Functions of the Traditional Equipment
A cast-iron wok is an essential element of every Asian Peranakan kitchen. It is used for stir-frying, deep-frying, steaming, and braising. Seasoning the wok gives a non-stick patina surface, and it is never washed with detergent or abrasive materials.
Grinder (pounder, lesong or tombok tombok)
A stone mortar and pestle, with the mortar in a bowl shape with a flat base and the pestle in a thick bulbous shape for easy gripping. This is used for pounding aromatics such as lime leaves, lemongrass, ginger, and chillies.
Grinder (grindstone, batu piling)
This is a second tool for grinding, consisting of a flat mortar stone with a gently concave surface, and a pestle shaped roughly in an L-shape. This is used for making smooth pastes out of chilli, and other softer ingredients, where a more horizontal action is needed.
Chinese Chopper and Wood Chopping Board
A Chinese chopper or cleaver is traditionally made of steel, and has the blade in a rectangular or oblong shape. Thicker at the blunt side, it should have some weight, to make chopping easier. It is the multipurpose cutting tool for everything from cutting through bones to julienning coriander. Chopping boards are made of wood, washed after every use and scraped down regularly for hygiene.
A frying pan, imported from the Western kitchen, is useful for additional frying.
Another import from the Western kitchen, a saucepan is used for various tasks such as boiling and braising.
Blangah Earthenware Pots
Earthenware pots are made of clay and usually in natural shades ranging from off-white to dark brown. They are favoured for making curries and soups as they retain heat well.
Batu Bo Stone Mill Grinder
Round stone grinders were essentially two disc-shaped pieces of stone, one atop the other, with a central axis. They were used for grinding dry ingredients such as grains, nuts, and beans.
Aluminium Pots (piruk kling) c.1960s
From the 1960s onwards, aluminium pots were often used in place of the older earthenware or clay pots. Lighter and unbreakable, they were much favoured for cooking and transporting large amounts of food.
A Chinese steamer consists of bamboo fibres woven into shallow cylindrical stackable trays with loose lattice bottoms and a cover. These were placed over boiling water for steaming everything from fish to rice and desserts.
Molds (achuan achuan)
Various moulds may be found in use, with each having specific shapes for specific foods: kueh pieti, kueh rose, mooncakes, ang ku kueh, and so on. Early moulds were carved from wood, but these days may be found made of metal, plastic, or even silicone.
A coconut grater was a wooden board studded with little spikes, and while effective, often left the person holding it with injured fingers or fingernails.
Noodle and Vegetable Strainers
For blanching noodles, vegetables, or meat, bamboo strainers were used.
Coconut Milk Strainer
Coconut milk was obtained from grated coconut by placing the latter in a cloth bag and applying pressure. These bags were made of hardy cloth.
Wood or Coconut Ladles
Ladles for adding or transferring liquids were carved out of wood or made of coconut shell with wooden handles. Fancier households would have ladles made of metal or porcelain.
Panggang Wire Grille Net
A wire grille net was used for the grilling of larger pieces of food such as chicken, fish, and meat. This was placed on top of the satay grill.
Ice was purchased and delivered in large blocks, and a hand operated metal ice crusher was used to fracture the ice into small pieces.
When delivering food to places outside the home, such as the workplace or other homes, a tingkat was used. A tingkat was a tiered stackable set of basket trays, the first ones were made of bamboo, and later these were made of metal coated in enamel.
Colourful Serving Dishes
Food was served in colourful porcelain dishes decorated with traditional Chinese motifs. These often are distinctively Asian Peranakan in colours and motifs, with rose pink and turquoise as popular vibrant colour choices.
Blue and White KitchenWare
Chinese blue and white ware was used in the kitchen for preparing food. Asian Peranakans would not usually eat or serve food on plain or blue and white porcelain.
The Traditional Asian Peranakan Kitchen Space
In our age of modern conveniences, it is easy to forget that kitchens in most homes of the past looked very different from what we would now think of as a home kitchen.
Before homes were provided with plumbing that brought water into the home, water was drawn from wells, stored in large central urns for household use, and transferred to smaller containers for kitchen, washing, and bathing use. Rainwater was also collected in urns for use. A large urn was present in every kitchen for cooking with.
Today, we use gas or electricity for the heat required to cook, but ovens and stoves fueled by wood or preferably charcoal were the normal order of the day. Dried coconut husks were also a common fuel. Variations in cooking temperature were achieved by holding the cooking vessels closer to or further away from the source of heat.
No electricity meant that no refrigeration was possible either, so meat would have been bought fresh whenever required, and fruit and vegetables were consumed quickly. Leftovers, if any, were stored overnight in special free-standing cupboards with gauze sides to enable ventilation and protect them from flying insects, and the legs of these cupboards stood in containers of water or oil to prevent access by crawling insects.
There were typically two kitchens, and the indoor kitchen was used for preparation of dry ingredients and processes that were less likely to make a mess. The actual cooking usually took place at the back of the house in an outdoor kitchen which was often shaded. The outdoor kitchen made for better ventilation of cooking fumes and reduced the risk of stove fires damaging the house with its flammable structures. Slaughtering of poultry and smaller animals always took place outdoors.
Traditionally, as cooking was seen to be a woman’s work, the imparting of kitchen skills to girls began early. Many Asian Peranakan women’s first memories include such simple tasks as peeling garlic and ginger, drawing water from the well, soaking dried ingredients, or washing vegetables – no sharp objects in the early days! She would then graduate on to the task of cutting vegetables and then meat, and eventually the blending of flavours by pounding herbs, spices. Only when she was older would she be introduced to the finer skill of cooking over an open flame.
As they did not go to school, which was reserved for the boys, cooking was a central part of the upbringing of an Asian Peranakan girl. Even the elegant arts of embroidery and sewing took second place to cooking as an essential skill for Asian Peranakan ladies, for it was her cooking that ensured her value as a potential wife. Matriarchs when evaluating a young lady as a potential partner for their sons, were said to observe her grinding chillies at the mortar and pestle, with the sound of her pounding indicating how attentive she was to tasks, and of course, the taste and texture of the final product showing her ability in the kitchen. To this day, old-fashioned mothers hearing about a son’s girlfriend will often ask ‘can she cook’ before enquiring about her other qualities.
Highlights from the Home and Outdoor Kitchen
The charcoal stove was usually made of clay and shaped like an open-topped pot, with an opening at the side for charcoal or wood. This was used for most cooking tasks.
This is a clay or metal trough, with charcoal in the indentation. Skewers of meat were placed breadthwise over the charcoal for cooking. A metal grille could have been put over the top for supporting larger pieces of meat being grilled.
A metal kerosene lamp was the usual method of lighting in an outdoor kitchen, before the advent of portable battery-powered lights or electric lighting.
As the name suggests, a large rainwater jar was used to collect and store fresh water for various kitchen uses.
A well was the normal regular source of fresh drinking water, and fortunate families either lived near a well or had one in their backyards, or else the onerous task of fetching water from the well could involve a lot of sweat.
Coconut Husk and Charcoal Fuel
Charcoal was the favoured fuel for stoves, as it burns with intense heat and without unpredictable flames. Nevertheless, many families made do with coconut husks or firewood, and there would have been a supply ready at hand in every kitchen.
Brick Island for Cooking with Wok
Families who could afford it would build a brick island, much like our kitchen islands of today, for cooking with the wok. This allowed cooking while standing up, rather than a squatting position necessary if the stove were placed on the ground.
Wood Ice Box
In the late 19th century, when ice factories began to appear, so did a modern (for the time) convenience – the ice box, a non-mechanical refrigeration container. This enabled both fresh and cooked food to be preserved much longer. The ice box was constructed of wood for insulation, and had space for large blocks of ice at the top, with a drip pan for catching the water from melting ice. Fancier models had ways of draining off the water.
Cabinet with Netting for Leftovers
Leftovers, if any, were stored overnight in special free-standing cabinets with gauze netting sides to enable ventilation and protect them from flying insects, and the legs of these cupboards stood in containers of water or oil to prevent access by crawling insects.
The refrigerator, now present in every kitchen, was not present in the formative years of the Asian Peranakan kitchen culture. As a result, many creative techniques were used to help preserve food in the tropical heat and humidity. These include the use of spices and sugar, salting, drying, and pickling in vinegar.