Who are the Peranakans?

The term ‘Peranakan’ is commonly known as ‘local born’ or ‘local descendants’ and is thought to have been used by the local people of the Straits Settlement and Malay Archipelagos to address foreign immigrants whom established families and businesses in the Straits of Southeast Asia.

During the late nineteenth century, Chinese communities who settled in Southeast Asia adopted the term Peranakan to distinguish themselves from the new immigrants, whom they referred to as Sinkeh (new guest) or, in Indonesia, as totok (migrant). More specifically, male descendants were called Babas and female descendants Nyonyas while senior females were recognized as Bibiks. Most of these descendants, although retaining their Chinese beliefs, also adopted local indigenous lifestyles. Thus, giving birth to the unique practices of the Peranakans and even their own variation of the Malay language called Baba Malay.

While the term Peranakan is most commonly used among the ethnic Chinese for those of Chinese descent also known as Straits Chinese, there are also other, comparatively small Peranakan communities, such as Indian Hindu Peranakans (Chitty), Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan) and Eurasian Peranakans.

A large part of Peranakan customs comes from traditional beliefs inherited from their Chinese ancestors. Their strict observance of these beliefs sometimes supplants even the Chinese themselves.

The family unit is an important facet of the Peranakans, and family members within the same tree can usually be found living under one roof much like their Chinese counterparts.

Nevertheless, the true feature that defines the Peranakans is their ability to embrace modern thinking. For instance, unlike the traditional Chinese who in the past, favored male offspring, Peranakans deemed both sons and daughters equal rights to the family fortune.

A large part of Peranakan customs comes from traditional beliefs inherited from their Chinese ancestors. Their strict observance of these beliefs sometimes supplants even the Chinese themselves.

The family unit is an important facet of the Peranakans, and family members within the same tree can usually be found living under one roof much like their Chinese counterparts.

Nevertheless, the true feature that defines the Peranakans is their ability to embrace modern thinking. For instance, unlike the traditional Chinese who in the past, favored male offspring, Peranakans deemed both sons and daughters equal rights to the family fortune.

Peranakan food is probably the most diverse and distinctive of all local cuisines. A marriage of cooking styles, Nyonya cuisines combine the preparation techniques of both traditional Chinese and Malay cooking. This unusual marriage gives Nyonya cuisine its distinctive taste, filled with exciting flavours from the use of local herbs and spices, and more often than not spicier and hotter than Chinese food.

A typical Nyonya kitchen would not be without condiments like turmeric, ginger, galangal shallots, chives and shrimp paste. Lemon, limes, tamarinds, green mangoes, citrus leaves and coconut milk are also used to up the epicurean experience. Rempah, an exciting blend of ingredients pounded together in a mortar and cooked in oil to release its flavour is used for a variety of dishes. It’s this special combination that sets Peranakan food apart from the rest. And because of their ingenuity to improvise traditional dishes with spices and herbs, Peranakans have produced tasty local treats like achar, curry fish in banana leaves, buah keluak, chendol, Nyonya kuehs and many other delights.

Last but not least, the Peranakan culture shares great nostalgia and significance to our local communities in Singapore, and is an attraction for many of our foreign visitors who wish to discover and experience the unique Southeast Asian culture.

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