If you are lucky enough to find yourself in certain parts of Southeast Asia, you have access to one of the best culinary experiences in the world: Peranakan food. Another interchangeable word for the cuisine is Nyonya, which literally means a Peranakan woman. Colloquially, it is used to refer to aunties or older women, who are generally known to make the best local food. Need any more convincing as to why you should try Peranakan food?
The cuisine has a deep-rooted history in the melting pot that is Southeast Asia. It comes from the descendants of Chinese immigrants that settled in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and as a result is a fusion of the best of these cuisines. So, if you are craving both Chinese AND Malay food, you’d be surprised how much Pernakan dishes will satisfy both.
What exactly do Peranakan dishes taste like? Generally, it’s a bit tangy and uses the best herbs and spices of the region. It’s also really creamy… coconut milk anyone?
The only advice I will give to those who want to try Peranakan food in this part of the world is that you don’t necessarily need to go to a Michelin-star restaurant or a fancy and expensive spot. Although these are obviously exceptional and offer interesting takes to the preparation methods, I normally eat it at food stalls or at local hawker centres, where you find families that have been preparing it for generations, and for an economical price.
Whichever path you choose to go with, here are three Peranakan dishes we recommend you try:
Rendang is a rich beef stew that perfectly blends spicy and creamy flavours. The gravy is buttery and the beef is cooked so tender, it melts in your mouth. Although it has roots in Indonesia, different Rendang recipes exist all throughout Southeast Asia today. In Singapore and neighbouring countries, Rendang has become an integral part of Peranakan cuisine, so it’s the staple you should probably try first.
This dish is a pork and crab meatball soup, and is a lot more delicate than most other Peranakan dishes. Variations exist that use bamboo shoot and prawn as well, but it is never made to be too heavy or rich. The light texture and broth make it a really smooth plate to enjoy at any time of the day.
I personally think Nangka Lemak is one of the most interesting and unique plates from the wide selection at hand. Lemak is used to refer to dishes that are very rich, usually from using coconut. Nangka is young jackfruit, and is commonly used in the region as a meat replacement. The dish is slightly sour, salty and a bit spicy. The jackfruit isn’t sweet since it is harvested before it gets ripe. Whether you are vegetarian or not, you can’t miss this plate.
Sugar Cane Juice
Although not Peranakan per se, sugar cane juice is the perfect companion to the dishes we recommended. It is native to Southeast Asia and if bought from street vendors, it is squeezed freshly before your eyes. The sweet, light and fresh taste of sugar cane juice is perfect to balance out the full-bodied flavours of Peranakan cuisine.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.