Friday 27 October 2023

Fantabulous Nonya cookbook author Sharon Wee dishes on the new edition of Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen

Courtesy of Author

About the Author:

Sharon Wee was born and raised in Singapore, graduating from the National University of Singapore. She worked for Mars Confectionery in Hong Kong and China in the 1990s. She has an MBA from New York University and resides in Manhattan where she trained at the French Culinary Institute. Her recipes have been featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post and she has given interviews about her Peranakan heritage. She chronicles her food experiences on Instagram Sharon frequently returns to Singapore. 

Courtesy of Author


This is a cookbook, and an intimate memoir, giving readers a sense of what it felt like to grow up in a Peranakan Chinese family ― descendants of local womenfolk and the earliest Chinese settlers to Southeast Asia.

As a fifth-generation Nonya (honorific for female Peranakans) from both sides of her family, Sharon Wee recollects her life in Singapore. She interviewed older relatives and recreated her mother’s personalized recipes, many orally passed down for generations.

Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen was originally published in 2012. This updated edition includes revised recipes and cooking methods, with more detailed explanations and guidance for the young or unfamiliar cook to Peranakan food, spiced with a dose of humour. It also includes new contributions by subject experts on the heritage and beautiful cultural legacy of the Peranakans.


EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Sharon. What an honour to have you. Thank you for sending me your wonderful cookbook, Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen; it’s refreshingly novel that you’ve embedded a memoir plus cultural commentary on the world of the Peranakans that expand beyond cuisine. Why did you choose this blended approach?  

SW: When I considered publishing my book in the early 2000s, I was cognisant of the fact that there had already been a few established Peranakan cookbooks. Yet, very little was told about the significance of the food and how we ate – the moments we shared, the celebrations, the customs. 

I wove the memoir in to give readers a sense of our culture, and I revolved it around my mother’s life because she was from a vanishing generation of women whose lives focused on raising a family, keeping a home, all while being compromised in their education. Cooking was their currency. I’d like to think that this format of a cookbook memoir with headers elaborating on the dish, was not as common as what you see these days. 


EC: Can you share more specifics as to what changes and updates you have included from the original 2012 edition, as well as why you have included them?

SW: By the time 2021 came around, I geared up for my 10th anniversary edition. By then, there had been a global interest in who the Peranakans were. I assume that part of it stems from the popularity of the book and movie Crazy Rich Asians, as well as the matter that my book was embroiled in in the fall of 2021. There was heightened interest in my original edition. However, that book had been written for a more intimate local audience familiar with the cooking methods and nuances of Peranakan food.

It made no sense to do a new edition by simply spiffing up the design and cover. A new generation of readers around the world deserved to learn more, and those who already had my original edition, would only be compelled to buy a new edition if there was additional information.  

On a practical level, ingredients change somewhat, over time. Our eating habits change, too: we may not want too much sweetness for health reasons. I also learn more about the availability, substitution and similarities of ingredients across cultures and countries. Recipe instructions have improved significantly. There are clearer signposts, cooking cues, more details to guide a new cook. 

In summary, the changes I made included:

  ☞Reorganised recipe sections to guide a cook step by step
 Rewritten recipe instructions
 ☞Subtle quantity changes in ingredients
 ☞Weekly menu planning table
 ☞Matrix for various vegetable options
 ☞ Suggested menus
Instructional photos for wrapping spring rolls, rice dumplings and a dessert 
Tips and Techniques for planning Chinese New Year, Baking and Desserts
Essays about the Peranakan Culture (Food Culture, Genetics, Women’s Progress, Language, Jewellery, Kebaya attire)

EC:  I love how detailed your recipes are, infused with your generosity and hospitality. Whereas celebrity chefs would show a seductive image of a complex dish and a recipe that breaks down to one page, yours are often two pages. Your popiah recipe includes table layout, as well as detailed images on how to roll a popiah! The process of writing this cookbook must have been laborious? 

SW: I love writing. That was the easy part. The hardest bits were recipe testing, photo shoot, designing and editing. I am a believer that to tell a story, you have to provide a full picture. I was at dinner last night and while my friends absolutely love Peking Duck, they needed some guidance on how to wrap the pancake around the duck. It’s the same way when I have bulgogi and my Korean friend gently instructs me on how to do it correctly.

I was not publishing this book for a quick buck. It was really to preserve my heritage for posterity and to satisfy my readers, I won’t shortchange them on the details. 


Making Popiah. Courtesy of Author

EC: Would you share with us your hopes for this edition? 

SW: I am surprised and thrilled that my book has stood the test of time. I felt a calling to recognise my mother’s life and remember my heritage in the best way I could articulate it, through the food and the memories I grew up with. 

Like I told my friends ten years ago, I am not seeking to be a celebrity chef. The book was truly meant to be a document of a time gone by. That hope stays on. The additional hope now is that this book will be in the pantheon of classics one turns to, to learn about Singapore’s history, the Peranakan culture and the real details of nostalgic food within that framework.

EC: I particularly love the map you included of Katong, Joo Chiat, and Telok Kurau, since those are my stomping grounds. What is the significance of those areas to Peranakan cuisine?

SW:  I actually grew up in this area and the map depicts my neighbourhood. What began as a seaside holiday enclave eventually grew to be a residential area for old families. My family has been there for at least four generations. Ironically, the area has become increasingly hip and trendy, but let’s not forget the long-lasting influences Katong has had in so many of our lives, particularly the Peranakans. We went to school there, we frequented the provision shops and local markets, bought tapau (takeaway) from famous hawkers, spent lazy afternoons visiting friends and families in the neighbourhood. It has its own identity and a very strong one at that.  

EC: You poignantly draw our attention to the Peranakan kitchen, quoting Baba Peter Lee, who referred to the Peranakan kitchen as “perot rumah” (“the stomach of the house”). Juxtaposed against the historically defined social role of the Nonya, how has this shaped your own approach to cooking, and to writing this cookbook?

SW: In almost every culture, food is what binds societies together. I just visited a Maasai chief’s home and his hearth was in his bedroom, to keep him warm and to prepare his food. His wife cooked. That hearth was in the middle of his small humble dwelling. The same goes with modern home renovations; many choose to make the kitchen an open showcase in the middle of the home, inviting action, gatherings and discourse among family and guests. 

I’d like to think, having grown up in a Peranakan family, that the women wore the trousers in the home. They were really the matriarchs who called the shots, going so far as supplementing a household income with their kueh desserts in times of economic distress (such as World War II).  At the same time, there could be a tendency to be insular within the confines of this rigid system and with the advent of education, I think these matriarchs just got even more resourceful. 

My life has been a reflection of this transition. If not for the tools acquired from education, I might never have had the gumption to document my roots and memorialise the secrets of the kitchen for posterity. 

Sharon Wee at the London Book Fair. Courtesy of Author

EC: I was also struck by what a melting pot of influence Peranakan cuisine is, from the Anglophile fruitcake to a Chinese mooncake recipe. Growing up, how did you see these different influences playing out in shaping your own culinary predilections? Did you feel drawn towards one more than others? 

SW: I definitely felt more Anglophilic, judging by my frequent trips to London and my weakness for Fortnum teas, gin and tonic, and sticky toffee pudding! Yet, I am only one of the many Peranakans who are that way by our upbringing – convent or mission school-educated, loyalty to the Queen (or King in my parents’ generation), gratitude to the colonial opportunities to work in the Civil Service or British trading houses. Those identifiers simply reinforced our predilection for all things English. 

While I struggled with learning Mandarin, I was nonetheless growing up in a multi-cultural society, particularly at a time when Mandarin was encouraged as a second language and the mother tongue in school. The love for mooncakes derived from interacting with purely Chinese friends (the chef was Malaysian Chinese, by the way) who taught us to appreciate these delicacies. Let’s not forget that while I am Peranakan Chinese, we still honour our Chinese ancestors through our food. 

EC: Tell us more about your "agak-agak" philosophy. 

SW: Agak agak means to estimate. My pet peeve is when “agak-agak’ is defined as “guesstimate”. It really isn’t. There is more calculation than there is guessing. The cook engages her senses to gauge what else needs to be adjusted – be it lessening the salty taste, blending a more refined sambal paste, being attuned to the sizzling of the rempah in the saucepan so that it does not scorch, feeling the stickiness in a dough and adding more flour if too sticky. 

The same goes with the combination of ingredients. There are many recipes these days that beg you to consider – would you eat it? There has to be a good combination balance of textures, flavours that go together. It’s an educated guess but one that is really concocted by someone who knows how to cook, understands enough of the different components to know that putting them together is workable, and delicious! 

EC:  I love the many personages and relatives floating through the cookbook. Do you agree that a cookbook is a collective endeavour, just as eating a meal is a communal happiness-making activity?

SW: Yes indeed. We learn from one another and it is important to credit those who taught me things I didn’t know. My grandaunt, my Aunty Paddy, my sisters and of course, my mother. It explains why I would go the lengths to protect those who helped me put this book together. I cherish and am deeply grateful for their selfless help and want to preserve their memory with this book. Let’s not forget, there was at least one generation of these women, think of them in this way, their education was not to the max, they could have been accomplished writers, lawyers, career professionals. But their destiny was in the kitchen and cooking was their badge of identity. They felt vulnerable sharing their cooking secrets to the world and yet, they trusted me. So, it is my responsibility to always ensure I’d never forget to honour them. 

EC: What is your "comfort food" or "staple dish" that you might make for family when in New York?

SW: Oh so many! My kids love tauk yu bak (pork stewed in dark soy sauce) or Hainanese pork chops (a popular Singapore heritage dish).  I crave for my own chicken curry, best eaten with a fresh French baguette, lots of potatoes and hard-boiled egg.  

EC: Thank you, Sharon, for joining us on AsianBooksBlog!

*NB: Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen is available for purchase from Amazon and Blackwells UK