Paco, good Muslim that he is, bowed out of dinner last night, which was destined to be laden with pork, and instead we were treated to the company of Helen Ong (pictured with restaurateur Ong Shin Hong), a charming Peranakan woman who just finished writing her second edition of the book Great Dining in Penang.
Peranakan is a Malay word indicating a mixed-race heritage, but it refers specifically to Straits Chinese, the Chinese people who started settling here on the Malay Peninsula (mostly), starting in the 16th Century. Initially they were men, who naturally married Malay women, and a new culture was born. Their cuisine is often called Nyonya, or Baba-Nyonya, the titles of the woman, or man and woman, of the house.
The bulk of Peranakans originally came from Fujian province. Fujian’s actually the Mandarin name for the province. In Fujian dialect it's called Hokkien.
The Hokkien worked hard and prospered, and as Malaya came under British rule, they began to adopt the characteristics of their new overlords, wearing top hats and suits and walking with canes.
“Even furs,” Helen told us, with an expression of disbelief and disdain very much in the style of a posh English person.
Remember, Malaysia’s a tropical country. Fur coats would be uncomfortable.
Helen explained the Peranakans to us as she ordered dinner at Shing Kheang Aun, a restaurant that opened its doors in 1941, serving Hainanese food.
But not really.
You see, Helen explained, in the late 1800s, the Malay Peninsula experienced a huge migration of Chinese laborers from Hainan, a large island to the southwest of China’s Guangdong province (whence come the Cantonese, and, incidentally, the Teo Chiew, but they are not part of this story).
For the sake of accuracy, I’ll point out that Hainan itself has for much of its history been part of Guangdong.
The Hainanese came to be known for their culinary skills and were hired by the British as cooks. The Peranakans, mimicking the British as they were wont to do, hired the Hainanese, too.
So the Hainanese learned to cook both British and Peranakan food, but also retained their own culinary culture.
That, Helen said, is the “Hainan” cuisine of modern-day Malaysia.
At any rate, Joanna, Bob and I thought the food was fantastic. Helen, local restaurant critic and anglicized socialite that she is, was more critical. She disagreed with the sambal belacan, which according to Peranakan custom should be made from shrimp paste, fresh chile, salt and sugar, and that’s it.
“That’s the Peranakan way,” she said.
Shing Kheang Aun had added vinegar to theirs — a common practice to extend the condiment’s life, and a bastardization of the original
Thais add garlic and fish sauce, she said, which is equally delicious, but not Peranakan (she pointed out, by the way, that Peranakans are not just in Singapore, Malacca and Penang, the cities for which they are known, but also on the Thai island of Phuket, and Medan, a large city in northern Sumatra, just across the Strait of Malacca, and there are some on Malaysia’s east coast, too).
She also said her assam tumis was better than Shing Kheang Aun’s.
I have no reason to doubt here, but I thought the restaurant’s assam tumis was terrific.
Assam is the Malay word for “sour,” and tumis means “fry.” It refers to the sour paste that’s fried to make the sauce for this fish curry, which tasted very much like southern Thai gaeng som, which means “sour curry,” and is made with garlic, chile and fresh turmeric fried together to make a curry base. Assam tumis also has tamarind in it, and I have no doubt that some versions of gaeng som do, too.
We also had beef liver and pork fried with soy sauce, stir-fried bean sprouts flavored with salted fish (which reminded me once again how ridiculous it is to eat bean sprouts raw — a state in which they’re disgusting), salted vegetables flavored with pig trotters, and Hainan-style noodles (apparently it is not the Hainanese custom to add black soy sauce to their noodles).
As dinner wound down Helen explained the origins of the name Fatty Crab, a chain restaurant in Kuala Lumpur after which Zak Pelaccio’s New York restaurant is named.
In Cantonese, "fatty crab" is pronounced "fei hai." But you have to use the right tones, especially for “hai.”
“Fei” means “fatty” and “hai,” pronounced correctly, means “crab.” Pronounced otherwise, it’s a vulgar word for “vagina.”
Transliterated into Roman letters as Fei Hai, it could mean either one.
If you’re Cantonese and see a sign written that way, it’s funny.
It’s kind of like the California-based chain Pink Taco.