KUALA TERENGGANU, June 8 — We’re all familiar with the Peranakans, a community of Chinese — and to a smaller degree, Indians too — who have assimilated with Malay customs since the early days of Malaya.
While maintaining their respective heritage, they have fused many elements of Malay food, arts and fashion with their own to create a fascinating cultural hodgepodge.
The Peranakans are most strongly associated with Malacca, Penang and Singapore, which were known as the Straits Settlements during colonial days. There, the population is still fairly large and they have kept their culture intact in many ways.
But did you know that Terengganu also has a thriving Peranakan community? Although the numbers are much smaller, the Mek and Awang — as the women and men are known, respectively — of the Malaysian East Coast are no less colourful in their traditions.
They share a love for spices with their counterparts from the other states, but the cuisine of the Terengganu Peranakans yields a number of surprises for those who are well versed in Nyonya dishes such as ayam pongteh, inche kabin, kari kapitan and kerabu bee hoon.
In Terengganu, they use a lot of fish and coconuts in their cooking, two ingredients that are in abundance in their coastal state. Where the other Peranakan fare tends to veer toward the spicy and zesty, Terengganu’s offerings are more savoury and creamy. Coconut milk or santan is used widely as is local produce such as budu (fermented fish sauce) and gula nisan (coconut sugar) in place of gula Melaka.
The names of dishes often indicate their cross-cultural influences, a mix of Hokkien or Chinese and Malay. Don’t be surprised to see words like jidan (egg), har (prawn) or kay (chicken) paired with Malay cooking terms like masak putih or kerutub.
Hankering for a taste? These are some of the most traditional Terengganu Peranakan dishes to try for an understanding into their unique culture.
This rice noodles dish is popular across Malaysia, with practically every state serving up its own distinctive version. In Terengganu, it is eaten with a thick and creamy soup made from ikan selayang, santan and a variety of spices. This is called the kuah putih or white gravy, to which sambal and grated belacan are added for a kick of spice and pungency. There is also a kuah merah variant, which contains the addition of a red chilli paste. The noodles are then garnished with finely julienned or chopped raw bean sprouts, long beans, torch ginger flower and ulam (raw herbs).
It looks no different from pulut panggang, a Malay delicacy of glutinous rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. Cut into the pulut lepa and you’ll realise that the filling is not the usual spicy dried prawns and shredded coconut mix, but is more of a fish floss. Ikan selayang is first boiled in santan, then shredded and flavoured with shallots and spices like halba (fenugreek). The latter features in a number of Terengganu dishes, including the must-have nasi dagang.
Ikan masak putih
Similar to the kuah putih that dresses laksa Terengganu, masak putih is a style of cooking that employs the use of shallots, garlic, ginger and halba pounded into a paste and then cooked with coconut milk. Red chilli paste is then added for flavour and colour, and served with thick cuts of fish for an appetising dish to pair with steamed rice.
Zesty and refreshing, this salad combines slivers of green papayas with chunks of fresh pineapples and cucumber. A spicy, sourish fish-based soup is then poured over and as a finishing touch, pieces of crispy fried keropok ikan are piled on top. The original way to eat this is to use the fish crackers to scoop up the other ingredients so you get a bit of everything in each bite.
Meaning braised chicken in Hokkien, the meat is first marinated in tao cheo (fermented bean paste) and yah theng (gula nisan). The meat caramelises to a dark finish, and results in a savoury and salty casserole with a touch of sweetness. Hard-boiled eggs are sometimes added.
Kape hu sa/Lekor rebus
Keropok lekor is synonymous with Terengganu, fish crackers made from boiled ikan parang paste that are widely available at street food stalls everywhere and eaten deep-fried in the form of thick wedges or crunchy thins. The Terengganu Peranakan way skips the frying, serving the sliced boiled snack with sambal belacan.
While not strictly a Peranakan delicacy, these petite soft buns are unique to Terengganu and come plain — but baked with a layer of margarine at the base, which gives the bread a golden, syrupy finish — as well as with a variety of fillings. Among them is the fish floss similar to that used for pulut lepa.
Kay bacok/ayam pachok
These chicken skewers pack generous chunks of juicy meat onto each stick, which are grilled and then wrapped in banana leaves. The chicken is coated in a mix of spices, shallots, dried chilli paste, gula nisan, santan and kerisik (toasted grated coconut) that create a good balance of savoury, spicy and sweet.
Similar to kuih ko swee, these are saucer-shaped steamed rice flour cakes that come in a variety of bright colours. Each cake is dotted with a tiny scoop of peanuts that have been boiled, mashed and sweetened.
The flavours and ingredients are familiar, but are combined in a way that’s not found in the usual Malaysian kuih-muih spread. Steamed sago, filled with mung bean paste, are rolled into balls and served in a santan soup spiced with ginger, shallots and halba. The sago gives a firm bite, the mung beans are slightly saltish, while the soup is creamy and savoury.
Made up of three layers — yellow on the top and bottom, with a strip of green (pandan-flavoured) in the middle — this steamed egg custard cake has a soft, spongey texture.
When in Kuala Terengganu, head to these restaurants to sample authentic Terengganu Peranakan dishes:
Madam Bee’s Kitchen
177 Jalan Kampung Cina
Tel +6012 988 7495
Opens 9.30am-5pm, Thursday-Tuesday; closed on Wednesdays
Ah Hong Cafe
76-D Wisma Ali Long, Jalan Cherong Lanjut
Tel +6012 937 3662
Currently, the Terengganu Peranakan Festival 2015 is taking place in Kuala Terengganu until June 10, with daily cultural activities at Pekan Cina. As part of the celebrations, Primula Beach Hotel is having a daily buffet lunch and dinner where you can try some of the dishes mentioned in this article.
* Vivian Chong is a nomad and foodie. Read more of her travel and lifestyle stories at http://thisbunnyhops.com/