THE sweltering heat that comes with Chinese New Year may send many scrambling for shade but the Peranakan Chinese, like Peter Chua, love the hot weather.
Chua even prayed that it would not rain as he needed the sun to dry some of the ingredients to cook the feast for the ancestral worship, an important Peranakan ritual performed on the morning of Chinese New Year’s eve.
He was kept busy constantly checking on the grated green papaya spread out under the sun, needed to make Acar Melaka (spicy pickled vegetables), when we met last Tuesday at his residence in Kota Kemuning, even though he was busy with the prayers to send off the Datuk Dapur (Kitchen God).
The Peranakan Chinese community, or Baba and Nyonya, refers to the descendants of Chinese, mostly merchants and traders who came to Southeast Asia in the 14th century.
Like the mainstream Chinese, sending off the deity properly is essential for the Baba and Nyonya to ensure he gives a good report about the household back in heaven.
The Kitchen God is sometimes called Datuk Naik as he ascends heaven every year.
Even though the rites involved and the dishes served are much simpler compared with what would have been prepared by his forefathers, Chua makes it a point to follow what his grandmother had taught him, with his 17-year-old son as assistant.
According to him, in addition to the usual mandarin oranges and Kueh Bakul, the ritual has to include the “Sam Seng”, which means chicken, duck and pork, paired with Chinese wine. In the Peranakan tradition, the wings of the poultry have to be tucked in through the neck and come out through the mouth.
However, Chua cannot explain the need to position the wings that way.
“This has been followed through the generations but my grandmother never explained why. The old people always say ‘Don’t ask’ when it comes to these practices, so we just follow,” he said.
The 48-year-old freight forwarder diligently follows the steps, from offering incense, chanting good words to burning joss paper, scurrying from the main altar in the living hall to the porch when the Tin Kong’s (Heavenly Palace) incense burner is placed, and finally to the kitchen to send off the deity.
He noted that most mainstream Chinese burnt the joss paper offered to the Kitchen God in front of the house while the Peranakan would do it at the back. While explaining to us, he folded the papers into what looked like a lotus, but he was not sure what the pattern symbolised.
Chua would be the first in his family to wake up on the reunion morning, as early as 4.30am to prepare all the dishes for the ancestral worship.
Traditionally there should be Dua Belas Mangkuk Lauk (12 dishes) in addition to the “Sam Seng”, fruits and the Kueh Nyonya.
He knows how to cook nine of these but will prepare only four as the process is just too tedious.
The four are Babi Pongteh (Braised Pork in Salted Bean Paste), Chap Chai (Mixed Vegetables), chicken curry and pork trotter, but most importantly, a fresh batch of Acar Melaka that is vital for all three important occasions in the year — Chinese New Year, Cheng Beng and Hungry Ghost Festival.
He was the only one out of three siblings who was keen and patient enough to learn the cuisine from his aunt. He has even turned his backyard into a herb garden. His wife is a Penang Nyonya but she lets him take charge.
Chua does not mind taking pains to preserve the Peranakan culture. He also speaks Baba Malay at home and encourages his son to learn cooking. He believes his grandparents are watching.
Before the ancestral worship, the family would toss two coins to seek their ancestors’ approval to start the ritual. The approval comes in the form of a head and a tail.
“Believe it or not, you won’t get the approval when there’s something missing. That happened last year and when we checked, we found out that we had left out the Kueh Kapit,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, shreds of red paper from burnt out firecrackers, colourful and aromatic delicacies, the high-spirited clang of the lion dance are some beautiful memories of Chinese New Year for the president of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Dr Lee Su Kim, from her childhood days in Kuala Lumpur.
She related how members of her extended family hovered over the stove, oven and used mortar and pestle at the old house in Jalan Sin Chew Kee, Kuala Lumpur, to prepare various Nyonya delights, each needing elaborate preparation.
Kueh Bangkit (animal-shaped cookies made of flour and coconut milk), Kueh Kapit (Asian Love Letters), Kueh Bulu (mini sponge cakes), Kueh Bakul (sticky Chinese New Year cake), Pineapple Tarts, Butter Cake and Keropok (prawn crackers) were some of the delights. Everything had to be homemade, nothing should come from the plastic bag, even spices and curry powder.
Favourite dishes savoured during Chinese New Year vary from family to family and for the Lee’s, these include Pongteh Chicken, Nyonya Curry Chicken, Tau Eu Bak (pork stew in thick black soya sauce), Hati Babi Bungkus (pork liver balls), Itik Tim (duck and salted vegetable soup), Achar Awak and Pickled Ginger.
“I used to have a wonderful time helping the elders make Kueh Bangkit and the best part of it was dotting the eyes with a little toothpick. My siblings and I always looked forward to it, waiting so excitedly for our turn.
“If you don’t do it properly, grandma will come and poke your fingers with her ear digger,” she reminisced when interviewed at her residence in Petaling Jaya.
“We are trained from young to be seronoh and the emphasis is always on elegance and finesse,” she added.
Despite the tediousness, the Peranakan Chinese New Year preparation reflecting harmonious communal living has been meaningful and enjoyable for Lee, who has penned several bestsellers on the distinctive culture.
Her recent work, Kebaya Tales, won the first prize for fiction in The Star – Popular Readers Choice Awards 2011.
The intensity and authenticity of the 700-year-old Peranakan culture has inevitably been diluted, with many Nyonyas leaving the kitchen to achieve great heights in their careers.
“The recepies in Nyonya cooking were never written down in the old days, so to learn it you have to be there in the kitchen but many Nyonya mothers encouraged their daughters to study instead,” she said.
While busy with career development at a younger age, Lee, who is a sixth generation Nyonya from the paternal line, made it a point to learn Nyonya cooking during her 30s from her mother to keep her cultural heritage alive.
She serves friends and families traditional Nyonya delights, albeit “taking occasional shortcuts” such as using the blender.
The Baba Nyonya’s taboos and practices during Chinese New Year are very much steeped in the Chinese tradition, with a bit of Hakka and Hokkien influence due to where their ancestors came from.
The Malay or Southeast Asian influence is most obvious in the cuisine, which is also infused with touches of the Indian, Portuguese, Dutch and British.
Seroja is a unique practice in the community.
On the morning of New Year’s day, children have to go down on their knees to honour their grandparents.
“The Peranakan culture stresses a lot on respect for our elders and honouring our ancestors,” she said.
The interesting Peranakan culture was in danger of disappearing after World War 2.
Today, however, Lee feels there is a revival of interest in the community, as well as an awareness and pride in their unique hybrid identity.
“When everything begins to look the same in this globalised world, you will yearn for something that makes you different, for diversity and multiculturalism amid boring homogeneity.”