China and India today are two of the most populous countries on Earth with a combined population of more than two billion people. In a planet where people live in more than 200 countries and scattered across six continents, the two Asian giants account for more than a third of Earth’s 7 billion humans. But this is not an exclusively contemporary statistics since China and India (or areas which now make up the two nations) have always been inhabited by more people than any other places in the world throughout their history.
The most palpable evidence for this is the huge number of Chinese and Indian diaspora across the globe, those who left their homelands in search for better opportunities overseas and also the descendants of those pioneers.
Southeast Asia is no exception. Strategically located on the land and sea trade routes between China and India, the region is a natural crossroads of peoples from the two nations. Traces of Chinese and Indian influences are engraved in many aspects of Southeast Asian cultures and heritage, from ancient temples to hearty dishes served at homes in the region.
Singapore, a tiny island sitting right across continental Asia’s southeastern end, has long been benefiting from the lucrative sea trade route connecting the two powerhouses, and later the spice islands with Middle East and Europe. Naturally the thriving trade port attracted merchants from foreign lands trying to get a fraction of the wealth generated by the booming economy.
Generations after generations, Chinese and Indian merchants came and left, but some chose to stay at their new land, their new home. Intermarriage with the locals was inevitable, and what started as simply a union between two adult people would eventually leave profound impact to local cultures across the archipelago.
The Peranakans, as they are usually referred as, are the progeny of foreign men who married Southeast Asian local women, typically. Chinese Peranakans make up the largest portion of Peranakan communities in the region, tracing back their ancestral lines mostly to Hokkien people from southern China. But less known to most foreigners are other Peranakan communities, including Indian Hindu Peranakans (also known as Chitty), Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan) and Eurasian Peranakans.
Being the largest group of all Peranakan communities in Southeast Asia, the Chinese Peranakans not only blended Chinese culture with that of Malay and Indonesian people, but also created an entirely new cultural landscape resonating across the region. From architecture to jewelry to food, no aspect was left untouched by the newly established cultural fusion.
Joo Chiat in Singapore is an example of a neighborhood where richly adorned Peranakan houses occupy many of its narrow streets. Painted in pastel colors and decorated with European, Chinese and Malay elements, Joo Chiat’s shophouses are a testament to the community’s embrace for the cultural fusion. It is also one of the places to go in the country to taste authentic Peranakan dishes, known for their distinctive rich flavor for the plentiful use of spices and ingredients not found in China.
The most famous and lovable Peranakan cuisine is probably laksa, with different variants hailing from Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Sarawak to name some. Made from coconut milk, chicken broth, prawns, clams, hard-boiled eggs, bean sprouts, tofu, rice noodles and a generous amount of spices including candlenuts, shrimp paste, coriander, galangal, turmeric and lemongrass, Singapore’s Katong laksa is such a hearty dish which will only make people ask for more.
Another interesting – yet potentially divisive – Peranakan dish is ayam buah keluak. Made from chicken, spices and most importantly keluak – the nut from Pangium edule tree which is lethal if eaten raw – the dish looks typical Malay/Indonesian dish where taste, not appearance, is of the utmost importance. Keluak is widely used in East Javanese cuisine, most notably rawon, to infuse the dark soup with an earthy, nutty taste. It is an ingredient not known in China or India and never used in any of the dishes from the two countries. But ayam buah keluak is a perfect example of Peranakans’ take on the spices and herbs from their new lands, incorporated with their ancestors’ old recipes. An acquired taste created by the people who chose to stay.