Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Experiencing the Peranakan culture at Katong

In the hope to learn a little more about the Peranakan culture after my recent visits to the Peranakan Museum, I went to one of the libraries under the National Library Board to search for related books on this subject.

For myself who is a non-Peranakan, I have found Catherine GS Lim's Gateway to Peranakan Culture to be a book that provides accessible information on the Peranakan culture, specifically that of the Peranakan Chinese. There is a similar book titled Gateway to Peranakan Food Culture by Tan Gek Suan that lends insights to the Peranakan cuisine.

Images source: http://www.asiapacbooks.com

While reading related books could lend me insights to the Peranakan culture, I think learning truly comes alive when one gets to experience the culture. I have had a mini-adventure trying out Peranakan cuisine and viewing objects that are commonly used by the Peranakans when fellow blogger, Eastcoastlife, very graciously showed me about various parts of Katong.

One is likely to ask: "Who are the Peranakans?". According to what I have found on the website of the Peranakan Association Singapore,
the word Peranakan means 'local born' in Malay. It refers to the Peranakan Chinese as well as other Peranakan communities which developed in South-east Asia. These include the Chitty Melaka (Indian), Kristang (Eurasian) and the Jawi Peranakans.

My recent visit to Katong with Eastcoastlife brought me to experience snippets of the Peranakan Chinese culture. From what I have gathered from Catherine GS Lim's Gateway to Peranakan Culture, the Peranakan Chinese community has its origins in the interracial marriages between immigrant Chinese men and non-Muslim women in the 16th century. With this background knowledge, it became interesting to see how elements of the Chinese culture and the traditions common to the natives of the Malay archipelago fuse and influence the culture of the Peranakan Chinese.

The first stop of Eastcoastlife and yours truly while we were at Katong was Kim Choo Kueh Chang - Restaurant. A keen observer would be able to spot elements that hint of Chinese and Malay influences in this restaurant that sells Peranakan cuisine.

As seen in the photo found above, sambal belachan (pounded chillies with toasted shrimp paste) and achar (pickled vegetables) are normally served at every Peranakan meal. The use of belachan is, as best as I understand, integral in Malay and Indonesian cuisines. The use of sambal belachan is probably an example of how the Peranakan cusine is being influenced by the Malay and Indonesian cuisine.

Notice the designs on the crockery. In a Peranakan household, the crockery would often be made of porcelain. The crockery would often bear designs influenced to some extent by Chinese art. However, the designs tend to be more elaborate, floral and colourful than the designs found on Chinese ceramic crockery.

In Tan Gek Suan's Gateway to Peranakan Food Culture, it was said by one of the interviewees that the ayam buah keluak is most representative of the Peranakan cuisine. The buah keluak is the Malay name for black nut. From what I have read, in Peranakan Chinese cuisine, the mature nuts would be cracked and cook with chicken and pork in a spicy stew. The kernel of the nuts would then be scooped out, minced with shrimps and blended with spices to make a paste. The paste would later be stuffed back into the previously emptied buah keluak shells. The stuffed buah keluak would then be cooked with chicken.

Closed-up of ayam buah keluak.

At Kim Choo Kueh Chang - Restaurant, diners will be provided with special fork-like utensils to scoop out the stuffings from the buah keluak. It does take quite some practice to scoop out the stuffings completely from the buah keluak.

At the second level of the Kim Choo Kueh Chang - Restaurant is Kim Choo Kueh Chang - Gallery which showcases Nonya Beadwork & Embroidery, Nonya Kebaya and Nonya Porcelain. I saw this round dining table at the second level.

The Peranakans, as I have read, would usually entertain their guest by treating them to a sumptuous meal at home. When there were a lot of guests, a long table (tok panjang) would be set up. Otherwise, a round dining table would usually be preferred because every diner can reach for the food easily at a round dining table. If you notice the forks and spoons on the dining table, I read that these were usually used when the Peranakans socialise and dine with the Europeans in the past. Now, this is how learning can come alive: when one gets to see and experience what were mentioned in the books.

If what you have read in this post interests you, you may wish to read the two books that were mentioned in this post or any other books on the Peranakan culture. You could also visit the Peranakan museum to catch a good glimpse of the crockery used by the Peranakan. Better still, experience the Peranakan culture for yourself.

My words of appreciation to Eastcoastlife for showing me about the Katong area. I appreciate her company and hospitality.

- http://www.peranakan.org.sg
- Lim, Catherine, G.S. (2003). Gateway to Peranakan Culture. Singapore: Asiapac Books.
- Tan, Gek Suan. (2004). Gateway to Peranakan Food Culture. Singapore: Asiapac Books.


mistipurple said...

i'm brought up part peranakan, that's why i can speak malay (a little).
nice post. :)

eastcoastlife said...

You did a lot of research on the Peranakan culture. :)

The meal at Kim Choo wasn't that fantastic.... we should try a better restaurant next time. And thank you for treating me to the meal! I will treat you next. I'm thinking of something unique. :) Another different culture. Keen?

Anonymous said...

My maternal grandma was part peranakan too. I brought some of the spoons handed down to her by her grandma over to Minnesota with me. I have the Gateway to Peranakan Culture book too.

oceanskies79 said...

Misti: Thanks. Would you like to blog about how you were brought up part Peranakan.

Eastcoastlife: The research was only sufficient for a simple post. My pleasure to give you a treat. I wasn't expecting one from you. Thanks for your kind offer nevertheless.

Dawn: Looks like you have some legacies from your maternal grandma. Treasure them.

Katong Gal said...

Hi, glad you enjoyed your walk around Katong! It's such a charming part of Singapore.

oceanskies79 said...

Katong Gal: Thanks for visiting. Yes, indeed. :)