2.7 New world Peranakan

Contemporary Life and Asian Peranakans

Globalisation and ‘modern’ lifestyles have had no less an impact on Asian Peranakan culture than other traditional cultures, and arguably even more.

The traditional Asian Peranakan culture is based around several generations and branches of a family living in close proximity, and the work that goes into creating the complex cuisine was traditionally shared between various members of the family. As extended families living together becomes a rarer phenomenon, the elaborate rituals, social and religious observances, and foods that mark the life of a Peranakan family have been increasingly harder to maintain in their fullness.

The long preparation processes of traditional dishes and arts and crafts such as embroidery and dressmaking, once all essential skills, have all suffered from the modern problem of lack of time. It is cheaper and easier to cook dishes with simpler preparation, and to buy ready-made dresses and embroidery. 

Every savoury dish traditionally begins with the pounding of aromatic herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle, making a rempah or base mix, to which other flavours are added for various dishes. The slow laborious pounding bruises the herbs, enabling them to release their flavour in a way that is not replicable with food processors. It is said that older women would listen to the way a prospective daughter-in-law pounded her herbs in order to gauge how attentive she was to the task at hand. The lengthy preparation of peeling, pounding and grating have now given way to modern techniques intended to save time and labour. Nevertheless, many modern families, pressed for time, now rely on shortcuts such as premixed store-bought sauces and bases, which never taste the same. In the same way, the fineness of handmade crafts cannot be reproduced exactly with mechanical techniques. 

Essential skills of the past have given way to modern priorities, and traditional methods once practiced daily have now become occasional indulgences for special occasions such as birthdays, births, weddings, and Chinese New Year. Peranakan culture is a product of successive ages of globalisation causing large-scale interactions between peoples and cultures. No doubt, the increased pace of globalisation will have its effect on Peranakan culture, causing it to evolve and change continuously.

Impact of Modern Life on Asian Peranakan Cuisine

Asian Peranakan culture, being a child of multi-cultural influences, has always been fluid and accepting of new influences and diversity. Present day life, with its demands, has changed the milieu in which Asian Peranakans find themselves. Smaller families living apart, sometimes in different cities or even countries, in comparison with the large extended households of the past has meant that many traditions and customs are no longer easily practiced. 

Domestic servants are no longer as common as they were before, except in the grandest households, and even then, are unlikely to know the traditional family recipes. Modern families where both spouses work full-time jobs means that few have the time or the energy to pursue the traditional arts, particularly of the kitchen, where many dishes require long and elaborate preparation. 

Yet, the modern world with its ubiquity of social media and interest in preserving fading traditions means that it is possible for minority voices to be heard quite loudly. Enthusiasts of Asian Peranakan culture have formed societies and online communities to promote and preserve aspects of their culture, ranging from language to song and dance, and of course, food. Near-universal literacy has made it possible for family traditions and recipes to be recorded, while Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and other forms of social media have allowed people to share and celebrate culture in ways that were unimaginable a century ago. Tourism has led to a revival of interest in traditional culture, and Asian Peranakan culture has been a poster-child for the diverse melting-pot of South-East Asia. 

Asian Peranakan cuisine has found favour with cooks both amateur and professional as globalisation has made it easier to obtain authentic ingredients and recipes, and as interest in combining traditional techniques and elements from various cultures rises, Asian Peranakan cuisine, being the original fusion, is taking an increasingly important role on the global centrestage.

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