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Yesterday Once More: The Vanishing Side Of Peranakan Cuisine

Hati  babi  bungkus  is  seldom  found  in  restaurants  these  days  as  a  lot  of  work  is  needed  to  wrap  the  liver  balls  in  pig’s  caul  lining.
Photo: Folklore Restaurant

Cooking traditional Peranakan food is strongly etched in chef Philip Chia’s heart. From the age of five, he was forced in the kitchen, peeling and pounding heaps of chillies and spices with a pestle and mortar to make sambal belacan for family meals every day. If the spices were not pounded finely, he was caned by his adoptive sisters. In his Peranakan family of 13, rempah or spice paste, is the backbone of the Peranakan cuisine, which is a marriage of Chinese and Malay or Indonesian influences.

By Kenneth SZ Goh

Cooking traditional Peranakan food is strongly etched in chef Philip Chia’s heart. From the age of five, he was forced in the kitchen, peeling and pounding heaps of chillies and spices with a pestle and mortar to make sambal belacan for family meals every day. If the spices were not pounded finely, he was caned by his adoptive sisters. In his Peranakan family of 13, rempah or spice paste, is the backbone of the Peranakan cuisine, which is a marriage of Chinese and Malay or Indonesian influences.

Now 58, Chia, who is also a food consultant and does dining promotions at restaurants and hotels, says with pride: “There is a specific order: You add in the hard items like candlenut and galangal, followed by shallots that contain water for the paste, and you need to pound it with a certain rhythm. Mothers-in-law can tell if the rempah is pounded properly from listening.”

With the onslaught of food trends and Instagram-friendly dishes, some old-school Peranakan dishes are fading out. Chefs and restaurateurs say that these yesteryear dishes do not sit well with the younger generation, who are more health-conscious. Some time-honoured Peranakan dishes are cooked with a heavy dose of oil and spices, have bold flavours and some of them feature innards, which are not popular these days due to its dense and earthy taste.

Chia misses babi assam goreng, a rarely-seen dish of sourish pan-fried pork belly that is seasoned with tamarind and salt. He says: “Over the last 20 years, I have not heard much about this dish as only people in their 50s or 60s would know about it. Perhaps this dish involves frying which scares those who are looking out for their health.”

Another forgotten dish is hati babi bungkus, which are fried liver balls wrapped in pig’s caul lining and accompanied by pickled mustard greens. Vivian Seet, 77, consultant-chef of Peranakan restaurant Blue Ginger in Tanjong Pagar, laments that this dish is tedious and cumbersome to prepare. “Hati babi bungkus is only cooked for special occasions as a lot of work is involved,” she says. “The main difficulty lies in getting the caul as the butcher has to set it aside for you and it is troublesome to clean and collect. The dish also contains a lot of liver which is not suited for the tastebuds of younger diners. Chia adds that: “Younger people are put off by the pounding and blending of many spices that make up the rempah in many Peranakan dishes and the greasy cooking process.”

Seet, whose repertoire of home recipes make up most of Blue Ginger’s menu when it opened in 1995, recalls that pong tauhu was served in the restaurant’s early days. Today, it is only reserved for private catering. The hearty soup dish comprises meatballs made with tau kwa (beancurd puffs), minced pork and prawn. Blue Ginger’s director, Susan Teo, says: “This dish is not commercially viable. It cannot be kept for more than two days as the tau kwa would turn sour. A lot of steps are involved, from mincing and frying the prawn heads for the stock to making the meatballs. It can take three hours to make a batch from scratch.”
 




At one of Singapore’s oldest Peranakan restaurants, Guan Hoe Soon in Joo Chiat, which was started in 1953, Hainanese owner Kevin Yap, 77, remembers sambal jantong pisang stands out as a spicy and sour appetizer. The piquant dish used to be a staple at tok panjang during weddings. “The banana flower petals need to hand-peeled slowly from the stem, cleaned, boiled before being mixed with cabbage, belimbing and sambal, and finished off with a coconut milk dressing. Yap, who worked as a cooking assistant in Peranakan households in the 1950s, also recalls dishes like itek seo (braised tamarind duck) and babi panggang (char-grilled rempah-rubbed pork belly) that is only available on weekends.

Peranakan Culture Fading From Memory

Another reason behind the disappearance of Peranakan dishes is that the same few dishes such as ayam buah keluak (chicken stewed with Indonesian black nut), babi pongteh (braised pork in fermented soya bean) and chap chye (mixed vegetable stew) keep appearing on menus. Jenny Yap, 54, the third-generation owner of Guan Hoe Soon says: “Younger people and those from new-blood Peranakan families do not know about older dishes so they do not request for them and tend to order the same dishes whenever they dine out.”

Chia points out that if these traditional dishes are gone, Peranakan food heritage will inevitably be diluted. He says: “The younger generation will not know the origins of dishes and understand why each dish tastes a certain way.” For example, he says that many people confuse babi pongteh with babi chin. The latter has a curry-like flavour as coriander powder is added. If one adds too much sugar and the dish becomes babi tauyu bak. He adds that the impression that younger diners have of Peranakan food is “nice” without knowing the nuances of cooking styles and flavours.

The Evolution Of Peranakan Dishes

Chefs and restaurateurs observe that there is a healthy interest in Peranakan cuisine, with relatively consistent business and a slew newer Peranakan restaurant chains such as Peramakan. A big part, they say, is due to the hit 2008 drama television series, The Little Nyonya. Blue Ginger’s Teo says: “We had a tough start in the 1990s as most diners thought that we were selling expensive Malay food. But The Little Nyonya exposed our cuisine to wider audiences across Asia.” The Singapore drama series will see a China-produced remake next year, which Chia will serve as its head consultant for Peranakan food and culture.

However, restaurants have to make adjustments to cater to diners. Blue Ginger has seen one-third of its diners comprise of tourists mainly from Japan and China over the past two years. To strike the balance of serving authentic fare while catering a diverse crowd, the 120-seat restaurant retains the traditional dishes for locals and introduced dishes such as Nyonya-style spring rolls and fried chicken for those who are less adventurous. The restaurant has also seen more young couples opt for Peranakan food during their wedding functions over the past three years.

Guan Hoe Soon’s Jenny Yap adds that the restaurant has adapted its recipes to meet demands from health-conscious diners. “We cut down on the amount of oil when frying our main star, the rempah. The spice flavours remain but it takes a longer time to cook with more control of the fire. We also reduce the amount of liver in our ngoh hiang to 10 per cent of the filling as diners are not used to the taste.”

While she makes tweaks to the dishes, she doesn’t believe in modernising Peranakan dishes such as topping kueh pie tee with black truffles or digging into buah keluak ice cream that is popularised by Candlenut, the world’s only Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant. She says: “If you play with tradition, it is not the type of heritage food and flavours that we would want our grandchildren to remember.”

Keeping Peranakan Food Alive

Chia offers an unorthodox perspective on keeping Peranakan cuisine alive. He has published a cookbook on dainty Peranakan canapes such as ikan assam pedas rebus (ikan parang boiled with rempah tumis and assam served on youtiao (dough fritters) and buah keluak with crackers. He also advocates cooking with more wholesome alternatives, such as switching sugar to stevia (a plant-based substitute) in Nyonya kuehs and he stirs in almond or cashew milk in place of coconut milk in his curries.

Cooking techniques-wise, he has used sous vide machines to cook time-consuming dishes such as babi pongteh and assam fish. According to Chia, the texture and flavours of the meat are “no different” from those cooked with traditional methods. He has also utilised the pressure cooker to show how Peranakan food can be prepared by time-starved working adults. Besides that, he taps on old and new cooking techniques to replicate old-school flavours. He shares that to prevent rendang from drying up in a pressure cooker, he transfer it into a pot to reduce and thicken the gravy.

Chia has even fused Japanese influences into Peranakan cuisine at Ippin Cafe Bar two years ago. He used Japanese ingredients such as Hokkaido oysters and bonito stock in laksa, and shoyu and sake are used as meat marinades. However, he only used substitute ingredients that taste similar to those in the original dish and draws the line at not messing around with rempah, which is the foundation of Peranakan cuisine.

On this brow-rising move, Chia says: “To keep our Peranakan food culture alive, we need to innovate and catch up with the younger generation, or else the culture will die off. We need to get people to continue cooking and eating Peranakan food.”

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