Learning about the Paranakans

I have found that these past two weeks have flown by.  Every day has been so busy, that I had not gotten a chance to sit down and write about all of the adventures I have been having.

Recently, my cultural class has been going on myriads of different field trips.  Out of all of the field trips we have gone on, I found one particular experience that piqued my interest.  It was when my class went to tour a place called the Baba House.  This particular house has been bought up, restored, and preserved by the National University of Singapore.  We had the unique opportunity to walk through the house and learn about the Paranakan culture and see how a traditional Paranakan house would look in the 20th century, and maybe still see remnants of the culture in the descendants today.

The front of the Baba House

The front of the Baba House

The Paranakans are people who have both Chinese and Malay blood.  Generally the father is Chinese and the mother is Malay.  Paranakan houses are decorated in a very traditional Chinese fashion because of the Chinese father's influence, but the food has more of a Malay style of cooking.  The Paranakan children generally speak Malay (not Chinese) and follow the Malay style of dress and traditions because the mother is the one who stays at home and has more influence.

One fact that I found fascinating was that Chinese chairs are bought in sets.  A set of chairs would come with two chairs and a small table.  In traditional Chinese homes, each chair would be put next to each other, then the table would be placed in between the two.  Sometimes a mirror would be put on the table, in hopes to scare away any bad spirits or demons that would try to enter the house.  After learning about this, I finally realized why my parents had their furniture in pairs.  I also finally understood why everything was always even, and that we had sets of either two or four pairs of chairs that would all be put in the same area facing each other.  My grandparent’s house is set the same way as well.  I got really excited when I heard about the reason furniture was sold in pairs.  The furniture layout of my house now makes complete sense to me.

I also really enjoyed the Baba House because of the elaborate decorations that adorned the house.  Regardless of whether it was in the private area or a public area, I found that the furnishings were all very meticulously selected.  All of the designs on the tiles, stairs, dishes, etc., were all very lovely.  I particularly enjoyed the fine china.  I wondered at all of the work, time, and effort that had to be put in to each dish.  All of the colors suited my taste, and I think it would have been wonderful to have been able to see a large family gathering around the table with platters of overflowing food.

This weekend, my cousin and his family invited me to dinner with them.  Coincidentally, they took me out to a restaurant called Nonya and Baba.  When I saw the restaurant we were going to eat at, I could not help but get excited because I had just learned about the Paranakan culture and about their food.  My cousins ordered many different plates of food.  We had two vegetable dishes, one fish platter, an assorted meat platter, one soup, and two different meats.  All of the dishes were served on elaborately decorated platters.  They were not as colorful as the dishes that we saw at the Baba house, but they definitely were elaborate enough for me to identify the Paranakan style of pottery for the dishes.  I also had the chance to try the poisonous black nut that we saw at the house.  It tasted slightly bitter, and had the texture of a thick powder.  I did not particularly enjoy it, so I do not see it as black gold.

Black gold

The black nuts are the prized spice of Paranakan food. It had a very interesting taste and texture... I would not say that it was my favorite thing that night.

One of the meat dishes was served in a curry soup, and it was slightly more sour than Chinese curry.  It tasted as if they added some tamarind into the soup to give it a more sour taste.  The two vegetables were cooked with Sambal chili, which I recognized because I have eaten this dish before in Singapore.  I guess I cannot say that I was surprised to see this chili served that night.

Paranakan Dinner

Paranakan dinner filled with quite a bit of spicy dishes and real Malay ingredients.

Overall, I was very impressed with the dinner.  The Paranakan food was definitely more on the spicy side, but the spiciness gave the food its unique flavor.  I found it delicious, and I would be more than happy to eat Paranakan food again!

Author: Lynn Tay

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