In her beautiful home in Kuala Lumpur, 73-year-old Rosita Abdullah Lau is bustling about her kitchen with the energy and vigour of a woman half her age.
“Come, try some of this,” she beckons as she ladles some chap chai into a little bowl.
“It’s delicious,” I say after a few mouthfuls and Rosita’s face breaks into a warm, gentle smile.
“You know, no two home cooks are the same. Every family does it differently, this is just my family’s way that I learnt when I was growing up,” she says.
And indeed, Rosita’s formative years left such an indelible impression on her that she published a book on her Peranakan Chinese community – the incredibly detailed Waterfront Heirlooms: Reflections Of The Kampong China Peranakan.
The book is published under My Viscom Editions (registered under Rosita and her son) and was inspired by a chapter in her award-winning 2009 publication Kulit Manis: A Taste Of Terengganu’s Heritage, which nabbed the World’s Best Local Cuisine Book 2010 at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris.
“It has been half a century since I left Kampong China and I thought it was time for me to do something before it is all lost,” says Rosita who left her home at 19 to marry into the Terengganu royal family.
It took Rosita eight long years to get the project off the ground mostly because she had to generate the funding to put together a well-researched tome detailing the intricacies of the community.
In the end, she spent over RM500,000 on the book (even selling off land that her father gave her), most of it channelled towards hiring the right writers, photographers and collaborators for the project. Rosita and her team also spent years cataloguing charming anecdotes and stories from residents of the area as well as unearthing black-and-white images that tell a compelling story of the waterfront way of life.
“This book has my whole soul in it,” she says simply.
Who are the Kampong China Peranakan?
Rosita’s book posits the belief that the Chinese settled in Terengganu in the early part of the 15th century, around the time the great Chinese maritime explorer Admiral Cheng Ho made his landing in Melaka in 1409.
If this is indeed true, this would make the Peranakan Chinese in Terengganu one of the oldest Peranakan communities in Malaysia.
According to Rosita’s book, Cheng Ho was purported to have made a pit stop at Sungei Nerus, a tributary of Sungai Terengganu at Kampong Jeram. When he continued his journey, as many as 20,000 of his officers stayed behind. To this day, many Terengganu Chinese still believe themselves to be descendants of Cheng Ho’s crew.
Currently, the oldest clan in Kampong China can still trace its origins back to 1770.
The pioneer settlers of Kampong China, also known as Teng Lang Poh (which means Chinese village) set up home on the southern bank of the estuary of Sungai Terengganu. Most were Hokkiens from China’s Fujian province, which explains why the Peranakan Chinese in Terengganu still speak Hokkien.
It is believed that many of the Kampong China Peranakan’s ancestors were Chinese immigrants who assimilated by marrying local Malay, Thai and Indochinese women.
Interestingly, the community does not really see themselves as Peranakan, instead referring to themselves as cheng mua lang or “sarong-clad people”.
Rosita grew up in Kampong China, which is essentially a tiny 800m-long village with two facing rows of houses, some with liam boey (timber decks) on stilts stretched out over the river, hence yielding stunning waterfront views (like the one Rosita lived in) and others that had hillside views. The area also included all kinds of shops.
“We used to have 200 houses – residents and shops, like bicycle, hardware and sundry shops – anything you wanted you could get on the street.
“The houses were all extended on the river, and in one house, there were often two or three families staying there. Like in my house – my family and my uncle’s family stayed together, separated by just a connecting door,” she says.
Because the river formed such a strong part of the Kampong China Peranakan’s daily life, Rosita has fond memories of carefree days spent swimming, fishing, harvesting oysters and crabbing as a child.
Fishermen even used to come by on their boats to see if residents wanted fresh fish as each house had a ladder going down to the river for just these sorts of purchases!
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the community is their cuisine. In her 288-page book, Rosita devotes over 50 pages to cataloguing and documenting the recipes of her community.
While some of the recipes have been provided by Rosita herself, others have been generously shared by residents of Kampong China who have willingly parted with fiercely guarded family recipes that have hitherto remained unknown to the general public.
The food of the community
The Kampong China Peranakans have retained many of their Chinese ethnic culinary customs but over time, have also adopted ingredients from their Malaysian homeland. The community typically eats staple meals like fish and rice, and surprisingly eat with their hands, having imbibed the local Malay culture of doing so.
In the past, the kitchen was the heart of the home and the place where matriarchs in the community wielded the most authority. Before the availability of gas stoves, cooking was typically done over wood fire or charcoal.
“Firewood was cut mainly from the rubber trees, pokok jambu arang (guava tree) and paperbark tree. Dried coconut shells were also commonly used as fuel, particularly in cooking kuay (kuih),” says Rosita in the book.
Peranakan home cooks swore by tried-and-tested labour-intensive methods that involved using chiok boh (stone hand mill to make rice flour and glutinous rice flour), batu lesong (pestle and mortar) and lesong kayu (wooden mortar and pestle).
Because food played such a prominent role in the community’s lives back then, many of their expressions are related to the act of eating and savouring food – "lemek lonyek" means too soft, "gasa" means to taste while "manis leteng" translates to extremely sweet.
Common ingredients in the cuisine include pandan leaves, coconut milk, grated coconut paste, slaked lime (kapur) and belacan, which were all adapted to suit the Chinese palate.
One of the essential elements in the daily meals is kay (budu) and kay chiap (budu sauce sweetened with palm sugar).
Fish was also very common in the local diet because of the proximity to the river – many locals simply caught fish themselves from the comfort of their homes.
Examples of fish that were once prominent in their daily diet included golden snapper (kakap merah), black sea bream, Indian mackerel, Spanish mackerel and tuna.
“As children, we were always swimming in the river, so we were always so hungry, so often we would just have fried fish with kicap manis,” recalls Rosita.
The Peranakan Chinese also have many auspicious occasions which call for different meals to be served. Like the Hungry Ghost Festival, where dishes are presented in multiples of four. Many of these dishes can even be split into two meals (phak siang in Hokkien).
An example of meals where this separation can take place is keh koh and keh kutub which are essentially dishes with meat and eggs, which can be divided into smaller meals – so one bowl consists of just eggs and the other just meat.
Rosita’s keh koh is delicious – cooked in a thick, caramel-like sweet sauce till the meat is tender and can be pulled apart easily from the bones.
“Children love this because it’s sweet. My own children like it too,” says Rosita.
Keh char yiam or salt-fried chicken is another delicious meal from the community that consists of chicken fried until it has an almost – but not quite – floss-like quality. The meat is brittle and slightly crispy and the garlic in the mixture adds lovely aromatic notes to the entire concoction.
“So this one is just salted chicken that is shredded and you just use oil and garlic for flavour and fry it until it’s crisp. And I don’t take away the bones, because they are so nice to nibble on,” she says.
Ah mak hu gulai is based on Rosita’s mother’s heirloom recipe and pays tribute to local influences, as it veers more towards a fiery Malay-style gulai, although the kay chiap dipping sauce served on the side alludes to the community’s trademark sauce.
Chap chai lemak or mixed vegetables cooked in coconut milk is a light, flavourful affair filled with an assortment of vegetables like Chinese mushrooms, black fungus, lily buds and sweet potatoes.
This dish has an interesting history as typically on the eve of a Peranakan wedding in Kampong China, offerings will be made to the God of Heavens, including the dried ingredients included in this dish. The next day, to avoid wastage, the dried ingredients are cooked alongside sweet potatoes to serve as a vegetarian dish to wedding guests.
Nearly forgotten legacy
Without Rosita’s book, the culinary legacy and identity of the Peranakans in Kampong China would likely have been forgotten, as sadly their numbers are fast dwindling with the average age of the remaining residents standing at 60.
Many members of the community have left the settlement and not returned. As a result, Rosita’s interviews with current and previous folks of the area are probably the only accurate accounts of the community left.
In 2005, the Terengganu state government gazetted the area as a heritage site, but so much has been lost already.
“There has been land reclamation, so all the residents have lost their waterfronts – one of my aunts cried because her kitchen had to be cut up! And now the water is murky and the factories upstream wash everything down. Last time the water was crystal clear, you could see the fish in the river.
When we ate crabs, we would throw the shells into the river and you could see all the fish swimming up, you could even catch them if you wanted,” says Rosita.
Another good thing that has risen from the book is a documentary titled The Last 800 Metres with filmmaker Jennifer Phillips (who has Peranakan lineage) at the helm.
The 90-minute documentary is scheduled to be completed by November next year and will provide insight into the culture, identity and lives of the elderly residents of Kampong China.
Rosita acknowledges that the halcyon days of her childhood are long gone and the riverine way of life doesn’t really exist, except in her memories.
But some elements of the community can continue to live on if people of her generation choose to share their wisdom with the younger generation.
“Life is changing, I feel very sad – I keep wanting to cry because I miss my parents and that connection to the community. But we are the link to the next generation and since we cannot keep everything else the way it was, the food at least will maintain and capture our culture and with that, there is hope,” she says.
Waterfront Heirlooms: Reflections Of The Kampong China Peranakan is available at Kinokuniya KLCC at RM250.
KEH HONG (PERANAKAN SWEET SAUCE CHICKEN WITH DUCK EGGS)
2kg chicken, quartered
1/4 cup cooking oil
1 1/2 bulbs garlic, chopped
100-150g palm sugar, shaved
5 tbsp preserved soy bean paste
6 hard boiled duck eggs, shelled
3 tbsp kaychiap (Peranakan sweet sauce)
500ml chicken stock
In a pot, bring enough water to boil to cover the chicken. Place chicken in the boiling water and add some salt. Boil chicken until just cooked. Remove chicken and set aside to cool. Strain the stock.
Debone chicken and tear meat into big chunks.
Heat the oil in a wok and saute garlic until fragrant and just starting to brown. Add the palm sugar, stirring continuously until it caremelises. Lower heat and stir until bubbles appear, making sure garlic does not burn.
Add soy bean paste, stirring for about 1 minute before adding chicken, eggs and kaychiap. Continue stirring until chicken is well mixed with the gravy.
Add chicken stock. Bring to a slow boil and simmer for about 30 minutes or until a little gravy is left.
KEH CHAR YIAM (SALT FRIED CHICKEN)
11/2 kg chicken, quartered
salt to taste
1 cup cooking oil
1 bulb garlic, chopped or whole
salt and sugar to taste
Rub chicken with salt. Put the chicken in a pot of boiling water sufficient to cover the chicken. Cook until tender.
Remove chicken, set aside to cool. Debone the chicken and shred the meat to medium to big size pieces.
Heat cooking oil in a wok and saute garlic till fragrant. Add in chicken meat and salt to taste. Add more oil if chicken sticks to the wok.
Continue to fry over low to medium heat until the meat is golden in colour and crispy on the outside. Serve with rice or on its own as a snack.