Saying it with food - The culinary heritage of Penang’s Jawi Peranakan

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What’s culture without cuisine? And what better cuisine than that which developed through the fusion of varied culinary tastes? The dynamic life of the Straits Settlements could not but generate exquisite foods for transcending barriers.

History, kinship and family

The Jawi Peranakan was the most visible hybrid Straits Muslim community in the Straits Settlements during the colonial era. In lifestyle and material culture, they complemented the historic community of the Straits Chinese—the early Peranakan community. The Jawi Peranakan community comprised families descended from Indian Muslim, Arab or other Muslim patrilineages where men married local Malay women and where children were brought up to speak the Malay language, and among the elite, to use English as their mother tongue.

As a result of these Indian or Arab marriages with Malay women, the second generation moved away from the original emphasis on patriarchy and patrilineal descent to a more diffused Peninsular Malay bilateral system of kinship relations, where kinsmen from the mother’s side may play an equally important and powerful role in family decisions and businesses. Some families attempted to retain the emphasis on patrilineage by dropping the names of the father as a surname, and taking instead, the name of the founding ancestor who pioneered the local family business in the Straits. For example, if the name of the pioneer was Ariff, Ariffin or Carrim, these would be retained as the “surnames” of the descendants. Some families used initials such as S.M. (Shaik Mydin) before their personal name, to denote the clan they belonged to.

Should the children of such Jawi Peranakan families in turn marry Malay men or women, the third generation became Malay. The kinship system became bilateral, ego-centred with equal emphasis on the mother’s and father’s kin, depending on locality, work and familiarity, e.g. the nature of the personal relationships could be sealed with either the mother’s siblings or father’s siblings. Generally, in Malay society, relations with maternal aunts are closer, on account of the sentimental attachment mothers share with siblings of the same gender.1

Significantly, the Jawi Peranakan was an ethnic category under British colonial rule in the Straits and ceased to exist only after Independence in 1957 when the preferred ethnic category was “Malay”. In a sense, both the Jawi Peranakan and Straits Chinese ceased to exist as living ethnic communities but have been kept alive through intangible heritage, material culture and the popularity of their unique fusion cuisines. There are currently very few Straits Chinese families who continue to adopt Malay as their spoken language. The preference for Chinese medium schooling or English has resulted in them having Chinese or English as their mother tongue. Jawi Peranakan families continued to use Malay although the middle and upper classes speak English to one another.

The emergence of Jawi Peranakan cuisine

Jawi Peranakan communities were often descendants of Indian and Arab (mostly Yemeni) spice traders and businessmen whose women became very familiar with the large variety of spices available in the port cities of the Straits of Malacca. Marriage into local Malay and Malay-speaking communities introduced fusion foods using Malay herbs with Indian and South-East Asian spices. The diasporas of Muslim people from the Middle- East, South Asia, China and South-East Asia occurred from as early as the 10th century but intensified at the height of the spread of Islam in India in the 11th century. Between the 11th and the 15th century, the rise of Malay Muslim sultanates in Pasai, Jambi, Perlak, Malacca and Rhio in the Straits gave greater significance to the diffusion of Muslim foods from Asia and the Middle-East, incorporating Indian, Arab and Persian influences. These foods became synonymous with court hospitality and feasting. It created a kind of “high culture” which locals absorbed in feasting rituals. Hence the absorption of language, attire, music and poetry was accompanied by a culinary Renaissance, which remains to present times.

Significantly over the last two centuries, Tenkasi cooks from Southern India migrated to Penang in search of a better livelihood. They were famed cooks in their villages but to enjoy continuous patronage from wealthy Muslim families was a problem with the intense competition from villagers, all of whom could cook. At first, they sold ground spices in local Malayan markets and one can still recall Tenkasi women sitting on the floors of local markets with their ground spices, donning long earrings and saffron sarees. Descendants of these women include Peer Mohamed at Shahabe Catering and Sahaban at Sahaban Catering, two siblings of Indian Muslim descent, who started their businesses in line with their mother, Hajah Omar Bibi, a famous cook in the 1970s.

Omar Bibi’s husband, Haja Mydin was a well known caterer, while his father Haji Shahul Hamid was famed for his culinary presentations of Jawi Peranakan food in the 1960s. Shahul’s father was also a mestery who cooked for home weddings in the 1950s and 1960s. The men in this family were mesterys or panderis from Tenkasi in South India who were famed “master chefs” for wealthy families and aristocrats who preferred a style of cooking closer to Northern Indian or Punjabi foods.

2. Image Align to RIGHT.

Sahaban peeling 40 kilos of onions for a Hari Raya feast.

The Tenkasis who migrated to Malaya appear to be a special “extended family” of highly sought after cooks in South India. The tradition then as it is now among a few Muslim families in Penang was for the mestery to bring their assistants along with them to the house of the host to prepare the wedding feast. Omar Bibi was blessed with 12 children, eight daughters and four sons, all of whom are involved in the two businesses set up in Penang.

Another pathway in the creation of Jawi Peranakan fusion foods is through the Arab-Mecca connection. A good example in Penang is Umi Sekha’s famous food catering, a woman with close affinity to Malay Muslims ( Jawi) in Mecca and of Arab descent. Her father Skh. Mohd was a Meccan Arab and she was greatly influenced by his preference for Arab cuisines, so in a sense she mastered Arab foods through him. With her own passion for local Muslim cuisines, she adapted Arab foods with local Malay taste and flavours. Her son, Jamal Skh. Hassan Damanhoori, whose father hails from Egypt, is now her manager.

(yellow glutinous rice),mee siam and nasi lemuni

Another well known Jawi Peranakan cook is Mak Lall Bee Ibrahim, who runs a cafeteria at Tanjung Bungah’s Medan Selera opposite the floating mosque. She started her business on a push cart in the mid-1970s, which she operated for almost 20 years before she was allocated a stall next to the floating mosque. She said that she came from a poor family of 17 siblings but Mariam Bee, her late mother, was a good cook who also catered and they regularly helped her in the kitchen. Poverty drove Lall Bee to sell rice. However, the 2004 tsunami wiped out her business and when a new food court was built further uphill, she invested in better equipment and a team of at least 10 cooks and helpers. It is now one of the more famous Jawi Peranakan/Malay eateries in the North- East District and she has won fans from different ethnic groups.

Mami Tanjong at the Tun Sardon Astaka, Penang. She sells nasi kunyi.

Jawi Peranakan culinary heritage today

The women and men of Jawi Peranakan origin became famed cooks because they mastered the art of fusion; blending local Malay herbs with spices of the Indian Ocean. Most of them excelled in a few dishes, enough to call family and friends for feasts (kenduri), which was an essential part of Malay Muslim culture.

If the English say it with flowers, the Jawi Peranakan say it with food. A woman’s status was considerably elevated if she was a superb cook and young women who could cook had better opportunities in marriage.

There is also plenty of pampering involved; getting children to eat good home foods; getting husbands to come home on time to enjoy a good spread of korma, dalcha and ghee rice and lavishing relatives and friends with briyani mee siam, serabai and air bandung. They were able to indulge because their husbands gave them free rein over food expenses, unlike poorer Malay women who received less money from their husbands and even supplemented their incomes with smalltime food catering or tailoring. The cakes sold at Taman Tun Sardon are made by scores of Malay women who leave their rice packets and cakes in the stalls for others to sell on a commission basis. The owners of these stalls are invariably Jawi Peranakan women.

During weddings and feasts when catering is absolutely necessary, again it is the Jawi Peranakan cooks who are called in, to the extent that Jawi Peranakan food is actually called nasi kenduri. This kenduri food, on account of its creamy and spicy flavours, has come to be associated with Malay “high culture”.

Malay food can only compete with Jawi Peranakan food if it is specially promoted in restaurants or hotels. Small feasts such as “the cradling of the newborn child” (berendoi) or kenduri doa selamat, to send family members on their Haj, also serve Jawi Peranakan food. If it is not nasi kenduri, then it is just not a kenduri.

1 More details of Jawi Peranakan family organisation can be found in Fujimoto H. (1988) The Jawi Peranakan of Penang and Halimah and Zainab (2004) Images of the Jawi Peranakan: Assimilation of the Jawi Peranakan into Malay Society.

Wazir Jahan Karim is the executive director of Intersocietal and Scientific (Inas) and advisor for Muslim Affairs in Penang Heritage Trust. She is also the author of Penang Muslim Culinary Heritage that will be published in early 2012.



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