Can Cultural Identity Be Defined by Food?

For the Peranakans of Singapore — the descendants of intermarriages between Indigenous peoples and migrants whose shared customs have disappeared and evolved with each passing generation — it’s one of the only ways.

Article by Ligaya Mishan

SINGAPORE FOOD_1On this and the following pages, Peranakan favourites made by the Singapore-born, New York-based cookbook author Sharon Wee, who ate around Singapore with this article’s writer. From left: kueh lapis kukus (steamed rainbow layer cake), pineapple tarts and puteri salat (steamed coconut milk custard on glutinous rice). Photography by Esther Choi.

The stew was studded with buah keluak, seeds as big as jumbo marbles and black as mussels. Linda Chee, the former longtime editor of The Peranakan magazine, explained, “It’s not the size but the weight that matters” — the heft in the hand, the fullness of the meat within. For days she had been preparing this meal in her home in the Katong neighbourhood of Singapore. The table was crowded with hee pio, a soup of meatballs and eel maw, frilly and gelatinous; sambal belimbing, a cousin to star fruit, brightly sour, simmered with fried belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and chillies; ngoh hiang, or “five fragrances”, minced-pork rolls so named for the Chinese five-spice that suffuses the meat; and ayam buah keluak, that uncompromisingly dark stew. Each buah keluak shell had been cracked so it gaped, revealing a thick, inky paste that Chee instructed me to scoop out with a tiny spoon intended for only this purpose. 

On its own, the paste was even blacker than the shell, calling to mind squid ink and blood pudding. It was velvety with oil and tasted of musk and old smoke, of roasted cacao with its anchoring bitterness, of the underside of the earth and the dank places where mushrooms mount their armies overnight. I kept casting about for comparisons: it had the gaminess of olives without the brine, the earthiness of truffles without the must. But in truth it resembled nothing I’d eaten before. It was ineffable — or, as the titular matriarch in the Singaporean playwright Stella Kon’s 1982 one-woman show, “Emily of Emerald Hill”, exults, “like opium!” 

Later, I learned that, when raw, the seeds are laced with cyanogenic glycosides that release cyanide. They come buried in the custardy yellow flesh of the fruit of the kepayang tree, found in the mangrove swamps of the Malay Archipelago (which ranges from the southern tip of Myanmar and Thailand through Malaysia and Indonesia), and whose poison once coated arrowheads. (In Malay, the phrase “mabuk kepayang” means, literally, “drunk from eating the fruit of the kepayang tree” but also, idiomatically, “lovesick” to the point of lunacy.) And yet the scientific name of the tree is Pangium edule — “edule” from the Latin for “edible” — and fragments of its seeds have been found among other traces of prehistoric human food (animal bones, molluscs, wild yams) from 34,000 to 46,000 years ago on the island of Borneo. So buah keluak have likely been eaten for nearly as long as humans have lived in this part of the world, scrabbling for survival, refusing to be defeated by a recalcitrant landscape. 

The seeds were traditionally boiled and submerged in ash for 40 days; Chee buys them preprocessed (imported from Java) but still takes the extra step of soaking them for at least three days to remove grit and plump up the kernels. The Malays crush the buah keluak meat for rawon, a beef soup from eastern Java that is mentioned by name in the Bhomakarya, a 12th-century Old Javanese kakawin (a narrative poem). Rawon is an ancestor to ayam buah keluak, but the cooking method differs. Chee mashes the kernels with beaten egg, salt and a flourish of sugar that brings the flavour into focus but leaves no trace of sweetness. Then she spoons the black velvet back into the shells and drops them whole in the stew. This is the touch that makes the dish distinct; that makes the dish, like Chee herself, Peranakan.

Two slices of pandan chiffon cake and, at right, kueh dadar (pandan crepe rolls with coconut and gula melaka, or palm sugar). Photography by Esther Choi.

Tucked inside the word “Peranakan” is anak, Malay for “child”. Peranakans are defined as descendants of intermarriages, starting from the 15th century and possibly earlier, between the Indigenous peoples of the archipelago and migrants from other parts of the world, predominantly China but also India and Arab lands. In their mixed heritage, Peranakans have kinship with others born of diaspora across Asia, from the Tsinoy of the Philippines and the Hoa of Vietnam to the Hui of China, whose customs and cooking were shaped by an extended exchange between cultures and whose identity is at once dual and singular, rooted in both the country of their ancestors and the place they call home. (Notably, Eurasians — those whose ancestors include Europeans and Asians, both those indigenous to the archipelago and from elsewhere — are considered a group apart, even those who trace their origins to unions between Malays and early Dutch and British colonialists in the 17th through 19th centuries; an exception, for some scholars, is the Kristang, those of Malaccan and Portuguese descent, dating back to Portugal’s seizure of Malacca in 1511 and rule until 1641.)

There is no one Peranakan cuisine: on Chee’s table that night, alongside ayam buah keluak were plates of eggplant, slow cooked, supple and half-sweet from cinnamon and red sugar, and a golden fish curry of coconut milk, tamarind and lemongrass — dishes from the Peranakan Indian or Chetti Melaka (chetti, from the Tamil for “trader”) community, made by Dora Woo, whose husband, Ponno Kalastree, is the president of the Peranakan Indian (Chitty Melaka) Association Singapore. Nor is there one shared language. In Singapore, the Peranakan Chinese, known as babas and nyonyas (the honourifics for men and women, respectively), have traditionally spoken Baba Malay, a dialect of Malay with loanwords from Hokkien (a language from southern China), while in Penang, Malaysia, they speak Baba Hokkien, a dialect of Hokkien with loanwords from Malay.

In recent years, the Singaporean government has held up Peranakans as an exemplar of hybridity — a reflection of a young multicultural, multiracial nation, only 57 years into independence, in an ancient region whose history is inseparable from the ebb and flow of seafarers and trade, and something of a utopian ideal in a modern world where ever more people are moving and being moved, willingly or not, across borders. Yet not so long ago, in the early years of the Singapore republic, Peranakans, as a distinct group, nearly vanished from view, subsumed into the dominant races and cultures. Even the Peranakans among Singapore’s leaders chose not to highlight who they were. Their identity, liminal and protean, was a distraction from the official narrative of a unified country eager for modernity. It was an inconvenience. Perhaps it was even a threat. 

Clockwise from top left: nyonya chicken curry; beef rendang; chilli sambal with belachan (shrimp paste); ngoh hiang (fried five-spice pork rolls in bean curd sheets); chap chye (vegetable stew with pork and prawns); hee pio (nyonya fish maw soup with fish balls, meatballs and cabbage); pong tauhu (pork, prawn and tofu meatball soup with bamboo shoots); and itek tim (duck soup with salted mustard greens). Photography by Esther Choi.

The population of Peranakans in Singapore has never been officially counted. What appears to be the most recent estimate — roughly 10,000 — comes from research in the 1980s, based in part on census data circa 1957 on the number of speakers of Malay dialects. “It’s a question mark,” Diane Chee, an assistant curator at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, said. (The museum, which was founded in 2008, is undergoing renovations and is expected to reopen in mid-February.) “Nobody knows.”

This may be because it’s not entirely clear who is a Peranakan. It is an umbrella term, encompassing heritage from different backgrounds, and thus defined not by a single race or ethnicity, the way we’ve become accustomed to thinking of identity in this modern age, but by customs and history. A certain invisibility prevails: to a stranger on the street, the Peranakan Chinese might appear simply Chinese. They might even see themselves as Chinese. For although all Peranakans share Indigenous heritage, historically their identity has been more aligned with their non-Indigenous origins. Such elision is compounded by Singapore’s stringent system of racial categorisation, in which the population is divided into Chinese (74.3 per cent, as of 2020), Malay (13.5 per cent), Indian (9 per cent) and Others (3.2 per cent). The race of every citizen and permanent resident over the age of 15 is printed on the front of their national identity card. (In 2009, the then deputy prime minister suggested that, beyond Chinese, Malay and Indian, there were 91 possible races allowed.) Dialect groups are noted, too, including Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Khek — “Khek”, from the Mandarin kejia, “guest”, a name given to those who migrated from northern to southern China, because there is always a word for those who come from elsewhere, to designate “us” and “them”. But among all these options, there is no way to say, “I am Peranakan.”

The government has chosen to highlight race not to sow division but to unify: to liberate racial difference from notions of hierarchy (a mission that many would argue has failed, since inequity along racial lines persists) and encourage the emergence of a national identity that envelops and supersedes all others. In 1964 and 1969, violent clashes between Chinese and Malays, each fearing the other’s dominance, claimed more than three dozen lives and injured hundreds. Singapore is still grappling with the colonial legacy of the Jackson Plan, an urban grid devised by the British in the 1820s in an attempt to separate and thus better control their subjects, with the Chinese south of the Singapore River (and further sectioning off groups speaking different dialects), Indians upstream and Malays and Arabs in Kampong Gelam, around the seat of the Johor Sultanate. The seafront, the key to commerce, belonged to Europeans and, later, rich Peranakan merchants, who aligned themselves with the British; they came to be known as the King’s Chinese. As descendants of early arrivals to the region, they’d had time to accumulate wealth and power and were permitted latitude beyond their race by virtue of their class. 

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore — who oversaw the former colony first as prime minister, starting in 1959, when it gained the right to internal self-government, through its expulsion from the Malaysian federation in 1965, when it became a sovereign nation, and after 1990 as a member of the cabinet until his retirement in 2011, at the age of 87 — was himself Peranakan. But in the years of his ascent, he did not announce his heritage, perhaps to free himself of the suspected taint of colonial collaboration. Raised speaking Baba Malay and English, he studied Mandarin and Hokkien in his 30s, training himself to win over the majority-Chinese population. In public, his wife, who was also Peranakan, wore the Chinese qipao, a form-fitting collared dress with side vents, instead of the Peranakan adaptation of the Malay sarong kebaya, a sarong paired with a long-sleeved top (half blouse, half jacket) of translucent cloth, embellished with embroidery and lace (imported from Europe or laboriously handmade by local artisans and thus a sign of wealth) and held together not by buttons but by three brooches linked by a fine chain.

Since 2010, the government has permitted people to list on their ID cards a “double-barrelled” identity of two races. But only one of those races counts when it comes to government mandates such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, introduced in 1989, which guards against the rise of Jackson Plan-like ethnic enclaves by limiting the number of public housing flats allotted to each of the racial groups. At school, subjects are taught in English, but all students are required to learn a mother tongue: Mandarin for the Chinese (no dialects offered), Malay for the Malays and Tamil for Indians (unless they pursue another Indian language outside of school). 

Many Peranakan Chinese who spoke Baba Malay at home have dark memories of struggling over Mandarin, the supposed language of their forebears. “As a student, I was embarrassed about being Peranakan,” Sharon Wee, the author of the cookbook “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen” (published in 2012, with an updated edition forthcoming this month), said. Later in life, she learned the phrase “Orang Cina bukan Cina” — “Chinese but not Chinese.” (The acronym “OCBC” is a winking reference to the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, whose founders included a number of Peranakan Chinese.) The phrase wasn’t intended to be derogatory, she said. Some Peranakan Chinese even used it to describe themselves. 

Ondeh ondeh (glutinous rice dumplings filled with gula melaka). Photography by Esther Choi.

At almost every meal I sat down to in the company of Peranakans, I ate ayam buah keluak. I ate kueh pie tee, too, delicate fluted pastry cups lined up like shots of vodka and packed with shredded braised jicama and prawns, and beef rendang, left to wallow in coconut milk for so long, it tastes lush and luxurious with even the most humble cuts of meat (some high-end restaurants use Wagyu, which seems superfluous: gilding the lily). These were mostly celebration dishes, Christopher Tan, the author of the cookbook The Way of Kueh” (2019), told me. For more everyday eating and rarer finds, he and Wee took me to Charlie’s Peranakan Food — affectionately known as Baba Charlie’s — in the basement of the Golden Mile hawker centre on Beach Road, where what we ate seemed nevertheless festive: whole fish crisped and pickled
turmeric-stained vinegar, the sauce of which I could’ve drunk straight; terubok busok, a deep stew of browned salted fish and fish bones; and sotong hitam, squid tender and yielding in its own ink. 

After eating, there was more eating. The Peranakans would not stop feeding me, although I couldn’t tell if this was a peculiarly Peranakan trait or simply symptomatic of Singapore, where eating is the national pastime, along with its corollary, talking about eating. A friend of Wee’s, Serene Liok, threw me a popiah party at her home near the Singapore Botanic Gardens — a party because popiah, fresh spring rolls, are so labour- intensive to make, you must share the bounty. The featherweight skins were kept damp under a wet cloth until called into service, rough side up on the plate, smeared with garlic and chilli pastes, then topped with lettuce leaves, ribs broken the better to lie flat; a filling of jicama, bamboo shoots, pork belly, shrimp and tofu, drained in a colander so the skins wouldn’t get soggy; thin arcs of shrimp, darkly sweet lap cheong shards, bean sprouts, cucumber and strips of omelette and tofu that looked like they’d been run through a paper shredder (the fineness of the cutting testifies to the cook’s skill); sweet bean sauce, sticky enough to cling a little to the spoon; and fried garlic, fried flour, fried flatfish — all pulverised into a crunchy dust — plus, in the Liok family’s variation, seaweed, which startled another Peranakan there; chopped coriander; then one more layer of filling before it was rolled up tight. 

But with each meal, I wondered: am I getting any closer to understanding what it means to be Peranakan? What is it that unites a people? That is, what makes them see themselves as a people? Is it the food they eat, the language they speak, the rituals they follow, the gods they revere — or is it more nebulous and more instinctual: a sense of kinship through collective experience? One afternoon, I shared a bowl of ayam buah keluak with David Koh, a professor of occupational medicine who is married to a Singaporean Chinese woman and did not raise his son to identify as Peranakan. So little knowledge of the culture did he pass on, he said, that his son, when asked what dialect group his father belonged to, “referred to me as babi” — pig — “instead of Baba!” 

“There is no one way to be Peranakan,” Diane Chee told me over kopi (a dark, caramelly brew of coffee beans roasted with margarine and sugar) at the Asian Civilisations Museum, on the northern bank of the Singapore River, where she has an office. Unlike the Parsees, descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who, since arriving in India in the eighth century, have kept their faith alive at sacred sites closed to outsiders, or the Hui, descendants of Muslim Arab and Persian traders who came to China also in the eighth century and continue to practice Islam today, Peranakans do not rally around a single religion. Jawi Peranakans (“Jawi” is a derivation of “Java”) are Muslims of Indian or Arab descent; Chetti Melaka are traditionally Hindu. Linda’s mother went to church and both Hindu and Buddhist temples, “for more luck”, Linda said. Wee’s mother honoured the Chinese kitchen god and scrupulously maintained the family’s ancestral altar until she became an Anglican at age 59, one of a number of Peranakan Chinese who converted to Christianity. In the 1970s, Wee said, some got caught up in the fervour of the charismatic movement. “They thought the dragon” — an auspicious figure in Chinese culture — “was the devil”, she said. Heirlooms were given away, or even destroyed. 

Neither do Peranakans lay claim to a particular social status, despite the image promoted by the enormously popular 2008 TV series “The Little Nyonya”, about a Peranakan girl orphaned during the war, and the elite and often cruel Peranakan circle she must struggle against. Some of the Peranakans I met live in what Singaporeans term “good class bungalows”, which appears to translate as “mansions”; others in handsome, sprawling condominium complexes with multiple swimming pools. But Alvin Yapp, who founded the Intan museum in Katong, recalled growing up in public housing and feeling isolated from Peranakan culture. (One Singaporean noted that, here, the question “Where do you live?” is never neutral.) 

Shop houses once owned by the King’s Chinese in the British colonial era, painted in pretty pastels with louvred shutters and protruding eaves for shade and privacy, still stand on Joo Chiat Road in Katong and in Emerald Hill just off Orchard Road, downtown’s shimmering alley of soaring megamalls in swooping steel. But there is no longer a living, working Peranakan neighbourhood, as of old. Tourists seeking the splendour of “The Little Nyonya” may visit the National University of Singapore (NUS) Baba House in the Blair Plain conservation district, the restored manse of a shipping magnate’s family, with carved arches, terra-cotta tiles cool underfoot and peepholes in the bedroom floor for spying on the formal reception hall below, or private homes opened to tourists in Katong, like the Katong Antique House and Yapp’s cheerfully eccentric Intan — he lives on the second floor — which showcases his personal collection of beaded, crimson-soled mules; enamel tiffins and spittoons; gaudily polychromatic porcelain known as nyonya ware and bedecked with phoenixes and peonies; and mother-of-pearl-inlaid blackwood chairs that are featured in Singapore Airlines’ in-flight safety video to illustrate bringing your seat back upright. (Yapp used to work for the airline.)

Still, beyond the potency of nostalgia, this is ornamental. Material culture is worthy of preservation but does not in and of itself constitute culture from an existential perspective. Is lineage, then, the only bond? In 2018, researchers from the Genome Institute of Singapore took DNA samples from 177 people who identified as Peranakan Chinese. Their analyses suggested that, on average, the subjects were 5 to 10 per cent Malay. But the differences in individual makeup told a more complicated story. Colin Chee, Linda’s husband and, until last June, the president of the Peranakan Association Singapore, is 86.3 per cent Chinese — his paternal grandparents came to Singapore in 1893 from Fujian province — and 13.7 per cent Malay, which his aunties believe is Dayak, an ethnic group native to Borneo, where his maternal grandparents lived. Linda, a ninth-generation nyonya on her mother’s side, learned that she was only 66.5 per cent Chinese, more than a quarter Malay and, to her delighted surprise, 6 per cent Indian. She did note that the results had come as something of a shock to her brother, who had been convinced he was 100 per cent Chinese. 

Achar (pickled vegetables) and, next to them, otak otak (grilled spicy fish paste in banana leaf). Photography by Esther Choi.

A cultural identity that functions at once as metaphor and reality, with a complicated and tenuous relationship to race, unanchored by religion, shared language, social status or even neighbourhood, so amorphous and difficult to pin down, is inevitably vulnerable to disappearance. Occupying an in-between, Peranakans risk becoming culturally illegible, even to themselves. With Singaporean independence came the erasure of Peranakans as a sociopolitical group validated and uplifted by the British under colonialism, and so in the 1970s a new way of thinking about Peranakan identity took hold, in which they were defined less by their outer than inner lives, by what took place in their sitting rooms and kitchens rather than in the public square. To be Peranakan became a matter of knowledge — whether one could still speak the community dialect, say, or prepare buah keluak. Some Peranakans have doubled down on this notion of identity, priding themselves on being Peranakan jati, “pure” Peranakan, as opposed to Peranakan chelop, only partly Peranakan. Both words are derived from Malay, jati meaning “genuine” and chelop from the Malay celup, “dipped” (or, idiomatically, “fake”, as when a westernised Malay is labelled with the epithet “mat salleh celup”: “wannabe white”).

To the scholar and curator Peter Lee, Peranakan jati is “as ridiculous as the idea of a pedigree mongrel”, as he has written. The very definition of Peranakan is based on a dual inheritance. “To the ‘chelop’, Peranakan ‘jati’ is an oxymoron. How can mixed bloodlines be ‘pure’?” Colin wrote in a 2020 letter to members of the Peranakan Association Singapore. “If our Chinese forefathers had a closed mind-set . . . there would not be any babas and nyonyas or Peranakan culture as we know it.” 

After dinner at the Chees’, Colin took me for a walk through the condominium gardens, on paths winding around lamplit pools. Peranakan Chinese merchants built bungalows with turrets and stone balustrades along the coast in Katong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two of which remain at the heart of the complex, the former property of a man whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all had local roads named after them. (One Singaporean told me that a childhood jab, when a classmate sauntered cockily down the street, was to say, “Your grandfather’s road?”) Under the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, thousands of local Chinese men, including Peranakan Chinese, were rounded up and shot nearby. Years after the war ended, unexploded artillery shells lay mired underwater along the shore. In 1966, the fledgling government began razing hills for earth to fill the sea and extend the land — to expand the country’s footprint; to literally enlarge its claim on the world. When we reached the fence, Colin said, “This used to be the beach.” I listened for the waves, now a mile away, but the night was silent.

Identity is a colonial notion,” Lee said. “A power play. The elites start constructing boundaries, getting other people to comply. That’s all culture is, really, who’s top dog.” A rainstorm of extraordinary furore had descended on his home in the leafy suburb of Bukit Timah, whipping the wooden blinds of the terrace, but he spoke without hurry, never even glancing outside, as if we were adrift on the calmest of seas. Knowing that I had been constantly plied with food from the moment of my arrival in Singapore, he had graciously promised me “a simple lunch”, which proved to be three courses: a tamarind fish stew paired with impeccably crisp yam fritters; bee hoon (skinny rice noodles) anointed with sambal (chilli paste) and calamansi (a small, tart, limelike citrus whose genealogy goes back to the kumquat); and hati babi bungkus, minced pork liver rolled into balls and enveloped in pork caul, which Lee mused might have some connection to Yorkshire, England, and a recipe for orbs of offal and herbs called savoury ducks. For dessert, there were crescents of unripe guava, to be dipped in sour plum powder, and steamed mooncakes to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, wrapped in glutinous rice flour snow skins that dissolved in the mouth like icing sugar. 

In 1942, Lee’s father, Lee Kip Lee, then 20 years old, was summoned along with his younger brother and other Chinese and Peranakan men for screening by the Japanese as potential insurgents. The brothers were released unharmed, but in his 1995 memoir, “Amber Sands”, Lee Kip Lee recalled hearing, from the safety of their home, the sound of gunshots when the other men were executed. He was president of the Peranakan Association Singapore for 14 years and held the title of honorary life president until his death in 2018. Preservation of Peranakan heritage is likewise important to his son: Peter is the honorary curator of the NUS Baba House and has written extensively on Peranakan culture and history. Still, he questions whether people can truly be defined by “what they wore, ate, spoke, read or what houses they lived in”, as he writes in an essay for a forthcoming edition of “The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia”. “Identity is a fiction,” he told me as the rainstorm subsided. To invest one’s identity in the furniture and clothing of another era is just “cosplay and drag”. 

Certainly part of the appeal of Peranakan culture to non-Peranakans is the sumptuousness of those costumes and their evocation of a distant time. In China, “The Little Nyonya” was such a hit, it was remade for broadcast on Chinese state television in 2020. To some mainland Chinese, the Peranakan Chinese are a historical curiosity since, until recently, they still practised elaborate wedding and funeral rituals (the combing of the hair of the bride and groom, the cloaking of household gods in red paper to shield them from exposure to death) that on the mainland were repudiated and lost in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The Singaporean government has made a push to market Peranakan culture as a tourist draw, a unique homegrown culture in a nation with low birthrates and an unstable population, dependent on constant immigration, with around 40 per cent of residents foreign born. Peranakan restaurants have proliferated, among them Candlenut on Dempsey Road, which has been awarded a Michelin star.

To some Malays, the attention given to the Peranakans ignores their roots in Malay culture — wilfully. For all that the government frames Singapore as a paragon of racial harmony, a hierarchy persists. According to the 2020 census, the median household income of Malays is around a thousand dollars less than that of the Chinese and the Indians. Nearly half of Malays earn below subsistence level, and 96.2 per cent live in public housing. Why does nasi lemak — a mound of coconut rice surrounded by crackly little fish, calming slices of cucumber, an omelette and the essential spoonful of sambal — cost $3 when made by a Malay woman at a hawker stall, “but as soon as you call it Peranakan, it’s $16?” the food historian Khir Johari, a Singaporean of Javanese descent, asked me. 

I met Johari at the Malay Heritage Centre within the former palace of the sultan in Kampong Gelam; he grew up in a house on the grounds of the compound. “As far as Malays are concerned, Peranakans are part of the Malay world,” Johari said. (So am I, he pointed out: my mother is Filipino, and the Philippines, too, is part of the Malay world.) In his magisterial study “The Food of Singapore Malays”, published in 2021, he writes, “ ‘Peranakan’ is a Malay word, coined by Malays, for an all-embracing Malay social concept.” The migrants who came to the region were primarily men who, unable to bring wives from home across the sea, married local women, and it was those mothers who cooked and whose recipes were handed down through generations. 

Johari hopes to see a more explicit acknowledgment from Peranakans of their cultural debt to the Malays. He pointed to an incident in the summer of 2020 when a high-profile Peranakan restaurant started selling what it called nyonya nasi ambeng — its interpretation of a Javanese communal platter of rice surrounded by side dishes of symbolic resonance, once reserved for significant occasions such as birth or recovery from illness, although of late it has become commercialised and “sold for a price”, Johari writes in his book. The problem for some Malays was the ownership implied in the term “nyonya”, since nasi ambeng was not historically eaten in Peranakan households. After an outcry, the restaurant issued an apology — “we have fallen
short by culturally appropriating this dish” — and changed the name of the platter, which it continued to serve.

“The food your grandmother cooked, that everybody cooked — suddenly it’s called something else,” Johari said. “It’s convenient for people to say, ‘It’s all shared.’ Of course it’s shared, but please give recognition where it’s due.” 

At dawn, from the Southern Ridges, the city was a set of dominoes against a sky of smoked orange. A steel walkway zagged through the forest, easing the way for humans. Not a leaf lay on the grating underfoot, which seemed to have been tidied by unseen hands. Cicadas shrieked steadily. The presence of nature, gently tamed, was a reminder that Singapore has almost no agriculture and must rely heavily on imports; local food is, by necessity, made with nonlocal ingredients. Nevertheless, food is one of Singapore’s defining features, another of the country’s contradictions.

How much does identity rest on the way we eat? For the Peranakans, cooking was central but, like Peranakan identity itself, not consistent, and ever evolving. The day I ate at Baba Charlie’s, Tan reminisced about a Polish sausage stew that sometimes popped up on the menu, which he’d been told was a recipe from a foreign customer. In Kampong Gelam, Johari joked that the way to make a dish Peranakan was to add pork, which Malays, who are mostly Muslim, don’t eat.
But at True Blue Cuisine, near the Peranakan Museum, the kitchen uses neither pork nor
lard to be more welcoming to Muslims. A few restaurants have even taken to making ngoh hiang and kueh pie tee with Impossible brand plant-based meat.

Did it matter that some of the best Peranakan food I had was made by non-Peranakans, as at Peter Lee’s, where his mother’s recipes are prepared by the family’s Filipino cook? Peranakan women have historically been the guardians of the kitchen, Tan explained, but it was not always considered proper for them to work outside the home (although some, for financial reasons,
had to). So a number of the first Peranakan restaurants in Singapore were run by migrants from Hainan Island in the South China Sea who, upon arrival in Singapore, found work as so-called kitchen boys in Peranakan homes, until they earned the title chong po (from the Hokkien for “chef”). Jenny Yap runs the oldest Peranakan restaurant in town, Guan Hoe Soon, which was opened by her grandfather on Joo Chiat Road in 1953. On the wall, a framed newspaper article reports that Lee Kuan Yew used to send a driver to pick up dishes, among them otak otak, slabs of fish paste steamed in banana leaves to the wonderfully dense but pliant texture of Mexican tamales; chap chye, cabbage braised with black fungus and dried shrimp in tau cheo (yellow soy bean paste), soy sauce and sugar; and, of course, ayam buah keluak.

One night, I had dinner with Anastasia Tjendri-Liew, the Indonesian-born powerhouse behind the Bengawan Solo bakery empire, which is beloved for its almost unctuously buttery kueh lapis, a cake of many thin layers, and kueh salat, pandan coconut-milk custard over chewy glutinous rice, faintly salted to hold its own against the sweetness, and marbled blue from steeped butterfly pea flowers; for flaky little pineapple tarts that can’t wait to crumble and chiffon cakes like sugar knit around air. Several Peranakans I spoke to described Bengawan Solo as a Peranakan bakery, and one even insisted that Tjendri-Liew herself was Peranakan — but she told me that she was ethnically Chinese.

One Peranakan chef to gain international stature is Malcolm Lee, who’s behind Candlenut and the new, even more ambitious, prix fixe-only Pangium (after the Pangium edule tree), which opened last June at the Botanic Gardens. The 12-year-old Candlenut is a warmer, more relaxed space, with majolica Art Nouveau tiles, giant straw lanterns hung on high and a mostly familiar Peranakan menu. Pangium is austere, even devout: some dishes are classic but reinvented from within, like ngoh hiang embedded with abalone or pang susi, a sweet Christmas bun from the Kristang tradition, here made with a hidden cache of Ibérico pork and candied winter melon.
Each offering requires an
explanation of culinary processes so lengthy and detailed (at one point, I think I heard the phrase “52 steps”), I began to fear that the price of the tasting menu — $280 per person — was too low; that there would be no way for the restaurant to sustain the cost of such labour. 

The last bite of the meal was a black bonbon, a drop of night on the white plate, with a flick of gold leaf to catch the light. At first it seemed obvious. Chocolate, salted caramel, chilli — and then something darker, turfier, almost bitter, undefinable. Buah keluak, we meet again.

But could Peranakan cuisine, much less Peranakan identity, be distilled into a single flavour? “A cuisine is what the whole community eats, not just one family,” Tan told me when we first met. And yet when asked what he thought of the food at a particular restaurant, he demurred: “My family does it differently.” As Peter Lee said, “Every matriarch was a law unto herself”; every kitchen, another country. For all the desire to be part of a group, to find comfort in pledging allegiance to a larger heritage, in the end, perhaps, cultural identity comes down to something more elusive. An instinct, like agak-agak, the method by which Peranakans and Malays alike loosely measure ingredients as they cook, estimating and approximating. Or more precisely: knowing by feel and experience how much they need, and trusting that they can adjust and adapt as the recipe unfolds.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 88 of T Australia with the headline: “We Are What We Eat”