Thursday 16 August 2012

A Cross-Cultural Marriage

In my youth, whenever we gathered for dinner at my uncle’s place there would often be a small plate of achar (pickled vegetables) prepared by his mother. The latter was a proud Peranakan matriarch who wore the traditional sarong kebaya until her passing. I sometimes wonder if her achar was a subtle way of imprinting on us the culinary richness of her heritage. Although a mere condiment, the crunchy snap of preserved cucumber and carrots is forever embedded in my taste memory. Its sweet, spicy and sour flavours perfectly summarise the character of Peranakan cuisine.

Those dinner memories stayed with me as I grew up, and it was perhaps inevitable that I would grow more curious about the Peranakan way of life, in particular its treasure trove of recipes. The fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures through the marriage of Chinese immigrants with local women gave birth to a cuisine blessed with a bountiful list of ingredients. Herbs and spices such as coconut milk, chilli, shrimp paste and lemongrass were introduced to a wide variety of meats and vegetables such as chicken, pork, water spinach and sweet potato. The menu in a Peranakan restaurant typically consists of thirty to forty items, but this is merely scratching the surface of a diverse cuisine.

When looking to satisfy my craving for Peranakan food, I turn to one of my friends who makes a particularly good version of itek tim. This heady, spicy broth of tender duck meat and salted vegetables is a bowl of gustatory delight, enough to get me salivating at the thought. Said friend also happens to be gifted with a liver apparently made of cement, thus we often enjoy pairing our meals with alcoholic beverages. It was his suggestion to try a glass of Hennessy VSOP to go with the itek tim and to my delight I found that the alcohol served to heighten the aromas of the dish profoundly, directing them right through the olfactory senses.

Emboldened by this success, I embarked on a quest to find the ideal wine pairing for Peranakan food. There was a twofold challenge to this; firstly, Peranakan dishes emphasise communal dining with many dishes served together and secondly, because of its rich assortment of aromas, flavours and textures. Discovering the right match for this cuisine is akin to selecting a new instrument for an orchestral ensemble. The candidate must be able to contribute a distinct melody that enriches the music, but at the same time not so dominating as to disrupt the harmony that is already there. Delicate Burgundies and aged Bordeaux would struggle to be heard. On the other hand, high alcohol fruit bombs would clash with the Peranakan spices and leave the tongue numb. The right balance is to be found in young, fruity wines.

A white wine such as the Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010 from Margaret River ($39.85, from Cold Storage) goes well with many of the dishes in Peranakan cuisine. The wine’s tangy passionfruit and saline notes are a good match with sour-salty dishes such as hee peow (fish maw) soup and itek tim. It also pairs well with the ubiquitous ayam buah keluak (stewed chicken with candlenut seed) which is sour and mildly spicy. The high acidity of the wine helps to wash down the oily sauce and refreshes the palate for the next bite.

When faced with denser, spicier dishes we need to turn to a red wine. Dishes such as babi pongteh (braised pork with salted bean paste) and beef rendang (simmered beef cubes in coconut milk and curry) call for a fruity Merlot like the single-varietal Anakena Merlot 2009 from Chile ($36.00, from Top Wines). Soft and juicy with rounded tannins, the wine has enough character to hold its own against the flavours of the dish. Merlots from the Vins de Pays d'Oc region, which are similarly fruit-forward, also work well.

Peranakan desserts tend to be very sweet and often contain coconut milk. Chendol (pandan-flavoured strands with shaved ice, coconut milk and palm sugar) and sago gula Melaka (sago pearl pudding with coconut cream and palm sugar) have their origins in Malaysia and have subsequently become a common sight in Singapore food courts. Pair these with a Sauternes like the Chateau Filhot 2005 ($42.00 for a 37.5 cl bottle, from 1855 The Bottle Shop) and luxuriate in the creamy textures of coconut, honey and burnt sugar.

Experimenting with different combinations sometimes yields surprising and pleasant results. One of my favourite matches is udang masak nanas (prawns cooked in pineapple gravy) with the Trimbach Gewurtztraminer 2007 from Alsace ($41.00, from Cold Storage). The wine enhanced the sweetness of the pineapple gravy, providing a burst of flavour that lingered seductively on the palate.

Peranakan cuisine truly is a labour of love, with recipes being handed down from one generation to the next. However, the long and laborious preparation for these dishes means that fewer and fewer people are picking up the tricks of the trade. It is a great loss as this cuisine, unique to the region, offers so much variety of flavour. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to get one hooked onto Peranakan food. Maybe just a humble plate of achar during dinner. 

The above article was first published in Appetite magazine in August 2012.