to judge the cooking ability of her new daughter-in-law merely by listening as she prepared the rempah with a mortar.
An imaginative and creative cuisine infused with delicate flavours, Peranakan or Nonya food employs chillies, belachan and coconut milk as vital ingredients in its cooking. It blends the ingredients and wok cooking techniques of the Chinese with the spices used by the Malay and Indonesian community to create tangy, aromatic and spicy dishes.
You’ll be interested to learn that this unique cuisine displays subtle regional differences in its style of cooking. For instance, the dishes that originate from the Penang use tamarind and other sour ingredients more liberally, displaying a Thai influence, while those from Singapore and Malacca use more coconut milk, exhibiting a stronger Indonesian influence.
Take for instance laksa, a spicy Nonya dish made with rice vermicelli and coconut milk and garnished with seafood or chicken. You’ll find the sour assam laksa in Penang while it is the coconut milk-based laksa lemak that is popular in Singapore.
Dine at a Peranakan restaurant such as Baba Inn & Lounge or True Blue Cuisine and you’ll be able to sample signature dishes like the otak-otak, a blend of fish, coconut milk, chilli paste, galangal and herbs wrapped in a banana leaf; ayam buah keluak, a chicken dish cooked with nuts in a rich sauce; and itek tim, a classic soup made using duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables and preserved sour plums simmered together. Nonya desserts include kueh or cakes enriched with the sweet flavour of coconut and sweet, sticky delicacies.
Have a taste of authentic Peranakan food at Joo Chiat or Katong and take a look at the intricate beading and embroidered traditional costumes at Rumah Bebe. You can also enjoy a Peranakan history lesson when you visit the Katong Antique House.