Prior to UPPRE, my exposure to the elaborate Peranakan culture was limited to one thing.
…the television series “Baba & Nyonya”. No, I’m not joking.
Currently, I’m surrounded by it, with me having Peranakan friends and working alongside Peranakan colleagues in an office near a Peranakan restaurant (Limapulo, which you can find our article about it here), and an upcoming Peranakan art auction in November.
Now, food is an integral part of culture and tradition, and Peranakan culture is no different. However, they are essentially snapshots and memories – fixed in time, using the technology of the time to prepare and cook.
So what happens when modernity comes rolling in?
According to Peranakan food expert Debbie Teoh, you evolve too.
“Peranakan is more than just food – it’s a way of life. Current Peranakan fare is different from the past – a lot of steps cannot be done in the present, but the food still remains. It’s all about keeping the heritage alive.”
Debbie’s a true blue Nyonya – her father’s a Baba from Malacca, and her mother a Nyonya from Penang – and has close to 20 years of experience in the food industry. But we ask, when did that passion for food (more specifically, Peranakan food) start?
It all began when she was in Form Five or about 17 years old. “That time, restaurants did not depict ‘real’ Peranakan food.” To the casual observer, we wouldn’t bat an eyelash, but for Debbie, the details mattered. “When people aren’t well-versed in the regional differences, they simply mix the ingredients – they compromise.”
Debbie also knows that the younger generation is put off by long cooking times, which is a key part in Peranakan cuisine.
It is a long and tedious food culture, and not a lot of the younger generation want to pick that up.
For Peranakan dishes, cooking times should take at least six hours, and you shouldn’t consume it right away. One has to leave it aside to maximise flavour, so there’s a layer of delayed gratification built into the recipe. With the hustle and bustle of today and the age of “instant everything”, it’s hard to set aside hours to simmer, but like all good things, it’s worth the wait.
She does admit that it is (in her words) a “dying” culture, but she knows a few methods of resuscitation.
To appeal to affluent urbanites, she’s integrating a bit of the West into the East. “Right now, we can have a ‘hip’ introduction to Peranakan food. We now have a wine-and-dine concept, where the meal is paired with the appropriate wine.” Incidentally, Peranakans back in their prime were also drawn to outside influences and the West was no stranger at all. “We have food promotions, and even cookouts,” she continued.
“In Kuala Lumpur, we do have exhibitions where we take the opportunity to convey knowledge about certain dishes to attendees. For instance, pong teh is a must-have dish for ancestral worship. People aren’t aware, they just eat, and it is through these events that we awaken interest, that different dishes have a different meaning.”
Restaurants like Limapulo is an example of Peranakan food appealing to the city crowd – especially working folk. With its strategic location (within vicinity of a lot of offices), it targets the lunch crowd through affordably-priced offerings, and when the sun sets, the restaurant serves its ala carte menu, knowing that patrons aren’t confined to a time limit. This, and its aesthetic harkens back to the past, where wood, metal and porcelain meet under yellow lights.
Of course, there’s also using current platforms like social media and video streams to move with the times and get into the digital screens. “We have done cookbooks and short videos, and I’m trying to do a simpler version to hopefully entice the younger generation. Sometimes, they look at the ingredient list and they go, ‘I don’t know what this is.’
Debbie also thinks that the long cooking times can be Peranakan cooking’s vantage point. “Peranakan food has to be cooked for a minimum of six hours to a day, for the flavours to fully mature. So it’s perfect for entertaining your guests. Say you have a small party, you can prepare earlier and serve later.”
Ultimately, what Debbie is doing – all the cookbooks, videos and television appearances – is to do one thing, and that is to keep the culture alive. “I hope that people will learn and re-learn the culture and heritage, and that they find it interesting to return to their roots.”
Whether it be through circumstances (like migration) or the progression of modernity, cultures always evolve, lest it remains an unused relic of the past. A cultural identity will only stand as long as there are curators watching and practising them, like Debbie.
And with her active efforts in preserving and educating, perhaps Peranakan culture hasn’t lost its life, after all.
Debbie was featured in “ In Search of the Straits Born with Julian Davison”, part of National Geographic’s “A Peranakan Heritage” event. For more information, do check the microsite for “A Peranakan Heritage”: http://www.peranakanheritage.com/
For those keen to dive into Peranakan culture, there is a Peranakan art auction coming soon, titled, “”Treasures of the Peranakan World”. Organised by Henry Butcher Asset Auctioneers, the auction is a collaboration with Peranakan expert Henry Bong. All are welcome to have a look at the various lots for sale. Here are the details:
6 November 2016 (Sunday)
GALERI PRIMA, Balai Berita, 31 Jalan Riong, 59100 Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
For more information, contact:
Anna Yusoff, email@example.com