Malaysia's Peranakan struggle to keep culture alive

MALACCA, Malaysia (Reuters Life!) - There are few things in this world as demanding as a Peranakan mother teaching her daughter to cook.

Peranakan dish are served at Makko Nyonya Restaurant in Malacca, some 200 km (124 miles) southeast of Kuala Lumpur May 22, 2010. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad/Files

Peranakan is a hybrid Malay-Chinese culture that dates back to 1400 and is found in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

One of the most visible signs of Peranakan culture can be found in the kitchen, where distinct spicy food, that requires hours of labourious preparation, is traditionally made by hand.

A standard Peranakan dish, Lemak Nanas Udang (Pineapple Curry Prawn) contains coconut milk, chillies, lemongrass, turmeric, shrimp paste, and tamarind and is blended into a tangy dish.

The dish can have both a sharp and fragrant smell but the taste is salty, sweet, sour and spicy all at the same time, due to the hours spent using mortar and pestle to grind and crush the spices to release their full flavours.

Now however, the sound of pestle hitting mortar is a thing of the past in most Peranakan kitchens as it has been replaced by the electric blender, saving time and sore arms the next day.

Traditional Peranakans would say however that the blender is no substitute for the “pounder” as it is known colloquially.

“In my mother’s time she had to toil in the kitchen all day and night,” said Maureen Guan, a fourth generation Peranakan.

“If she could not cook my grandmother would scold her, saying, ‘a Nyonya (woman) must learn to cook otherwise your mother-in-law will look down upon you’,” said the 50-year-old.

Traditionally, young “Nyonya” were obliged to learn culinary skills from their mothers and grandmothers, but under the pressure of modern life, fewer are choosing to do so.

Apart from the recipes, other Peranakan traits such as its language, a Malay dialect with many Hokkien words, and customs are slowly fading due to the declining population as Peranakan marry outside their community.

“As each generation goes by, more will be lost, that’s the challenge that we are facing today as a lot of the younger Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women) don’t quite know what it’s all about,” said Lee Su Kim, President of Malaysia’s Baba Nyonya Association in the state of Selangor.

To some Peranakans, the future looks bleak.

Twenty six years ago, Guan and her husband Chock Choon Sin opened a Peranakan food restaurant, Makko Nyonya Restaurant, in Malacca - the birthplace of the cuisine.

Malacca, a town some 200 kms (124 miles) from Malaysia’s capital, was the most properous harbour in the region during the 15th century due to its strategic location.

But the Chinese traders drawn to Malacca were not allowed to bring women, resulting in many of them marrying a local, resulting in the unique cultural mix.

Chock, aged 51, said none of his children appears interested in taking over the family restaurant.

“As long as cooking is concerned I’ll try my best to maintain the original way of Nyonya cooking, especially the taste,” said Chock.

Additional reporting by Royce Cheah; Editing by David Chance and Michael Perry