A Straits Affair to remember
MALACCA, Oct 16 — The Straits Chinese of Malacca have a new “unofficial” cultural ambassador in the form of Isaac Tan, eighth-generation Baba and founder of Straits Affair, a Peranakan café located in the historical heart of Malacca.
What started off as a “Peranakan Preservation Project” to preserve Peranakan delicacies that have become increasingly rare has now transformed into what he calls “a Peranakan Pâtisserie, ‘Kueh-kery’ and Tea Room.”
Tan comes from a long line of Straits Chinese. His ancestor, Tan Hay Kwan, first arrived in Dutch-colonised Malacca in the year 1771. He adds, “Hailing from the Fujian province of China, Tan Hay Kwan married a Nyonya and started our family line in Malacca. Today, he has numerous descendants including prominent Babas such as Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Tun Tan Siew Sin (the former Malaysia Finance Minister) and Goh Keng Swee (the former Singapore Deputy Prime Minister).”
While Tan grew up surrounded by Peranakan culture, he confessed to not recognising that it was “Peranakan” until he was older. He recalls, “Studying at a Chinese primary school, I always wondered why I was so different from my friends: Why was my entire family speaking Baba Malay while my friend’s family spoke Mandarin? Why did I live in a house full of European and Oriental antiques while my friends lived in modern dwellings?”
One question that was always on top of the young Baba’s mind was how food served at his home differed significantly from the typical Chinese food.
Today we understand that Peranakan culture and cuisine evolved through the centuries by absorbing Malay, Indian, Chinese, European and Eurasian influences.
“This natural assimilation and openness to other cultures set us apart from the mainstream Chinese culture that did not go through the same process,” says Tan who started Straits Affair to create awareness for the “hidden” Baba Nyonya delicacies that Peranakan families make only at home.
Such treats include Fried Kueh Ku (fried ang koo kueh) and Apom Berkuah (Peranakan crêpes with gula Melaka and banana sauce).
Tan was also alarmed with how certain attributes of Jonker Street, where many Peranakans — including his family — used to live, have been distorted and commercialised.
He explains, “What alerted me was the sale of ‘Nyonya Almond Cookies’ — there is no such thing. These were regular Chinese almond cookies. The Nyonya label was misused as Peranakans do not have almond cookies in their cuisine.”
This was the turning point that inspired Tan to showcase Peranakan heritage through his Straits Affair project that aims to make authentic Peranakan kueh and desserts — that are still traditionally made by hand and from scratch — available to the public.
“Well-known Peranakan kueh and food are appropriately preserved by the Peranakan Association and various authentic Peranakan restaurants. However, often overlooked are the unique delicacies that are in danger of extinction.
“For example, Pang Su Sie, an original Malaccan bun originating from the Portuguese-Eurasian culture. If no effort was made on our part, there will be no awareness about the bun and it might be lost forever after the next generation.”
According to Tan, Pang Su Sie — made from flour and mashed sweet potatoes, and filled with caramelised minced meat, potatoes and spices — is to Malacca what siew bao is to Seremban.
He says, “Pang Su Sie has been eaten here for at least 500 years by the Portuguese and the Peranakans! The word ‘Pang’ is the Kristang word for bread, while I suspect Susie is a person’s name. Due to the inter-relations between the Peranakans and the Eurasians, we have adopted this bun as well.”
The “Peranakan Pâtisserie” itself is a carefully curated homage to the past. The illustrious members of Tan’s family over the course of eight generations and almost two-and-a-half centuries are highlighted in a wall display.
The British influence on Peranakan culture is captured in their afternoon tea set, using English three-tier plates instead of bakul siah or tingkat.
“This is because bakul siah has historically been used for hantaran (gifts) for weddings instead of afternoon tea while tingkat has historically been used to pack cheap workday midday meals.
“As a living museum, Straits Affair also displays lesser known antique collections typically found in Peranakan homes, such as German clocks and Swedish enamel coffee holders, instead of the usual kasut manek or kebaya.”
While researching Peranakan kueh, Tan realised that there were a lot similarities and overlap between the cuisines of the Peranakans, Eurasians, Chitty Peranakans and the Malays.
He shares, “There were even some delicacies that could be found across all four cultures. This inspired me to share with my guests the history behind the different historical ethnic groups in Malacca and how they have lived side by side for over 500 years.”
Straits Affair 1 Jalan Tukang Besi, Malacca (Alternative entrance via Cheng Ho Cultural Museum on Lorong Hang Jebat)
Open Mon-Fri 11am to 8pm (closed on Wed); Sat, Sun and public holidays 10am to 7pm