Straits-born cuisine has long been synonymous with the Straits-born Chinese. The two are indefatigably intertwined in a relationship that often brooks no argument and certainly has few dissenting voices.
For reference, Straits-born Chinese essentially refers to the Peranakan Chinese community (made up mostly of the descendants of Chinese male traders of Hokkien descent who married local women centuries ago) and largely settled in Penang, Melaka and Singapore.
But in putting together her latest cookbook, In A Straits-Born Kitchen, experienced author and prolific cookbook collector Lee Geok Boi realised that Straits-born food isn’t just restricted to Straits-born Chinese cuisine. Instead, it covers a wider umbrella of Peranakan food that encompasses the Chetti community in Melaka, Eurasians and Indonesian-Malays as well.
So Lee ended up putting together a much larger cookbook instead, in homage to all the groups of people she now considers to be Straits-born.
Lee says the prevalence in the link between Straits-born Chinese and Straits-born cuisine is likely the direct result of the Straits-born Chinese being more visible in mainstream consciousness.
“It probably originated from the prominence of Peranakan Chinese domestic goddesses. The first cookbook labelled as ‘Nonya cooking’ was by Mrs Lee Chin Koon, the mother of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Early Penang Peranakan cookbooks were all by Peranakan Chinese.
“There are very few Eurasian cookbooks and yet Eurasians are the true Peranakan. Were it not for intermarriage between local women and Portuguese and Dutch adventurers who came to an unknown part of the world, there would be no Eurasian communities.
“There are no Chetti Peranakan cookbooks, perhaps because the community is so small and intermarriage into the larger and more prominent Indian Muslim community may have shrunk the Hindu Chetti community further.
“Yet they were the earliest Peranakans because South Indian traders were sailing to this part of the world centuries ago, bringing Indian cultural influences to South-East Asia, ” affirms Lee.
The septuagenarian Lee is ideally positioned to write this cookbook that serves to capture the history and recipes of the Straits-born community. Her parents are from Penang (the family eventually moved to Singapore) and she is a Straits-born Chinese. She also has a voracious appetite for cookbooks and recipes, and as a consequence, has an extensive range of cookbooks in her possession. This is on top of the cookbooks she devoured at the National Library in Singapore, where she once worked as a librarian.
Lee is also a former journalist and a prolific cookbook author who helmed a cooking column in a Singaporean newspaper, which gave her a lot of fodder and helped spearhead the documentation of her family recipes.
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The trouble with documenting the early origins of gastronomy and cuisine in Malaysia and Singapore is that much of the history of these meals of yore were passed down through oral tradition and the tales of itinerant storytellers (penglipur lara).
There was no codification or written texts at the time, unlike countries like France and England which have books and records on food dating back centuries ago.
So to put together the historical aspect of her cookbook, Lee pored over history books and research material, including Japanese researcher Akima Matsuyama’s illuminating Traditional Dietary Culture of Southeast Asia: Its Formation and Pedigree.
Combing through those texts, she was able to discover how food evolved with the introduction of more varied ingredients to the region. For example, the Portuguese introduced Central American chillies to Melaka, which in turn transformed many meals – the sambal belacan of today certainly wouldn’t exist without this crucial ingredient.
Lee also writes about how Indian and Arab trading ships were responsible for bringing spices from far away, like coriander from Italy, fennel from southern Europe and west Asia, and cinnamon from Sri Lanka. These new spices co-mingled with existing ingredients in the Malay peninsula like lemongrass, galangal, pandan leaves, kaffir lime leaves, blue pea flower, coconut and torch ginger bud.
And when new communities were born – namely the Chettis in Melaka (South Indian traders who married local women as early as the 11th century and are likely the first community of Peranakans in Malaysia), the Peranakan Chinese and the Eurasians (Portuguese or Dutch men who married local women starting from the 16th century) – new dishes were once again created.
These new culinary outputs were gleaned from both the vast variety of ingredients progressively available in the country as well as the backgrounds and religious leanings of many of these newly-formed communities. This resulted in a potpourri of new meals, assembled from the hybrid nature of these communities – although there are some similarities too.
“The treatment of vegetables and seafood are very similar: sour, spicy seafood curries, grilled seafood eaten with sambal belacan, for example. Vegetables are often made into kerabu and salads flavoured with typical South-east Asian ingredients such as sambal belacan, lime juice, belimbing and other sour fruit. The same goes for the kuih-kuih and stewed desserts like pengat and bubor terigu, ” says Lee.
Lee says the point at which many of these communities diverge sharply is in the consumption of meat. While Eurasians typically consume all kinds of meat, Straits Chinese rarely seem to eat beef or mutton while Chettis are Hindu and so never eat beef.
Lee’s research also unearthed some of the earliest cookbooks to document these recipes, including a 1931 cookbook titled The YWCA of Malaya Cookery Book that directly referenced Straits Chinese recipes in a line-up that included otak-otak, popiah goreng and pork sambal.
Lee’s research and her own experiences with Straits Chinese food have given her the added advantage of a broader overview of the cuisine. Which is why she found it doubly hard to pick recipes that represented both her own culinary heritage as well as the roots and culture of the other Straits-born communities. In the end, Lee ended up having to cull many great recipes as she simply ran out of space!
“Many are family recipes. My aunt who lived most of her life in Alor Setar was a fabulous cook and was able to come up with recipes for the dishes that she enjoyed in Penang and in the elite Malay social circles in Alor Setar that she had access to. So quite a few of our family recipes came from her.
“My mother, too, was a good cook and I was a collector of recipes from cookbooks, magazines, newspapers, school friends and even a teacher whenever I came across something I liked. Even my father collected recipes although he never cooked. My mother had to try them out and some became family recipes. Over time, I tweaked these recipes to suit my taste, ” she says.
In the cookbook, you will discover a diverse range of recipes in the ilk of belimbing and prawn kerabu, Penang mee sua, lauk pindang, ikan bakar, ayam tempra, pie tee, duck vindaloo, pengat pisang and sambal ikan bilis.
All are prefaced by useful introductions either detailing the origins of the dish or highlighting the best ways to cook and eat it. This makes for interesting reading as a quick peek through the pages will reveal all sorts of fascinating information.
For example, did you know that nasi kuning was prepared as a ritual offering for ancestor worship by the Chettis in Melaka? Or that pulut rempah udang was once a familiar staple at Penang Straits Chinese weddings?
Even the origins of words are examined in the book. For example, in the dish of ayam tempra, Lee explains how the word “tempra” seems to have been assimilated from the Portuguese word “tempero” which means seasoning.
Although many of the recipes seem to lean heavily towards Lee’s own background, meaning there is a definite preponderance for Straits Chinese Penang-style recipes, it is heartening that she has made efforts to include dishes she herself is relatively unfamiliar with, like the Chetti style pindang ikan, which she gleaned from research and her own knowledge of South Indian food.
Lee was also adamant about making sure the recipes were properly quantified so that modern home cooks could easily attempt them. This was also to remedy the fact that many old Peranakan recipes were passed down orally using the agak-agak (guesstimation) method.
“All these recipes had to be quantified. If you want someone new to the dish to get a dish similar to yours, you have to give fairly exact proportions. Of course, the cook may modify or substitute ingredients depending on availability but the modification or substitution cannot be too drastic or you will get a different dish.
“Often after one test, my recipe was good to go because my estimates were fairly accurate. Cooking is chemistry. The correct proportions will produce a bombshell of a dish or a dud, ” she says.
Ultimately Lee says In A Straits-Born Kitchen is more than an attempt at chronicling some of the recipes of the Straits-born communities. Instead she hopes it serves as a walk through memory lane and the roots of the Peranakan communities that now neither have the strength of numbers on their side nor the treasured memory vaults of old-timers who still remember long-forgotten recipes from their halcyon childhood days. So while many of those recipes are long gone, Lee hopes to preserve what is left with her book.
“Much of the history of iconic Straits-born food is buried in the memories of old folks and already much has been lost with the passing of the pre-war generation. Take for example, this debate between Malaysian and Singapore foodies on the origins of chilli crab. I know that my mother’s 1950s chilli crab recipe could not have come from a Singapore restaurant. She never went to any seafood restaurant until the 1990s. She was Penang-born. The only other possible source for the recipe was my more adventurous Alor Setar aunt. Sadly, I never thought to ask either about the recipe’s origins and it’s now too late.
“So in the same way Akira Matsuyama has made a start in documenting the ancient food culture of South-east Asia, I hope to do the same with In a Straits-born Kitchen, ” she says.
In A Straits-Born Kitchen will soon be available at most local bookstores.
For the sambal belacan
- 150g fresh red chillies
- 3 tbsp dried shrimp paste
For the salad
- 300g chicken, boiled
- 400g cabbage, cut into bite-size pieces
- 50g shallots, peeled and finely sliced
- 2 tbsp sambal belacan
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tsp salt
- 250ml fresh coconut cream
To make the sambal belacan
Chop the seeded chillies coarsely by hand/in a food processor.
Toast dried shrimp paste. If toasting on a grill or oven-toaster, press into a thin flat piece and place on a metal plate or piece of foil. Toast both sides until slightly brown. Do not burn it or the sambal will taste bitter. Alternatively, crumble the shrimp paste into a frying pan and dry-fry until slightly brown. Stir constantly when dry-frying.
Pound chopped chillies and toasted shrimp paste in a mortar and pestle to your preferred texture. Some like the sambal to be coarse. Store in a clean glass jar in the freezer.
To make the salad
Remove and set aside bones from boiled chicken and cut meat into bite-size pieces. Return bones to boil further and save the chicken stock for something else.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch cabbage for 10 seconds. Remove and drain well, then cool and squeeze out water from the cabbage. This makes the cabbage more crunchy.
Mix shallots, sambal belacan, lime juice and salt together. Stir in chicken and cabbage. Top with coconut cream and adjust seasoning to taste.
Serve with rice.
For the dried chilli paste
- 100g dried red chillies, seeded, rinsed and softened in water
- 125ml water
For the spicy dried shrimp
- 200g dried shrimps, softened in water
- 65g shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 tbsp dried chilli paste
- 3 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 4 tbsp cooking oil
To make the dried chilli paste
Blend the ingredients together in a food processor until smooth.
Pack into a box or spoon into an ice cube tray and freeze until needed.
To make the spicy dried shrimp
Pound dried shrimps and shallots until fine, then mix in chilli paste, sugar and lime juice.
Heat oil in a wok and stir-fry mixture over low heat until mixture is crumbly and fairly dry. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Cool, bottle and refrigerate or freeze.