A cooking lesson in Peranakan food: hello Nonya

When we left the UK, two good friends bought us an extremely generous and thoughtful  leaving (good riddance?) gift; a cooking lesson in Singapore. There’s no denying that we both love our food, so this was the perfect present. 

Of the different cuisines on offer, we chose to learn the basics of Peranakan food. What is Peranakan, I hear you ask. Good question! So first, a quick lesson.

Since ancient times, Southeast Asia has been a central hub for trade. Traders from far corners of the globe have passed through, selling spices, pottery and cloth. Some of these traders married local women, and made Southeast Asia their home. Descendants of these families are the Peranakan.

Peranakan house
I love the brightly coloured Peranakan houses

Peranakan culture is rich and vibrant. Pottery and embroidery showcases bright yellow, turquoise and pink, full of nature symbols each with its own meaning. I highly recommend a visit to the Peranakan Museum whilst in Singapore to learn more about this colourful culture.

Anyway, back to the food. Our cooking lesson took place at the home of Ruqxana of Cookery Magic. Walking up her driveway, past a classic Volkswagen beetle, with sandalwood incense scenting the air, I knew it was going to be good. Her house is wonderfully bohemian, a blend of asian cultures. Our kitchen was to be in the courtyard garden at the back, where we were joined by a friendly and vocal cat.

Cookery Magic driveway
The enchanting driveway to the home of Cookery Magic

The menu

  • Spicy stuffed fish
  • Udang Masak Nenas – Pineapple and prawn curry
  • Chap Chye
Sleeping cat
The cat kept close in the hope of some stray fish

We first made sambal for our stuffed fish, the base for so many recipes. “Once you have sambal”, Ruqxana tells us, “you can make a delicious dinner in no time”. Sambal is a chilli-based paste, mixed with secondary ingredients. To our chillies, we added shrimp paste, lemongrass, fresh turmeric, garlic and shallots, and pounded it until it was a smooth paste. We did the same again for the Udang Masak Nenas, adding galangal (blue ginger) and candlenuts.

Energetically pound your sambal to a fine paste

To our fish (hardtail mackerel) we made long slits along both sides of the back. We rubbed the fish with turmeric powder, stuffed the sambal into the slits and added them to the BBQ.

Spicy stuffed fish
Our spicy stuffed fish, waiting for the BBQ to heat
BBQ fish
Our fish cooking away on the banana leaf BBQ – drool!

Whilst that was cooking away, we made the Udang Masak Nenas, a very Peranakan dish. Into the wok went the sambal, tamarind water, ikan bilis (fish) stock and pineapple. The aroma released from the bubbling dish was incredible. I couldn’t help but keep tasting it, adding more tamarind for sour, and sugar for sweet, to get the balance just to my liking. Near the end, the prawns were added so they were just cooked through.

Udang Masak Nenas ingredients
Chopping up ingredients for the Udang Masak Nenas

Finally, we made Chap Chye, a Chinese stir fried vegetable dish. The ingredients list included things I’d never heard of, and certainly wouldn’t have known to pick out at the market. This was exactly what I was hoping for. Soy bean paste, soaked dried fungus, bean curd skin, lily buds, cabbage, dates and glass noodles all went into the wok, along with chicken stock. Once simmered, we added the prawns for the final few minutes.

Chap Chye ingredients
The raw ingredients for our Chap Chye. Lots of new things for me!

And then….TIME TO EAT!!

Peranakan food
We cooked all of this! Can we eat now?!

This was the moment we had been waiting for, and it did not disappoint. Our fish was cooked to perfection with a charred skin, and a juicy inside, bursting with spicy flavour. The curry was a mouth watering blend of sweet and sour that I just could not get enough of. The Chap Chye provided a more subtle flavour, which really complimented the other two, the different ingredients making it a perfect texture.

Peranakan food
The finished product – a colourful menu!

We sat with our fellow cooks, a Japanese lady and a Malaysian lady. We talked about the food, making comparisons with dishes from our own cultures. But mostly we ate, until we could not eat any more. Out came the doggy bag, for a delicious second round the next day.

I cannot recommend enough taking a cooking class when you’re in a new culture. It helps you to look at menu’s differently, and to make those purchases at the market that you might not have otherwise. I will 100% be making those dishes again. I just hope that they turn out half as good as they did under Ruqxana’s expert tuition.

A huge thank you to our fab friends for this gift, you know who you are x


  • Our cooking class was with Ruqxana of Cookery Magic. www.cookerymagic.com . We did the Peranakan/Nonya/Straits Chinese Food class.
  • The Peranakan Museum in Singapore is well worth a visit to learn about the culture. Find out more http://peranakanmuseum.org.sg

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