♦ 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.