Citizens, I – the Tennō (Emperor) of Tenacity, YOUR TFD has striven without rest or recompense (you should really consider helping to support the blog, as noted here) to document and preserve recipes in danger of perishing across all cuisines. One genre of cuisine I find particularly fascinating (and delicious!) is the rare fusion cuisine of the Baba Nyonya people in Malaysia, also known as the Peranakan who are descended from Chinese immigrants who inter-married with local southeast Asians in the region and have fused Chinese, Malaysian, Thai and other influences into their style of cooking. This recipe for tamarind pork belly or shoulder, known as Babi Assam in the local language, is a dearly-beloved favorite of mine and I am honored to share it with you today!
Members of this community in Malaysia address themselves as Baba Nyonya. Nyonya is the term for the women and Baba for the men. It applies especially to the populations of Chinese descent in the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted Nusantara customs—partially or in full—to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities. Many were the elites of Singapore, more loyal to the British than to the Chinese. Most have lived for generations along the straits of Malacca. They were usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa because they were mostly English educated. Because of this, they almost always had the ability to speak two or more languages.
In Malaysia, the Peranakan Chinese commonly refer to themselves as Baba-Nonya. The term Baba is an honorific for Straits Chinese men. It originated as a Hindustani (originally Persian) loan-word borrowed by Malay speakers as a term of affection for one’s grandparents, and became part of the common vernacular. In Penang Hokkien, it is pronounced bā-bā (in Pe̍h-ōe-jī), and sometimes written with the phonetic loan characters 峇峇.
Female Straits-Chinese descendants were either called or styled themselves Nyonyas. Nyonya (also spelled nyonyah or nonya) is a Malay and Indonesian honorific used to refer to a foreign married lady. It is a loan word, borrowed from the old Portuguese word for lady donha (compare, for instance, Macanese creole nhonha spoken on Macau, which was a Portuguese colony for 464 years). Because Malays at that time had a tendency to address all foreign women (and perhaps those who appeared foreign) as nyonya, they used that term for Straits-Chinese women as well. It gradually became more exclusively associated with them. In Penang Hokkien, it is pronounced nō͘-niâ (in Pe̍h-ōe-jī), and sometimes written with the phonetic loan characters 娘惹.
The language of the Peranakans, Baba Malay (Bahasa Melayu Baba) or Peranakan Malay, is a creole language related to the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu), which contains many Hokkien words. It is a dying language, and its contemporary use is mainly limited to members of the older generation. It is common for the Peranakan of the older generation (particularly among women) to latah in Peranakan Malay when experiencing unanticipated shock.
The Peranakan Malay spoken by the Malaccan Peranakans community is strongly based on the Malay language as most of them can only speak little to none of the language of their Chinese forebears. Whereas in the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, the Peranakans are known to not only speak a Hokkien version of their own but also Thai and Kelantanese Malay dialect in Kelantan, and Terengganu Malay dialect in Terengganu respectively. Unlike the rest of the Peranakans in Malaysia, Penang Peranakans in comparison are much heavily influenced by a variant of Hokkien dialect known locally as Penang Hokkien.
Nyonya cooking, especially babi assam, is the result of blending Chinese ingredients with various distinct spices and cooking techniques used by the Malay/Indonesian community. This gives rise to Peranakan interpretations of Malay/Indonesian food that is similarly tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal (a subtle, mustard-scented rhizome similar to ginger), candlenuts as both a flavoring and thickening agent, laksa leaf, pandan leaves(Pandanus amaryllifolius), belachan, tamarind juice, lemongrass, torch ginger bud, jicama, fragrant kaffir lime leaf, and cincalok – a powerfully flavored, sour and salty shrimp-based condiment that is typically mixed with lime juice, chillies and shallots and eaten with rice and other side dishes.
There are regional variations in Nyonya cooking. Dishes from the island of Penang in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia possess Thai influences, such as more liberal use of tamarind and other sour ingredients. Dishes from Singapore and Malacca show a greater Indonesian influence, such as the use of coconut milk. A classic example is laksa (a spicy noodle soup), which comes in two variants: the sour asam laksa from Penang and the coconut milk-based laksa lemak from Singapore and the southern regions of Peninsular Malaysia.
The flavor of laksa and other Nonya recipes (including babi assam) is determined by the rempah, which in Malay means spices. The various combinations are pounded into a paste with a mortar and pestle, with a very specific texture and density. It is said that a Nyonya can determine the culinary skill of a new daughter-in-law simply by listening to her preparing rempah with a mortar. Nonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next, and because of the time-consuming preparation of these dishes, it is a cuisine that is often at its best when served at home.
Citizens, this recipe for babi assam calls for a few special ingredients, which are thankfully not hard to purchase here in the States. Yellow fermented bean sauce can be purchased from Amazon here, or if unavailable substitute a bit less than called for of miso instead. Tamarind paste may be purchased here, palm sugar from here, dark soy sauce from here, 5 spice powder from here and belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste) from here.
Citizens, babi assam is a truly delicious recipe from a far-off corner of the world that I hope you see fit to try – you could try this as part of a multi-course Nyonya feast with these delicious clams as a separate course.
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