Posted by: mel | October 8, 2009

When Chinese Cooking Meets Malay

Jakarta Globe | By Petty Elliott | 8 October 2009


Chili sauce and limes add bite to traditional laksa. (Photo: Petty Elliott, JG)

Chili sauce and limes add bite to traditional laksa. (Photo: Petty Elliott, JG)

If you believe the trend of fusion food started only recently, you would be mistaken. Fusion cuisine has been around Indonesia and our neighboring countries for centuries. Indonesian food alone has influences from China, India, the Middle East and Europe. 

Baba and nonya cuisines may not be familiar to everyone, but are better known by the title peranakan cuisine. Peranakan refers to the descendants of Chinese migrants who intermarried with local Malays in Penang, Malacca, Indonesia and Singapore. The old Bahasa Malay word nonya is a term of respect and affection for women and has come to refer to the peranakan cuisine. Baba were the Chinese men who married Malay women. 

Peranakan cooking is a unique blend of Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques (using a wok) with Malay or Indonesian spices. The food is fragrant, spicy, tangy and herbal. Key ingredients include root herbs like ginger, galangal and turmeric, lemon grass, shrimp paste, buah keluak (black nut), cloves, laksa leaves, turmeric leaves, lime leaves, chillies, palm sugar, cinnamon, coriander seeds, screw pine (pandan leaves), garlic and shallots. 


A traditional dish in Singapore and Malaysia, Laksa is a spicy coconut soup with rice noodles and prawns. Enjoy! 


400 grams thick rice vermicelli (parboiled and drained dry), 50 grams dried prawns (washed and ground), 200 grams bean sprouts (washed with mineral water), 250 milliliters coconut cream, 500 milliliters prawn stock, 3 limes (sliced), 2 lime leaves, 2 teaspoons sugar, salt to taste. 

For the paste: 

2 stalks lemon grass (roughly slice the white only), 10 centimeters galangal (roughly sliced), 5 centimeters turmeric , 4 candlenuts, 10 dried birds eye chillies (soak in warm water and drain), 10 shallots, 1 tablespoon coriander powder, 2 teaspoons shrimp paste. Grind all the ingredients with a blender or pestle and mortar. 

For the sambal: 

15 dried chillies (ground), 2 tablespoons oil, 0.5 teaspoons sugar, salt to taste. 


200 grams medium sized prawns (clean and boil in 1 liter water for 5 minutes, remove prawns from liquid, set aside to cool, retain the liquid, shell prawns, return shells to liquid and boil 10 minutes for prawn stock, strain and set aside), 1 small cucumber (skin, halve, remove seeds and slice thinly), bunch of laksa leaves (you can find these at a traditional market, or they can be replaced with mint or coriander). 


To make the sambal, heat oil in a wok or saucepan, lower heat, add ground chillies and cook for 5-7 minutes. Add salt and sugar. Remove from heat and set aside for 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl. This serves as a side dish to the laksa. 

To prepare the soup, reheat the wok or saucepan, add 1 tablespoon of oil and the paste and cook until fragrant on low to medium heat. Add ground dried prawns and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of water if the mixture is too dry. Add prawn stock, lime leaves and coconut milk and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Add cooked prawn and cook for another 5 minutes, salt to taste. 

To serve: 

Apportion the rice vermicelli and bean sprouts into individual bowls. Add three or four prawns and sliced cucumber to each. Pour the hot soup over and sprinkle with laksa leaves. Serve with the sambal and sliced lime for those who like a spicier, tangy flavor.


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