Nyonyas and Christmas

By Wong Kah Wei


I personally think that our lovely Nyonyas are best known for their delicious Peranakan cuisine. The end of the year is coming and the cool wind blowing from the North-east reminds me of the holidays and Christmas. I wondered whether Nyonyas had come up with recipes for Christmas dishes, bringing together their families to celebrate.

So I browsed through NUS Libraries’ collection of Peranakan cookbooks. NUS Libraries has been building collections of books, journals and other resources on Singapore and Malaysia. This includes the Peranakan community. The Peranakan collection of books, journals and other resources also include rare books on Peranakans.

Browsing through the Peranakan cookbooks filled with bright, close-up photos of kueh, bubur, dishes of ayam, babi, ikan and mee was a mouth-watering experience. Never do this when you are about to sleep at night! It is amazing the wide range of yummy dishes that a Nyonya can cook up! But do these cookbooks have any recipes on Christmas dishes such as fruit cakes, mince pies or perhaps even a roast turkey?

Seek and you shall find. There are recipes from three Peranakan cookbooks you might be interested to try out this Christmas. Here are the cookbooks:

Growing up in a Nonya kitchen: a Peranakan family’s food memories (2023) / by Sharon Wee

I start with this new addition to our collection of Peranakan cookbooks. This cookbook is not just about recipes but more of a memoir to honour Sharon Wee’s mother.

Sharon tells us of the quiet Christmases they had. But there is a funny story of her father bringing home a live turkey but they did not know what to do with it. However, their quiet Christmases were livened up when her sisters returned from England, bringing with them traditions they learnt. These included roasting a turkey which her sister adapted from a classic Cordon Bleu cookbook. Unfortunately, the roast turkey recipe (which I am sure would have gone through a few more adaptations to suit the palate of the Peranakan family) is not included in her cookbook.

However, Sharon does include a fruit cake recipe. Her mother baked fruit cakes as wedding cakes for her daughters’ weddings. Interestingly, her mother baked fruit cakes for Chinese New Year too. Sharon does not skimp on the tips. Tips are given on how the dried fruits could be evenly distributed in the cake and “ageing” the cake. A noticeable ingredient is the use of brown sugar in caramelizing instead of just plain sugar. Instructions include how to prepare the fruits a few days ahead of baking. A “bodoh” like me can’t possibly go wrong with the clear and detailed instructions.

The best of Singapore cooking (2004) / by Mrs Leong Yee Soo

Mrs Leong Yee Soo is widely known as a Peranakan cookbook author who wrote many cookbooks on Singapore food. NUS Libraries has some of these.

This particular 2004 cookbook has two recipes for “Christmasy” cakes and a recipe for roast turkey.

The recipe for the fruit cake requires mixed spice which is not store-bought. So, Mrs Leong includes a recipe on how to prepare this mixed spice. It is the same mixed spice she uses for her Kueh Lapis Batavia.  Mrs Leong also calls her fruit cake a Christmas cake. Her instructions are fairly easy to follow.

The other recipe is for “White Christmas” which is mixed fruit and coconut candy bars. You don’t have to bake it – just chill the cake mixture in the fridge for 2 hours. The ingredients include the usual mixed fruit and nuts but also desiccated coconut and rice crispies.

Mrs Leong also gives a wide range of cake recipes including ginger cake, no bake lemon cake (basically you chill the cake), pound cake, semolina cake, Rose Marie cake (using Marie biscuits), and so on.

The roast turkey recipe is for “Roast Turkey with Mince Pork and Rice Filling”. The rice filling consists of bacon, ham, mince pork, rice, sultanas, almonds and Chinese parsley. Mrs Leong suggests rubbing the insides of the turkey with sherry, salt and pepper.

Reading all these recipes from Mrs Leong’s cookbook made me feel all warm and fuzzy as I reminisce about my Home Economics classes during my secondary school days.

Grandmothers’ recipes: sweet and savoury (2013) / by Rosaline Soo and Julia Tan

Rosaline Soo and Julia Tan have been teaching how to cook Peranakan kuehs and desserts to many interested people.

Julia Tan’s traditional fruit cake, seems to me, the simplest recipe of all the 3 cookbooks as it has the fewest steps. There isn’t much preparation except to season the dried fruits with brandy. We don’t need to caramelize the sugar either. Julia Tan’s fruit cake is baked in advance of Christmas to allow the brandy to slowly infuse into the cake. She also baked this fruit cake for her son’s wedding dinner.

Another Christmas cake recipe is the Christmas Log Cake. The recipe can be adjusted to an individual’s level of sweetness. The recipe for the butter cream includes instant custard and chocolate.

Enjoy and Merry Christmas!🎄

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