KUALA LUMPUR, July 22 — Did you know that traditionally the Peranakans used nasi lemak to signal if a bride is “pure” or not! In the old days, the groom would send over a lacquered basket with nasi lemak to confirm the marriage, as explained by Peranakan cookbook author Debbie Teoh at the recent World Chefs Congress & Expo 2018.
Teoh was giving a talk on Peranakan Wedding Dishes: Tok Panjang, explaining the many traditions behind the rich Peranakan heritage. She adds, “That is why nasi lemak is white to signify the purity of the bride and sambal is red to symbolise the bride’s “blood.”Nasi lemak can never be blue, green or any other colours as the bride’s purity is symbolised by white,” explained Teoh.
The Peranakans know how to throw a party for weddings and birthdays. Once your invitation comes (no cards but via sireh or betel leaves — so organic!), expect a magnificent feast of great proportions. “Auspicious food is more terror than that served at wakes,” said Teoh. They will hold a Tok Panjang, or “long table” where the feast is served by sets and laid out in rectangular tables measuring about two by four feet. In Penang, it’s known as T’ng Tok.
The wedding feast is usually held on the eve of the wedding, at the bride’s house. Teoh explains that sometimes the feast can hit up to 400 to 500 attendees. As the Peranakans are incredibly fussy about their food, there’s absolutely no shortcuts allowed in the preparation.
The most difficult dishes are selected; pig’s stomach soup, buah keluak curry (which requires back breaking work to soak and extract the nut’s paste) and the list goes on. They also insist that everything is made from scratch. As far as they can, everything is served whole as they are pantang about cutting things, hence it’s whole chicken or fish.
Usually, the preparation work takes at least a week, with many lending a hand. Different days are allocated for various tasks from peeling shallots, pounding the flour and making spice pastes. Teoh also explained that in the old days, these dishes were cooked slowly as a way to preserve it without refrigeration. Imagine, the constant stirring over the hot fire and you’ll know how much elbow grease goes into each dish.
The feast is a whole-day affair. Starting from as early as 10am, the ladies will gather... drinking longan tea. Sometimes, they’ll break up in groups to play cherki, a card game favoured by the Peranakans. Interestingly, they will be served bowls of chicken macaroni soup before the lunch spread. Teoh explains that this is probably due to the influence of the British.
On hand to serve lunch will be domestic helpers and the young ladies of the house. It’s also the perfect, sneaky opportunity for matriarchs to check out these ladies, who have been sheltered at home away from prying eyes, as potential daughters-in-law. These ladies will be judged on their manners, hence they are often on their best behaviour.
Unique to Melaka, there is the option to serve the nasi kemuli set. The fragrant rice is cooked with a chicken broth made with spices like coriander seeds and cinnamon. Once it is ready, it is topped with shallot and garlic crisps.
This will usually be served with chicken curry, assam prawns, sambal belacan and so forth. In Penang, aside from the usual chicken curry, acar ikan, ju hu char, they also serve items like lorbak, acar awak and chor char where all the yam bean, carrots and cabbage must be cut into squares!
An unusual dessert includes radish cake or chai tow kuih — a sweet and savoury item with a strong cekur taste that is made with candied melon, peppercorns, coriander and peanuts.
Desserts or chochi mulot are a big thing as the Peranakan believe one must finish the meal with a sweet dessert. Again, each item is symbolic of something. In this case, there’s an exception to the rule to usually blue and green colours.
For instance the apom berkuah pisang rajah, a pancake made from fermented rice flour and coconut water may be tinged blue with blue pea flowers but it’s deemed to be auspicious since it’s topped with a golden yellow pengat pisang.
Even onde onde is served and green kuih ketayap with a white santan sauce. These items are said to resemble the wedding couple’s private parts — a cheeky jibe by the Peranakans.
You will also have tai bak, similar to cendol except it’s pink and white strands served with syrup water and kuih genggang with its pink, red and white layers. Symbolism is strong with these desserts, as the pisang rajah is served here since it represents abundance, a must for every wedding to signify fertility.
At night, it’s a more elaborate banquet or laok koh lau dishes, usually decorated with cucumbers and carrots served at round tables. This session is reserved for male guests and elderly ladies. It is usually catered by an external chef who will bring an entourage of helpers to stay a week to prepare and cook.
The dishes served are old fashioned dishes and have vanished from these tables, since it’s not healthy or difficult to prepare. This include the likes of tortoise soup, bak kwa or pork jerky wrapped with lard or a ham lined bowl served with shark fin and egg.
Within the family, they will hold the cheo thau or hair combing ceremonies, where the date is determined by the Chinese almanac. This will be followed by gantang or rice measure ceremony and ki beh to unveil the bride.
Then, it’s time for the couple to meet for the first time at the chim pang ceremony. It’s also the first time they will be served laok chun tok but no actual eating takes place as it’s more ceremonial.
The most significant ceremony is the confirmation of the wedding on the twelfth day with the giving of nasi lemak. This version is served with various sambals including serunding. Fun fact... you won’t find peanuts in this version but there’s ikan bilis and telur rebus. And what happens if the bride doesn’t pass the virginity test? They’ll kick over the tapak sireh set and the bride will be sent home!
Debbie Teoh’s talk was organised by Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia for the World Chefs Congress & Expo 2018