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Origins of Nanyang Cuisine Part One. Foodprints of Traders, Emissaries & Pilgrims (206 BC to 1368 AD)


This is the first of a series of four articles that trace the origins and influences that shape Chinese Nanyang cuisine of modern day Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines (maritime Southeast Asia).

Maritime southeast Asia is part of the Chinese concept of Nanyang which means "South Sea" which also includes the region south of China from Myanmar through Thailand to Vietnam.

In the days of sail, the South China Sea and Monsoon winds provided China access to the territories at the southern rim of the South China Sea i.e. today's Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Singapore. (Image of ancient Chinese junk model courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The invention of the magnetic compass during the Han dynasty may have helped Chinese traders reached the southern rim of the South China Sea. The compass was known at that time as the "south pointing fish"

The earliest records of Chinese presence in maritime Southeast Asia were of Chinese traders and envoys during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) - that's over 2,000 years ago. (Image of compass courtesy of Wikipedia.)


The Chinese traders from sea facing Guangdong and Fujian provinces would come with the Northeast monsoon winds (Winter time) and return with the Southwest monsoon (Summer time). They would stay in Malayan or Indonesian ports while waiting for the wind to change. It takes a wind powered junk some 20 to 30 days to travel between Guangzhou city and Palembang city (in south Sumatra).

The trip itself wasn't that long (20 - 30 days) but travellers had to wait up to six months for the wind to change to take them home. The need to wait led to greater intermingling with locals and some inter-marriages.

Indonesia produce dozens of spices. Nutmeg, mace and clove are considered the trinity of spices

The Chinese traders bought spices, aromatic wood, hornbill cask, etc from the locals in exchange for Chinese ceramics and silk, etc. Image of mace courtesy of Wikipedia.

Brought back to China, the Southeast Asian spices would travel from the Chinese seaports of Quanzhou and Guangzhou overland by caravan to Europe via the legendary Silk Road which was in use from 130 BC to 1453.

The Malayan and Indonesian ports also served as entrepots or emporiums where Chinese traders met their Indian and Arabian counterparts to exchange goods.

One such port was the thriving kingdom of Singapura (1299 - 1398).

The Chinese traders were transients though some married locals. Their local families took care of business while they returned to China and come back with the next change of wind. Their offsprings were the earliest Peranakans or local born descendants of Chinese in maritime Southeast Asia.

Proto Chinese Peranakan cuisine likely began during this period though there were no records of how such food might look or taste like.


Chinese Peranakan cuisine is made up of dishes that combine Chinese and Malay ingredients, cooking techniques and recipes. Peranakan cuisine tend to have bolder flavours, aromas, and more colourful than cuisine from Guangdong and Fujian where most of the Chinese elements of the Peranakan dishes come from. (Note: Nanyang cuisine is not only Chinese Peranakan cuisine - it is only a part. More in subsequent articles in this series.)


I Ching (635 - 723) was one of the Chinese monks who stopped at maritime Southeast Asia on the sea route to India. I Ching took 22 days to travel from Guangzhou to Palembang in 673 AD

As Buddhism took root in China around 100 AD, pilgrim monks also passed through Indonesia on their way to India. The largest empire in Indonesia then was the Buddhist Srivijaya based in Palembang, south Sumatra. Palembang was a centre of Buddhist scholarship where monks from India, China and Srivijaya congregated.

Chinese pilgrim monks would stay half a year to two years in Palembang on their way to and from India. They would prepare for their onward journey by learning Sanskrit language while in Palembang. (Image of monk I Ching courtesy of Wikipedia.)


Zhang Qian was Han dynasty's envoy to Central Asia

Another type of Chinese transient traveller in maritime Southeast Asia were envoys and emissaries.  

The Hindu / Buddhist kingdoms in today's Malaysia and Indonesia had trade and tributary relationships with the Han dynasty of China. Under the Chinese tributary order, tributary states agreed to pay tributes and facilitate Chinese interests such as trade and passage, in exchange for protection and recognition.

The exchange of gifts, diplomatic rituals, communications between the states, etc were the work of envoys and emissaries who travelled in both directions. (Image of Zhang Qian courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Theatrical re-enactment of the Mongol - Javanese War 

During the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279 - 1368), the Majapahit empire based in Java refused a tributary relationship with China. The Mongol envoy Meng-qi was branded in the face with hot iron and had his ears cut off before he was unceremoniously sent back to China by the Majapahit king.

In 1292, Emperor Kublai Khan sent a fleet down to Java to teach the Majapahit empire a lesson but it ended in defeat for the Mongols. Kublai Khan planned a second, larger invasion but it was called off upon his death. (The Majapahit empire was left alone to rule much of Indonesia until it fell under Dutch rule in 1527.) Image of Mongol - Javanese war courtesy of Wikipedia.

Local Wives of Traders. First Roots of Nanyang Cuisine


During the 1,000 years between Han dynasty and end of the Yuan dynasty, Chinese presence in maritime Southeast Asia was mainly traders, emissaries and sojourners (mostly pilgrim monks). Some traders married local women, thus sprouting the first roots of today's Peranakan culture and food.

The sojourners and settlers' footprints have long faded, their foodprints also hidden deep under the dust of time. Proto Peranakan cuisine probably emerged during this period in the homes of traders who married locals.

Of traders, monks and diplomats, it was the kitchens of traders' local wives that was the cradle of Nanyang cuisine.  

In the next chapter, we shall explore how more Chinese became settlers in maritime Southeast Asia during the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644).

Written by Tony Boey on 5 May 2021 

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