Peranakan Cuisine in Singapore

Category: Food Heritage

Peranakan cuisine can be described as a hybrid of Chinese (mainly Hokkien but also Hainanese), Malay, Indian, Thai and Western colonial (Portuguese, Dutch and English) influences. The term Peranakan generally refers to people of mixed Chinese, Malay and Indonesian heritage, although not all Peranakans are of Chinese ancestry.

The Nonya buffet spread at the Luna Coffee House, Apollo HotelThe Nonya buffet spread at the Luna Coffee House, Apollo Hotel. Source: Roots.sg

Peranakan cuisine reflects its hybridised roots through the use of Malay spices such as belachan (dried fermented shrimp paste) and daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaf) as well as ingredients more common to Chinese food such as pork and kiam chye (pickled vegetable). There are also regional variations, which reflect the influences of the geographical location of each community, although these are becoming less distinct over time.

An example is laksa, noodles served in a curry-based soup. In Singapore and Southern Malaysia, the curry is lemak (creamy) as it contains santan (coconut milk), while the curry in Penang and Northern Malaysia is prepared with fish stock, tamarind and pineapple instead, giving it a more sour taste.

Other famous Peranakan dishes include ayam buah keluak (chicken braised in thick spicy gravy made with the black Indonesian buah keluak nut), babi pongteh (a pork stew seasoned with taucheo or yellow bean paste) and nyonya kueh (cakes made with ingredients like gula melaka and coconut). These festive dishes would have been prepared during festive periods such as Chinese New Year and less well-known are the simpler, daily home-cooked dishes.

Food is therefore one of the most distinctive aspects of Peranakan culture, and preparing Peranakan dishes is a skill passed down to family members, most particularly between mother and daughter(s) and/or daughter(s)-in-law.

However, there is no one “conventional” way of cooking Peranakan food as the process differs by individual, and indeed, preparation methods constantly evolve, such as using blenders to mix spices instead of pounding them by hand with a mortar and pestle. In spite of that, Peranakan food continues to be popular in Singapore, with flourishing Peranakan restaurants and many published cookbooks of family recipes. 


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