I’d never heard of Peranakan culture before I moved to Singapore – and now I can’t understand why. This vibrant culture is so richly found across parts of Southeast Asia that it’s a mystery it’s not more well known.
The term ‘Peranakan’ generally refers to a person of mixed Chinese and Malay/ Indonesian heritage. In Singapore, their culture runs deep – in the food, textiles, art, architecture, design and more. Here’s what you need to know about experiencing the best of Peranakan culture in Singapore…
The origins of Peranakan culture are not set in stone. There are technically several kinds of Peranakan people, including Peranakan Chinese and Peranakan Indians. But as Peranakan Chinese is by far the largest, Peranakan has become synonymous with this group.
Most agree that Peranakan culture can be traced back as far as the 15th-century and to the Malacca Straits, when travellers from China married local women and gave birth to children “born here” – translated as “peranakan” in Malay.
For most Peranakans, it’s less about the lineage and more about the culture. As Baba Colin Chee, president of the Peranakan Association of Singapore, told the Straits Times: “Being Peranakan is a cultural identity, not an ethnic identity.” And this culture remains vibrant in Singapore.
Perhaps the biggest expression of Peranakan culture is found in the flamboyant shophouses; especially prominent in the neighbourhoods of Joo Chiat and Katong. Walk around these areas and you’ll find the colourful facades clash in all the best ways – fluorescent pinks walls, electric blue windows, burnt orange roofs – as if the saturation has been dialled right up.
To imagine life inside these residences, visit Baba House on Neil Road – a three-story restored townhouse, with a collection of antique furniture, textiles and ceramics that offers a rare glimpse into Singapore’s Peranakan community. You could also step into The Intan in Joo Chiat for some afternoon tea, where the owner, Alvin Yapp, has turned his home into a treasure trove of Peranakan culture — an ode to the pottery makers, tailors, cobblers, chefs and jewellers that have kept this culture alive.
Emerald Hill, off Orchard Road, is another beautiful example of the shophouses, although keep in mind the houses are also somebody’s home. Some of the residents have now been turned into bars — my favourite is No. 5 Emerald Hill, a cocktail bar with an interior adorned in red lanterns.
The Peranakan shophouses might be beautiful, but it’s the Peranakan food I love the most – distinct for its mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian ingredients and cooking techniques.
Bursting with flavour and colour, the dishes are tangy and aromatic – usually packed with herbs and spices, fermented pastes, coconut milk, candlenuts, laksa leaves, tamarind and other fragrant ingredients.
Well-known local chef, Violet Oon, will give a good introduction to peranakan cuisine. Choose from local ‘dishes such as Buah Keluak Ayam – a classic Peranakan chicken curry made with the Malay buah keluak nut. I also love Chilli Padi Nonya Restaurant in Joo Chiat – an authentic, casual restaurant with enormous portions.
For a fancier affair, try Candlenut on Dempsey Hill, which became the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant in 2016. Their ‘Taste of Candlenut’ menu offers you a chance to try 16 different dishes, designed to be shared with your table for a fairly reasonable $128/ £78.
The Peranakan Museum (re-opening in 2023), near Fort Canning Park, is undoubtedly the go-to destination to learn about Peranakan heritage. It’s home to the world’s finest collection of Peranakan artefacts across ten permanent galleries and three floors. Even the building itself is an homage to Peranakan culture, laid out like the traditional homes of the times.
To learn more about Peranakan cuisine, there’s no better way than to get hands on. Try a cooking class with Grandmother’s Recipes, where you can learn to make five Peranakan dishes, like fragrant beef rendang and traditional chap chye (braised vegetables). There are different recipes depending on the day you book, so check ahead for that month’s schedule.
If you’re feeling crafty, you could try a Peranakan beadworks workshop at Rumah Kim Choo, where you’ll learn to make a traditional beaded artwork by the end of the session. Or visit the elaborate boutique of Rumah Bebe in the east, where you can shop for beautiful Peranakan crockery and fabrics to take home.
Start planning your dream visit to Singapore now by heading over to the official website.
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