Peranakan food: A guide to one of Southeast Asia's most popular cuisines

Rachel Phua, CNNUpdated 14th March 2022
(CNN) — One of Southeast Asia's most interesting cuisines, Peranakan food is primarily found in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Bursting with flavors and colors, it's distinct for its mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian ingredients and cooking methods.
Main dishes are usually rich in gravy, and full of herbs and spices (the Malay influence), but often use pork and fermented soy bean paste (the Chinese influence).
Food was often served at room temperature, because they ate with their hands, a Malay practice.
"It's one of the first fusion cuisines," says Lloyd Matthew Tan, author of "Daily Nonya Dishes: Heritage Recipes for Everyday Meals."

The roots of a culture and a menu

Peranakan culture was birthed in the 15th century when Chinese men moved south to seek their fortunes, later marrying the local Malay women.
Being "Peranakan" means to be "locally born," a term used by the community to set themselves apart from the newer Chinese immigrants who arrived in Singapore and Malaysia in the 19th and early-20th centuries.
Men were called "Babas" and women "Nonyas." There were also Peranakans not of Chinese ancestry, such as the Jawi Peranakans and Arab Peranakans, but the Chinese Peranakans were the largest group.
By then, the Chinese Peranakan community had already established their own identity. Instead of speaking Mandarin, they spoke a mix of English, Malay and Hokkien. They were Anglicized and built good rapport with the colonial settlers. Many became bureaucrats or traders. Some became ultra-rich -- a stereotype that continues today, as seen in the movie "Crazy Rich Asians."
The Peranakans have been known to hold on to their family recipes tightly, especially in the past. They spent days preparing and perfecting their meals. And since Peranakan women who didn't work were in charge of the home, how a dish looked and was presented became a way to show their skills off.
"We are not zen," says Alvin Yapp, who runs The Intan, a Singapore-based Peranakan museum.
In Singapore, interest in Peranakan cuisine has been revived over the past two decades.
You can find Peranakan food everywhere, from hawker centers to high-end restaurants. In 2016, it received international recognition when Candlenut became the first Peranakan restaurant to win a Michelin star.
Getting the award was a proud moment for Malcolm Lee, Candlenut's chef and owner. The fourth-generation Peranakan picked up the cuisine from his mom, aunt and grandmother.
"It shows that even simple, home-cooked meals can be lauded," he says.
Here are 10 classic dishes that provide a great introduction to Peranakan cuisine.

Ayam buah keluak (chicken stewed with black nuts)

Ayam buah keluak is arguably the most famous Peranakan dish.
Ayam buah keluak is arguably the most famous Peranakan dish.
PixHound/Adobe Stock
Think Peranakan food, and ayam buah keluak is the first dish that comes to peoples' minds.
The star of the dish is the buah keluak, also known as the "black gold of the east" for its truffle, dark chocolatey taste with a foie gras-like texture, says Sharon Wee, author of the cookbook "Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen."
The nuts are sourced from Malaysian and Indonesian mangroves. Freshly-plucked buah keluak contains cyanide, and needs to be fermented for a few months in soil to reduce its toxicity. After the nuts are sold, they have to be soaked and scrubbed over a few days to get rid of the earthy taste.
Some like to cook the nuts straight with the chicken and gravy, but Wee removes the flesh and mixes it with marinated minced pork and shrimp before stuffing it back into the nuts. Then she simmers it with chicken and a gravy of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chillies, shallots, candlenuts, tamarind and coconut milk to create an orange-brown stew best served with rice.

Babi pongteh (braised pork with fermented soybean)

Babi Pongteh is another quintessential Peranakan dish. Pork belly is simmered in a garlic and shallot paste, along with bamboo shoots. Some have replaced the latter with Shiitake mushrooms or potatoes because it's difficult to find fresh bamboo shoots.
What anchors the dish is the fermented soybean paste and toasted ground coriander, says Candlenut's Lee. The paste adds umami, while coriander powder gives it an earthy lift, which balances the heaviness of the pork belly.
The dish is topped with crushed red and green chili, and you can heap it over rice, or scoop it all up with a buttered baguette.

Hee pio soup (fish maw soup)

Hee pio soup is great for cool days.
Hee pio soup is great for cool days.
Courtesy Sharon Wee and Marshall
Hee pio soup is more than just fish maw. It contains a treasure trove of other goodies. Wee makes hers with meatballs, fishballs, chicken, cabbage and egg rolls with fish paste rolled into it, filling a bowl of tasty pork broth.
Peranakans had the soup during their Lunar New Year feasts, she says. It was their fish dish, whereas the Chinese would eat whole fishes to usher in luck.
In Chinese cooking, fish maw -- the swim bladder of a fish -- is a delicacy alongside abalone and sea cucumber. Wee says the soup, though seemingly simple, is a reflection of the lengths the Peranakans would go to serve a lavish meal.

Ngoh hiang (minced pork and shrimp beancurd roll)

Ngoh Hiang is a fried beancurd roll filled with a juicy mix of minced pork, shrimp, water chestnuts, onions and ground coriander.
Some like to add carrots, mushrooms and five-spice powder as well. Then it's steamed and pan-fried.
Lee says he steams his rolls the day before and leaves them in the fridge to rest so that they are crispier and browner when he fries them.
Because it's tedious to prepare, Peranakans love to make batches of these rolls to freeze and serve whenever the occasion calls.

Sambal belachan (shrimp paste chili)

Spicy sambal belachan is not for the weak of heart (or stomach).
Spicy sambal belachan is not for the weak of heart (or stomach).
Huang Yuetao/Adobe Stock
Sambal belachan is the ultimate spice bomb. It goes well with everything, even plain rice.
The chili is made by blending belachan (dried shrimp paste), red chilies, kaffir lime leaves and a pinch of sugar together. Sometimes, roasted garlic and shallots are added as well.
Traditionally, to make belachan, people sun-dried krill, pounded it, formed patties then sun-dried the patties. Nowadays, they're available in the supermarket.
It can be served as a dip with some calamansi lime juice squeezed into it, or you can marinate meat or use it to stir-fry vegetables.

Satay babi (stir-fried chili pork)

Satay babi is a dish that clearly shows the fusion of Chinese and Malay cooking, says Wee. It uses pork, which observant Muslims do not eat, and is fried using a chili paste made of local spices and coconut.
Satay babi was one of the first dishes Peranakan girls would learn how to make. It was a way for 12- and 13-year-olds to learn how to pound a mixture of lemongrass, candlenuts, chilis, shallots and belachan, before cooking it with the pork and coconut milk.
Since there are few steps and ingredients, it was a starting point before learning how to make more complicated dishes like ayam buah keluak.

Hati babi bungkus (minced pork and liver balls)

Hati babi bungkus is challenging to make but very easy to eat.
Hati babi bungkus is challenging to make but very easy to eat.
Courtesy Raymond Khoo
Hati babi bungkus is a rare sight in Peranakan homes nowadays because of how labor-intensive it is to make, meaning you have to try this dish made up of juicy, bouncy meatballs at a restaurant that serves it.
The pork liver has to be de-veined and cubed first, before it's mixed with minced pork, shallots and ground coriander, then wrapped in pig or cow caul lining. Then the balls are steamed, fried and served with pickled mustard greens and chili, says Raymond Khoo, who previously ran Singapore's The Peranakan restaurant.
Being on good terms with a butcher is also crucial to making this dish right, Khoo says jokingly, because you have to coax them to go through the trouble of removing the lining.

Gerang assam (sour and spicy tamarind gravy)

Gerang assam is one of the everyday Peranakan dishes that's cooked with either fish or shrimp.
You start off with a spice paste made of shallots, lemongrass, candlenuts, turmeric, blue ginger, red chilis and belachan, and then mix it with some tamarind juice and a pinch of sugar, before simmering the seafood of your choice in it.
The tamarind, or assam, is what gives this dish a zesty, fresh flavor that is worth every slurp.

Chap chye (mixed vegetable stew)

Chap chye is a great option for vegetarians who wish to try Peranakan food.
Chap chye is a great option for vegetarians who wish to try Peranakan food.
Courtesy Lloyd Matthew Tan
Not a veggie fan? Chap chye will change your mind. The mixed vegetable stew is a hearty pot of cabbage, Shiitake mushrooms, wood ear fungus, lily buds, soybean sticks and vermicelli cooked with fermented soy bean paste and stock.
In the past, it was made with pork belly and shrimps, but you can easily turn it vegetarian. Like babi pongteh, chap chye is a dish used in ancestral and deity worship, says Tan.
Chap chye tastes better the following day once all the ingredients absorb the flavors. And in typical Peranakan style, you eat it with sambal belachan.

Kueh ko sui (palm sugar cake)

Kueh ko sui is arguably the best known Nyonya sweet.
Kueh ko sui is arguably the best known Nyonya sweet.
chee siong teh/Adobe Stock
Here comes dessert! Peranakan food offers up a plethora of sweet treats, and kueh ko sui is one of them. The chewy, wobbly cake is simple to make yet requires the right ingredients and measurements to perfect.
The cake is made by combining gula melaka (palm sugar), rice flour, tapioca flour and lye water together. The mixture is steamed, cut into cubes, and tossed in freshly grated coconut.
How bouncy the cake is depends on the ratio of rice and tapioca flour, as well as the amount of lye water added, says Annette Tan, the chef of Peranakan private dining venue Fatfuku. High-quality gula melaka is also needed to create a slightly smoky taste, she adds.