Can Singaporeans Save Peranakan Food and Culture?

Decorative and colourful eggs from Malaysia's Peranakan community.

I know that’s a controversial headline and there are probably more than a few Malaysians who may bristle at the thought. Such is the love between Malaysians and Singaporeans over who owns their cultural heritage ; ). But I interviewed a young Peranakan restaurant owner in Melaka, Malaysia recently who has seen hope for her culture’s future in her non-Peranakan friends from across the Strait. I will soon be posting on Evonne Yeo and her Unicorn Cafe, which is definitely worth a visit if you’re a foodie.

For those who are unfamiliar with the words Peranakan, Nonya or Baba, scroll down for my attempt at a brief explanation. But for those to whom this is familiar territory, we have been sad to see authentic peranakan food outlets diminishing with urbanisation over the years. Peranakan food is layered with flavours and textures while Peranakan culture is rich in colours and detail, evident in their clothing and homeware.

As Peranakan people moan their dying culture, Evonne Yeo suggests it could have new life outside her people group. I’m hoping the interest from outside will encourage Peranakans themselves to nurture the longevity of their heritage, the way it’s said that foreign tourists have helped preserve Balinese culture.

Decorative and colourful eggs from Malaysia's Peranakan community.
These decorative eggs showcase the rich colours in Malaysia’s Peranakan culture.

What does Peranakan (Purr-ah-nark-khan), Baba or Nonya mean?

In Malaysia’s context, Peranakan culture was formed about 500 years ago from inter-cultural marriages between Indonesian traders and local Chinese, or between Chinese traders and local Malay women. The men from these cultures are known as Baba and the women are Nonya. They are also known as Straits-Chinese. The word Peranakan means “descendant” in both Malay and Indonesian.

The culture and food is fascinating and unique in Southeast Asia. Click here for Wikipedia’s account.

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