GARETH CLARK

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Upfront - Florence Tan’s Time­less Per­anakan Recipes (Mar­shall Cavendish, £12) by Florence Tan. Out now.

♦ SUB-EDITOR/WRITER ♦ Lick­ing his lips at the thought of tast­ing Asia’s orig­i­nal fu­sion food

Le­gend tells us that in the late 15th cen­tury, 500 young Chi­nese men es­corted their princess to Malaysia to marry her to the Sul­tan of Malacca. There they were or­dered to stay, to make her feel at home. Now, a cynic might say that times were hard and the men were glad to go – the new ar­rivals soon mar­ried lo­cal women. But from here also grew the first shoots of Per­anakan (Straits-born Chi­nese) cul­ture.

The Per­anakan menu is ar­guably South-East Asia’s first fu­sion food. When the Straits cul­tures (Sin­ga­porean, In­done­sian, Malay) col­lided with Chi­nese tra­di­tions, a hy­brid way of cook­ing was born, mix­ing culi­nary styles from China with south-eastern spices.

To­day, its dishes are found all across the re­gion, from the old-world charm of Pe­nang and colo­nial Malacca to the hawker cen­tres of Sin­ga­pore. Large ports pop­u­lar with Chi­nese traders grew big Per­anakan com­mu­ni­ties, and this coastal flavour found its way into the food.

Tellingly, seafood in­fuses a lot of Per­anakan cook­ing, usu­ally paired with bold flavours such as in asam laksa (noo­dles and fish). But the king is surely hee peow soup ( see right), a source of pride among lo­cal babas (men) and ny­onyas (women). Its key in­gre­di­ent, fish blad­der, is a even a del­i­cacy – those of the rare to­toaba fish fetch a high price on the black mar­ket, where it’s known as ‘aquatic co­caine’.

Yes, there’s no deny­ing those 500 men left a rich culi­nary legacy. It’s one many trav­ellers will have tried and mis­taken for ‘Malaysian’ food. Yet this cui­sine has been 600 years in the mak­ing.

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