How a surge in the Chinese population influenced Singaporean-Malay cuisine

What do San Francisco and Dongguan have in common? Both are major worldwide boomtowns, but chances are you’ve never heard of the second one, whose population is already 10 times that of San Francisco. There are dozens of Chinese cities with populations of over one million people and more crop up every year. Shanghai, the largest in China, boasts nearly 24 million permanent residents, not counting the millions of unregistered migrant workers there. That makes Shanghai roughly more populous than all of Australia.

While mainland China is experiencing its own super growth, over the past century and a half, the Chinese have notably contributed to boomtowns around the world. Millions of Chinese migrated to sundry distant lands, often seeking better lives and opportunities for their families. Boomtowns during the 19th century Gold Rush period drew many thousands to America and Australia to work in the mines and to help build the US Transcontinental Railroad. Others became merchants, farmers and restaurateurs, introducing for the first time the exotic flavors of the Far East to the New World. Traditional Chinese dishes underwent significant changes along the way, due to the limited availability of key ingredients and persnickety local palates. General Tso’s chicken and fortune cookies, for example, are considered characteristically Chinese in the West but are practically unheard of in mainland China.

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Elsewhere, new cuisines developed which fuse elements of seemingly incompatible cooking styles. Many Chinese also migrated to tropical Southeast Asian locales such as Penang and Singapore, which became major trading ports under British rule during the 19th century, to work as coolies on the docks. Here Chinese cuisine mingled more easily as the Malay population was already accustomed to spicy food. As first generation Chinese immigrants married indigenous Malays, their children became known as Peranakan, a Malay word meaning “locally born.” A distinct ethnic group with its own unique customs eventually developed from the blending of Malaysian and Chinese cultures.

Auntie’s Home Cooking
Peranakan cuisine, also known as Nonya cuisine (Nonya being a term of endearment for Malay women similar to “Auntie”), marries Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients such as wok frying and pork to Malaysian and Indonesian spices and flavors like tamarind, ginger and lemongrass. Chilies feature prominently, as do coconut milk and belacan, or dried shrimp paste. Combinations of these ingredients are ground into a fragrant paste to form the base of the cuisine’s zesty dishes which are enhanced by exotic leaves such as pandan, laksa and kaffir lime.

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Keen to sample Peranakan cooking while in Singapore, I headed to Blue Ginger (97 Tanjong Pagar Road, Chinatown) a restaurant located in a colorfully restored shophouse deep in the city’s Chinatown. Touted as serving some of the best Peranakan food in Singapore, Blue Ginger has the simple goal of recreating meals from the owners’ childhoods.

The unique flavor combinations of the various dishes tantalized me. Chinese fivespice gave a hint of sweetness to the Ngo Heong, which were deep-fried rolls of minced pork and shrimp. Blue Ginger’s tiger prawns cooked in savory gravy, Udang Nonya, was pleasantly tangy thanks to the juicy chunks of pineapple cooked into the dish. Ayam Panggang, the house roast chicken specialty, was drenched with a stunning coconut milk, tamarind juice and ginger sauce that celebrated the classic Peranakan flavors.

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The showstopper was Ikan Goreng Cili Garam, deep-fried sea bass smothered in fiery chili and tomato chutney and a generous handful of cilantro. The whole fish was presented, with fins spread and mouth open as though it were a flying fish bursting forth from the ocean in escape from a predator. Intimidating to behold, the dish was a culinary tour de force. Not having grown up in a Peranakan household, I don’t have much experience by which to judge the meal, but by the time I was finished, I wanted to find a Peranakan grandmother to adopt me!

Given their number, it’s not surprising that the Chinese have played an important role building boomtowns across the globe. But as in the example of Singapore, the boomtown dynamism can sometimes be the result of two cultures meeting to create something entirely new.

Free Vietnam Trip Nyonya Restaurant

In HCMC, try Peranakan cuisine at Nyonya Restaurant on 58 Dong Du, D1

Bio: Shanghai-based Heather Hall has discovered a particular fondness for the climate, cuisines, and friendly people of Southeast Asia. Read more about her adventures at www.ferretingoutthefun.com

Images of Chinatown Festival and Chinese restaurant display case by Quinn Ryan Mattingly