While the early Chinese inter-married with the Malays, they retain some of their Chinese traditions, culture, ethnic, religious, ancestral worship origins and festival celebrations. However, they did assimilate the local language and customs. They developed their own regional form of language and were fluent in Malay and subsequently in English and Chinese Hokkien. Thereby creating a new kind of mixed culture of their country of origin with local elements. Peranakans have their own language which is called Peranakan Malay. Many of the words are different from the actual Malay language and contains the influence of several Chinese-Hokkien and Indonesian words.
Peranakans are not Muslims despite the inter-marriage with local Malays because in those days, there was no laws that requires any religious conversion. Thus, till this day, many original Peranakans still retained their ancestral worship tradition of the Chinese (unless they are Christians), especially their wedding ceremony which is largely based upon the Chinese tradition.
The Birth of Peranakan Culture
“Peranakan”, “Baba-Nyonya” are terms used for the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia who inter-married with the local population. Many of them were Traders from the mainland China. When the British established the Straits Settlement of Malacca, the Peranakans in these places became known as the Straits Chinese. Today, Peranakans are considered ethnic Chinese.
The word “Peranakan” is also commonly used to describe Indonesian Chinese back in those days, “Peranakan” means Descendant while “Baba” refers to the male descendants and “Nyonya” refers to the female descendants. “Straits-born Chinese” simply means the descendants of Peranakan people who were originally born in Malacca.
The birth of the unique Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya heritage dates back to the early 15th century when Malacca, in which during that time, is a prosperous and strategic trading port for spices and herbs. As a trading port for the region, Malacca had established close relations with mainland China. Many trading opportunities beckoned the Chinese and the richies brought foreign traders to the region. While many returned to their homelands, some remained behind, setting up homes with the local women. Later others also followed suit by marrying local Malay women thus eventually emerged the beginning of this centuries-old culture called “Peranakan” or “Baba-Nyonya”. Following the successful union of China and Malacca, more Chinese male and female immigrants come to Malacca, leading to more inter-marriages and the continued development of this unique Peranakan Culture.
The Traditional Clothing
During the 19th century, the Peranakan women always dressed native, they wore a Malay-style Baju Panjang or Baju Kebaya which is a loosely-fitted tunic on top with sarongs at the bottom. This was adapted from the Malay Baju Kurung. However, from the late 19th century onwards, fashion influence came from the British colonial and the Peranakan women began wearing fitted lace tops with batik sarongs as formal attire.
This started a new trend and the “Sarong Kebaya” was born. It is worn with a fitted, long-sleeved top sewed with different kinds of embroidery and batik sarong as bottom paired with Kasut Manik (beaded slippers). Peranakans favoured “Voile” as their fabric choice for their kebaya tops which were worn over camisoles because the material was unusually see through or translucent.
Beadwork Embroidery was an important skill which nyonyas had to learn from young.
The Nyonya Cuisine
The eating and dining habits of the Peranakans are different from other ethnic Chinese. They serve their varieties of spicy dishes in well-crafted porcelain wares and in separate serving plates and rice on individual plates. In the old days, the Peranakans would eat Malay-style that is using their right hands to eat called “Makan Tangan”. From the late 19th century onwards, forks and spoons were introduced and used which were adapted from the British dining customs.
Peranakan Food developed into a unique cuisine using a blending of Chinese ingredients with spices used by the Malay community. The food is aromatic, tangy, spicy and herbal. Main local ingredients used in Peranakan cooking includes coconut milk, candle nuts, chillies, belachan (shrimp paste), tamarind juice, galangal (ginger), lemongrass, lime leaves, pandan leaves, mint leaves, turmeric, cincaluk (baby shrimp) and asam gelugor. From all these ingredients used, many famous unique Peranakan cuisine had been developed. Dishes like the Otah Otah, Sambal Udang, Dark Sauce Chicken, Ayam Pongteh, Ayam Buah Keluak, Ikan Asam Pedas (Asam Fish) and Nyonya Curry are some of the famous Peranakan cuisine.
Another Peranakan cuisine would be the colourful Nyonya Kueh or Nyonya Sweet Cakes to end their meals. In fact, Nyonya Kueh is iconic that it sometimes outshines savory dishes. Many Nyonya Kueh are simply adaptations of Malay kuih muih or Malay version of sweet cakes. One example is Kueh Dadar which is a rolled crepe flavored with pandan juice and filled with grated coconut steeped in gula melaka or palm sugar. Pandan leaf is the core ingredient for making most of the Nyonya Kueh. The green exterior of Kueh Dadar is made of batter colored with natural pandan juice extracted from pandan leaves.
All in all, Peranakan cuisine has always been a cultural icon and has successfully carried on the tradition of preparing all these authentic Nyonya dishes.