Dinner at Guan Chua ’s Peranakan Food Supper Club
What is Peranakan Food?
That is a question I have been asked many times in the UK when referring to Malaysian food.
Malaysia is between China and India – the two oldest and most influential cultures in the world. For 150 years, both countries were under the British colonial rule.
Malaysian food is based on the cultural influences – Chinese, Indian, Western and Local (Malay and indigenous). There is a class of food which is fusion of Chinese and the local people. This is known as Peranakan Food. This is an important subset of Malaysian food. It is indigenous to Malaysia and is totally unique.
Chinese traders settled in the Malay Peninsula with local women from the 15th Century onwards. They would prepare their food in a combination of methods and ingredients – like:
- Chinese ingredients with local spices and herbs (including galangal, chillies, lemongrass, tamarind, fermented shrimp paste (belacan), coconut milk).
- Local methods with Chinese ingredients (including noodles, tofu) and methods (braising and stir frying)
- Various combinations also the adaptation to the more recent influences of the British.
This Malaysian food has been developed and refined over the centuries. The taste is complex and the balance is like no other. It is intensely rich, gutsy and accented with tangy, pungent and sour flavours. It has also adapted to new influences like western food and different new cooking techniques like baking and roasting. This has resulted in a food that has a unique flavour and it is found mainly in Penang and Malacca (Malaysia) and Singapore. These 3 towns were collectively known as the Straits Settlements and hence, Peranakan food was also called “Straits Food”.
Otak Otak: Fish, either in solid pieces or as a mousse, is cooked with herbs and spices. It is wrapped as a parcel of banana leaves. It is either steamed or char-grilled.
Kaya Toast: A spread, prepared from egg, coconut milk, sugar (or palm sugar), on buttered toast.
Laksa: A spicy noodle soup is based on coconut milk and spices. The noodles are usually rice vermicelli. There are 2 main types of Laksa:
- Sour assam Laksa: A fish tamarind based soup
- Savoury Laksa: A chicken curry soup.
The point that I am trying to make is that the ingredients are from one culture and the methods are from another. Furthermore, with the example of kaya toast, there is the adaptation to the western influence of bread and toast from the British. It is a fusion food and it has been tried and tested over the centuries.
This Peranakan cuisine adapts to the changing environment which makes it difficult to define or establish the definitive recipe. It simply changes with time and the environment.
I have used the term Peranakan where as Guan has used the term Nyonya. There terms mean the same and are interchangeable. Peranakan Food is an important subset of Malaysian food. It has unique taste and interesting origins.
Who is Guan Chua?
We first noticed Guan when he appeared on the Channel 4 TV series “The Taste” which included Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and Ludo Lefebvre. He was mentored by Anthony Bourdain. The programme was about preparing a dish to be presented to the Judges on a Chinese spoon. The contents were sampled and judged. Not easy.
We met at a food sampling presentation and subsequently got to know him better. Of course, we have eaten in each other’s homes and are in regular communication. We have much in common as we come from the same part of the world and have similar interests including Malaysian food.
Guan has a food blog (theboywhoatetheworld.com/) and is a supper club host.
Helen organised a supper club dinner with a party of close friends and to record the event for the travel blog. Secondly, it was at the start of the Chinese New Year the dinner started off in the Traditional Chinese Malaysian way.
This food article is to show that Peranakan Food, which is an important subset of Malaysian food, has a unique taste with very interesting origins is available in London.
The Dinner Menu:
Yee Sang – There was no photograph of the action as everyone did not want to lose out or Kiasu in Singlish.
The dinner starts off with Yee Sang or a Chinese New Year “Prosperity Toss”. This is a Southern Chinese tradition to start the new year. The raw fish “salad” symbolises “Good Luck for the New Year”. Each component has a meaning which point towards wealth and success. The shredded components are mixed by everybody on the table. The chopsticks get higher and higher and everyone saying “lo hei, lo hei” meaning scooping it up.
The Main Courses:
It is traditional to wear red in Chinese New Year as this helps to bring in the prosperity luck
We certainly enjoyed this meal – the food was good and the company even better. Guan knows how to pace the serving of food. He kept us entertained with food and lively conversation.
Cooking was Guan’s passion when he was a Finance Analyst. It was his calling and he decided to train as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu. He is now a food blogger (theboywhoatetheworld.com/) and a Supper club host specialising in Peranakan Food. He also works in pop-up restaurants and does some teaching of Malaysian food.
He was brought up in the household where some of the finest Peranakan cuisine was prepared by his god mother who comes from Penang. Penang is the one of the three centres of Peranakan Food. He was brought up with the taste and flavour of this sub-set of Malaysian Food. As his passion developed, he began to understand the techniques and the recipes.
Peranakan Food in London:
There are a number of Malaysian and Singapore restaurants in London, Europe’s most cosmopolitan city. They might have a few dish of Peranakan Food but they treat it as a dish in their menu.
There was a restaurant specialising in Peranakan Food in Queensway, one of the restaurant centres of London. It was called “Kiasu”. It lasted for 2 years I recall. The food was authentic and good. Unfortunately, it is no longer there. This would have continued to educate Londoners and their visitors to the taste of this unique food.
In my opinion, the Kiasu was closed for 2 particular reasons even though the food and service was good.
- The owner had selected a poor location. In this location, no restaurant has lasted more than a year or two. Frequent changes of ownership happened to the previous owners and this still continues today. A new owner always thinks they can do better than the previous. In my feng shui analysis, this is not a good location to have a business.
- The primary colour of the interiors of the restaurant was blue. So were the lamp shades. Have you seen blue in a successful restaurant? Do you want to know why? Have you seen the colour of green vegetables under a blue light? The food, particularly the vegetables, does not appear appetising.
Currently, there are no restaurants serving Malaysian food specialising in Peranakan Food in London but yet there is continued comment in the press. It should be noted that Peranakan food is unique to both Malaysia and Singapore
Currently, there are no restaurants specialising in Peranakan Food in London but yet there is continued comment.
The Guardian: The foodie traveller on … Singapore’s Peranakan cuisine.
BBC: Nonya kueh: Wolfing down Singapore’s wobbliest cake.
The Independent: Peranakan cuisine looks set to be the next big thing in British dining.
The Telegraph: Eating Malaysia: a culinary tour.
Financial Times: Singapore’s Peranakan cuisine.
As far as I am aware, Guan’s Supper Club is now the only establishment in London where authentic Peranakan Cuisine is available.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Guan for allowing me to take photographs of the event for a food article in this travel blog.
About Dr Michael Oon:
Michael was brought up in Singapore and came to the UK for schooling. He was a forensic scientist at the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory (New Scotland Yard, London) for 20 years. He is now a consultant practicing traditional feng shui and works with property developers. He specialises in helping to sell property faster. He has travelled extensively around the world as part of his work and together with his wife Helen.
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- A Foodie’s Dinner of Malaysian Food at Selesa Restaurant in London.
- The Roti King is hidden in Doric Way
- Dinner at Guan Chua ’s Peranakan Food Supper Club
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