A Unique Blend

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.

Chinatown-IMG_1774-AUG13-Issue 6-QRM

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.

main1

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.

main4

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

Share this story, choose your platform!

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on tumblr
Share on google
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on vk
Share on email
About the author:

Leave a Comment

Traveling And Tourism Essential Hacks To Know For Parents

Are you planning to travel with your family for the first time? Well, to be honest, it is overwhelming. However, you may face a few challenges when you are doing it for the first or second time, and it will get easier and more comfortable by the time you travel with your kids. You should

Read More »

Best beaches you can’t miss in Vietnam

1.   Nha Trang Beach, Nha Trang The “Vegas” of Vietnam, Nha Trang, is a beautiful city backdrop to one of the best beaches in the country. The beach stretches for kilometres, lined with shops, hotels, and restaurants. The shallow water boasts amazing coral reefs if you swim further out. You can enjoy the beach during

Read More »

5 of Singapore’s Most Underrated Tourist Destinations

Gardens by the Bay (tickets), Singapore Flyer, Universal Studios Singapore (tickets), Marina Bay Sands, and Sentosa Island are just a few of the most exciting places to check out in the Lion City. These go-to spots offer lots of opportunities for visitors to have fun, go on adventures, and experience the best of the city-state.

Read More »

11 things to do in London in just one day

What are the main attractions in London? London has a great historical legacy that rivals that of any other city in the world, and it is also at the forefront of innovation. You can lose yourself in its museums; enjoy the best live arts; go clubbing and pub crawling, or simply follow in the footsteps

Read More »

Is Horse Racing A Popular Sport In South-East Asia?

With horse racing being one of the oldest sports on the planet, it is common to see traces of it in different locations around the globe. Even though most people tie horse racing with Europe and the United States, there are other regions like Asia that are the sport’s most progressive markets. Thanks to modern

Read More »