Preserving Cultural Identity through food : Florence Tan’s Chicken Pongteh of Nyonya Cuisine

Written by @Lan
(Photos by curiostraveller.com)

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Thought of the day-“Food is not just fuel. Food is about family, food is about community, food is about identity. And we nourish all things when we eat well.”-Micheal Pellan

Thanks to Chef Florence Tan, I’ve expanded my culinary range. It’s not that I’ve not tasted food of Malacca’s Nyonya before. I had some, years ago but cooked by someone not of Nyonya’s. The experience was lacking of good memory as food was not cooked with soul, lacking that magic touch. Chef Florence Tan cooked some of Nyonya’s delicacies. One of that many dishes was Chicken Pongteh. She mentioned about the 600 years old heritage, the starting period and origin of Nyonya’s amazing food. Something that’s old is definitely a culture, I say. Recipes being passed down from the first generation to many generations in order to preserve Nyonya’s culture.

The Relation of Food and Culture 

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Preparing Pie Tee is not only about understanding its process but about the culture too!

There are some academicians that went deep into Food Studies.  Food studies is not the study of food itself; it is an emerging interdisciplinary field of study that observes the intricate relationships among food, culture, and society from a number of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Through food studies, one examines the relationships people have with food, and analyzes how this association discloses an enormous amount of information about them (Almerico, Gina M, 2014).

The food choices of different cultural groups are often connected to ethnic behaviors and religious beliefs. Kittler, P.G., Sucher, K.P., & Nelms (2012) addressed the influence of food habits on an individual’s self-identity by stating, “Eating is a daily reaffirmation of [one’s] cultural identity”. Many people affiliate the foods from their culture, their childhood with warm, good feelings and memories.

The food is part of who we are and become. It ties us to our families and holds a special worth to a person. Foods from our culture, from our family often become the comfort foods we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. A familiar saying that epitomizes the idea of food and identity is, “You are what you eat.”

This expression addresses two of the questions considered in the research: What does the food on my plate signify? and How do food practices contribute to personal identity? These questions address the concept of food as a cultural signifier and encompass fields as diverse as literature, anthropology, sociology, and history (Almerico, Gina M, 2014).

Americo Gina M added that Kittler, Sucher, and Nelms (2012) coined the term food habits (also known as food culture or Foodways) to describe the manner in which humans use food, including everything from how it is chosen, acquired, and distributed to who prepares, serves, and eats it. They stated that the significance of the food habits process is that it is unique to human beings. They pondered why people spend so much time, energy, money, and creativity on eating.

Tan Chee Beng (2001) said that food is an essential aspect of human life. Foodways are important dimensions of human culture. The culture of food reflects a people’s adaptation to ecology, social environment and the market economy. Food processing and the culture-specific tastes of food are defined by historical heritage and local experiences, as well as by both local and global processes.

Food is culture when produced, prepared and eaten. “How food came to be, how it came to be cooked, how it came to taste good and how it became metaphor and discourse,”. Simpy put, food is cultural (Massimo Montanari, 2006).

Cultural cuisines reflect the geography, climate, and history of the location where the culture developed. Within each culture (and within different regions where the culture is dispersed), people may prefer certain foods, food preparation methods, and food combinations for meals and snacks (Massachusetts Department of Education (2006).

Food is a powerful cultural symbol that represents a person. Most people associate food of their culture with warm memories of their childhood and thus it becomes a form of comfort in difficult times (Almerico, Gina M, 2014). Food is one of the key rudiments of culture and presents possibilities for dissemination of numerous cultural contents (S.H Kim et.al, 2016).

For me, it’s one simple formula; food is culture and culture is food. Both are inseparable. When we eat one particular food, the first question is always “which culture that this food belongs too?”. With the exception of fusion and modern food, we tend to categorize food according to its origin.

“Dude, are we eating Chinese food tonight?” A question asked by a friend which made me immediately ably to imagine that I am into that tasty noodles, fried in a hot wok, to be consumed with chopsticks. An Angel from Promenade Hotel sent an invitation, as if she asked “Bro, are you interested in learning and tasting Nyonya Cuisine?”. That’s the moment that gave me another dimension in my culinary world-view, thanks to Dapur Nyonya.

The Dapur Nyonya

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There was this cooking demo and I was invited. It didn’t take that long for me to say yes to it as I sensed the opportunity to embrace another culture through the food in that particular cooking demo. I expect to learn the recipes, the culture behind those amazing dishes and taste it!

In the end, I got all three wishes. All in one cooking demo by Chef Florence Tan. It made me became aware of the history and culture behind those dishes I’ve tasted. I read all kinds of articles related to Nyonya’s cooking.

The cooking demo that I attended was named as Dapur Nyonya (curiostraveller.com, 2017) held at the Promenade Hotel in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. Dapur is Kitchen in English Language. Nyonya refers to the ethnic group in Malacca, Penang and Singapore. This Dapur Nyonya however concentrated on the dishes of Nyonya’s in Malacca.

Chef Florence Tan explained to us the difference between Nyonya Cuisine in Malacca than of that same ethnic in Penang. While the Penang Nyonya cooking is greatly influenced by the Thai elements, the Malacca Nyonya’s are not. “It’s more to sour taste there in Penang, for example, Laksa Penang” she said. In Malacca it’s Laksa Lemak, a sign of Indonesian influence as there is the presence of coconut milk.

The bubbly Chef Florence Tan kept emphasizing on the culture that developed Nyonya’s food. She relayed related information humorously. We had great time. We had fun, good laugh for her impromptu style but at the same time we learned many great things about Nyonya’s food. We sampled some of her dishes.

We ate with sincerity the same as she did when she cooked for us. Such sincerity always put me into deeper thoughts, in a good way that creating the concoction between food, history and culture.

Understanding the Baba Nyonya

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The beautiful Kebaya of Nyonya

I am very much into Lee Su Kim (2008) article titled as The Peranakan Baba Nyonya Culture: Resurgence or Disappearance. Lee Su Kim (2008) said that the evolution of this unique Baba Nyonya ethnic group dates as far back as 500 to 600 years when Chinese traders arrived in the Malay Peninsula, the nucleus of which was Malacca, the center of the Malacca Sultanate. These traders did not bring their womenfolk along, and many intermarried with local women.

Intermarriage between the Babas and the Malays eventually ceased, and for hundreds of years, the Babas married exclusively amongst their own, becoming an endogamous and elite group. Lee Su Kim added that there are three terms commonly used to describe this ethnic group: the Peranakan, the Straits Chinese, and the Babas and Nyonyas. The word Peranakan is derived from the Malay word ‘anak’ which means ‘child’. The term refers to the local born as well as the offspring of foreigner-native union.

Baba is the term for the male and Nyonya the female. The word Baba may have been derived from the word bapa which means father in Malay. Some historians think that it an honorific and the equivalent for a tuan or a towkay. The word Nyonya is said to have originated from Java.

The Straits Chinese regarded the Straits Settlements as their homeland and while maintaining a basically Chinese identity, they gradually abandoned close links of kinship, sentiment, political allegiance and financial remittances to China so characteristic of the non-Baba Chinese (Clammer 1980).

Understanding Nyonya Cuisine

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From my readings, I found out that in the olden days, the Baba(s) concentrated on their daily chores in the businesses they were in and that left the Nyonya(s) at home thus created the term womenfolk, whom were confined to the house and especially the kitchen. The womenfolk or rather the Nyonya(s) spent most of their time at home and their food creations later became the base for the current fusion cuisine (Florence Tan, 2009).

It is said that Nyonya Cuisine or Peranakan Cuisine is created from cultural borrowing and cultural innovation through contact with local ingredients and non-Chinese principles of food preparation. It’s here that Chinese cultural principles are applied in the local environment by the Peranakans, as a result of which some principles are modified and new ones are made (Tan Chee Beng et.al, 2001).

Peranakan cuisine uses ingredients such as galangal, serai, chillis, tumeric, ginger, tau cheow, tamarind, lime juice, belachan, buah keras, gula Melaka, spices such as star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, leaves such as daun kesum, daun kaduk, daun cekok, daun limau perut, pandan leaves, the Nyonyas concocted a unique cuisine, with predominantly spicy and piquant flavors.

Peranakan cuisine is not about straight forward process. It needs a high level of patience and advance preparation. To ensure meats and seafood properly absorb the essential spices, marination process is needed for many hours before the actual cooking process.

The spices a.k.a ingredients needs preparation. Mortar and pestle are being used to grind the lemongrass, wild ginger and turmeric root. Patience is the keyword. It’s the way they produce amazing and tasty food.

The Chicken Pongteh

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It’s my first. My first ever experience eating Chicken Pongteh, or so I thought. Someone cooked Ayam Masak Taucu (Chicken in fermented soybean sauce) for me, it’s just that I forgot who cooked it. I later found out that the dish that named as Ayam Masak Taucu originated from Chicken Pongteh. A dish of Nyonya/Peranakan Cuisine. Though both dishes tasted almost the same, the Chicken Pongteh cooked by Florence Tan was more dominant than to the so called ‘Ayam Masak Taucu’.

The Chicken Pongteh was meticulously prepared and cooked. It had that rich and delish savory sauce with mild sweet that came from Gula Melaka (Palm Sugar). It’s a dish made with chicken, potato and flavored with taucu (fermented soybean paste). It uses basic ingredients and I bet is easy to cook compared to the normally labor intensive Nyonya cooking.

Unfortunately, I might not have the chance to attend Florence Tan cooking class (for financial reason) but I was fortunate enough to at least taste the Chicken Pongteh in a cooking demo preview. On the table were all the ingredients prepared in advance and all that the invited cook need to do was pouring everything inside the pot. The aroma, I say it’s heaven.

I had to do my homework to see what are the ingredients normally being used to cook Chicken Pongteh. Basically its Chicken, cut potatoes, mushroom, garlic, shallots, ginger, fermented soybean, palm sugar, light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. Salt is not required as the fermented soybean is salty already. It’s all about preparing the ingredients one by one, combining it in the pot and simmer it until it’s perfectly cooked.

I somehow believe that no matter how hard and diligently we try to cook Chicken Pongteh, it ain’t working unless we do it soulfully. To produce great dishes, soul, passion and patience are the kings. That’s what Chef Florence Tan did. She carefully selected the best and freshest ingredients, putting her soul into her cooking. I had it with some white rice and I must say it’s the best thing I have ever seen and ate.

Some of the other dishes cooked by Chef Florence Tan

Chef Florence Tan cooked several other dishes namely Itik Tim Soup, Fish Gerang Asam, Brinjal Pajeri, Pie Tee, Spicy Creamy Prawn with Pineapple, Sambal Prawns with Anchovies and Petai, Stir Fried ‘Chap Choi’, Nyonya Style Fried Rice and Bakcang. Of all, I love the Chicken Pongteh most.

The Fermented Soybean taste were everywhere in that dish. Not that strong but not that light either. It’s in between. It’s even in that soft Potatoes. The gravy? If it was not because I had to respect my neighbors (dining mates), I would have slurp the gravy, spoon by spoon. To that extent. Am I missing that Chicken Pongteh by Florence Tan already? Yes.

The Closure

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Lovely Chicken Pongteh in the pot..

No. I don’t want to put an end to my adored Chicken Pongteh. I want to have it on regular basis. Unfortunately, I have to accept the fact that I can’t have it exclusively, regularly from Chef Florence Tan herself. She’s not my cook! If I am her neighbor in her hometown, I ring the door bell like once a week. That is if. Wake up. Well, at least it’s one of the spread in the buffet by Promenade Hotel but again it’s for limited time.

Chef Florence Tan is about to pass down her secret recipe to some 20 lucky participants in her cooking class in Promenade Hotel Kota Kinabalu. I do hope that some of that lucky 20 will seriously open eateries and will cook that delicious Chicken Pongteh. The Chefs at the Promenade are of course familiar with the cooking steps then. Well, at least there is light of hope for me.

The noble effort to spread the knowledge of Nyonya Cuisine by Chef Florence Tan is indeed a great way to preserve the culture of Baba Nyonya. Modernization brings great impact towards foods that are associated to certain ethnic groups. Fusion food becomes more dominant for diners. Creative Chefs tend to put extra elements into the original versions, hoping to create something classier, acceptable by the so called elite diners.

A cooking demo that took less than an hour, left great impacts towards my passion in expanding my culinary range. It made me read all the related articles in regard to the history of Peranakan Cuisine. I learned so much about the relationship of Baba Nyonya’s culture with the Peranakan Cuisine.

If majority of the media representative (in the cooking demo session) fail to digest the ‘values’ from Chef Florence Tan, worry not. I digested all into my thoughts and will cherish it. Will I meet Chef Florence Tan again in the future? I do hope so, fingers crossed! I need to have her Chicken Pongteh.

For all that ‘values’ in a form of Food that I learned, I thank you, Chef Florence Tan. I hope to see the Peranakan Cuisine continues to be dominant in many years to come, not to be largely ‘occupied’ by the need to introduce weird fusion food. Through one dish, I’ve learned vast cultural lesson.

Allahyarhamah Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood (2004) once said;

“I am only to aware that many aspects of Malaysia’s collective culture are being eroded and may disappear altogether if steps are not being taken to preserve them or to record them for posterity. I feel it is important that we do not lose our own. Already there are signs that we have lost some big part of this heritage. If Peranakan culture cannot survive, we can only hope that the legacy of this extraordinary culture – a culture which brought out the beauty, grace, passion, joie de vivre, industry, resilience and resourcefulness of two major groups of people, the Chinese and the Malays in an amazing synthesis, will remain with us for a long time.”

Credit/Mention:

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This article is made possible by attending Chef Florence Tan’s cooking demo at Promenade Hotel Kota Kinabalu. The cooking demo inspired me so much and I have fallen for the delish dishes of Baba Nyonya. Chef Florence Tan was specially flown in by Promenade Hotel Kota Kinabalu to showcase her Baba Nyonya-licious Signature from April 28, 2017 to May 21, 2017 at Promenade Cafe.

References/Reading List

Almerico, Gina M (2014). Food and Identity: Food Studies, Cultural and Personal Identity. Journal of International Business and Cultural Studies Volume 8 – June, 2014

Chien Y.Ng & Shariman Ab. Karim (June, 2016). Historical and Contemporary Perspectives of the Nyonya Food Culture in Malaysia. Journal Of Ethnic Foods. Volume 3(2). 93-106.

Clammer, J. 1980. Straits Chinese Society. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

curiostraveller.com (April 26, 2017). “Dapur Nyonya at #promenadekk” with Celebrity Chef Florence Tan. Retrieved from curiostraveller.com on April 27, 2016.

Endon Mahmood, Datin Seri, (2004). The Nyonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions.

Florence Tan (2009). Recipes from the Nyonya Kitchen Cooking. 4th ed. Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, Singapore.

Kittler, P.G., Sucher, K.P., & Nelms, M.N. (2012). Food and culture (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Lee Su Kim (2008). The Peranakan Baba Nyonya Culture: Resurgence or Disappearance. SARI: Jurnal Alam dan Tamadun Melayu 26. 161-170.

Massimo Montanari (2006). Food is Culture. Columbia University Press.

Massachusetts Department of Education (2006). Culture and Food in It’s More Than A Meal.Massachusetts Department of Education Child and Adult Care Food Program: The University of Massachusetts Extension Nutrition Education Program.

S.H Kim, M.S Kim, M.S Lee, Y.S. Park, H.J Lee, S.A Kang, H.S Lee, K.E Lee, H.J Yang, M.J Kim, Y.E Lee & D.Y Kwon (2016). Korean Diet: Characteristics and Historical Background. Journal Of Ethnic Foods, Volume 3, 26-31.

Tan Chee Beng & D.Y.H Wu (2001). Food and Ethnicity with reference to the Chinese In Malaysia. Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia. Hong Kong University Press, New Territories.

Tan, Chee Beng (1988). The Baba of Melaka. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications

Tan, Chee Beng (1993). Chinese Peranakan Heritage in Malaysia and Singapore. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications.

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2 thoughts on “Preserving Cultural Identity through food : Florence Tan’s Chicken Pongteh of Nyonya Cuisine

    1. Thank you tsepotheview for dropping by and commenting. Yes, cooking is indeed one complicated thing but if we put soul into it, people will want to have it.

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