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  • Spencer Low

The Portuguese connections of some iconic aspects of Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian culture

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

In my last post about kerosang, I described how this traditional piece of jewellery for wearers of the kebaya blouse comes from the Portuguese word coração, meaning heart. The “heart of Viana” (coração de Viana) is a famous feature of the filigree jewellery of Portugal’s Minho region.

Many frequent flyers and visitors to Asia would be familiar with the distinctive uniform of Singapore Airlines, specifically the sarong kebaya worn by the Singapore Girls. The outfit was a modern (1968) interpretation by French couturier Pierre Balmain of the traditional version, which was worn by certain communities in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. What is less well known is the fact that the word kebaya itself comes from the Portuguese cabaia, of Perso-Arabic origin. One community that wore the sarong kebaya was the Straits Chinese, also known as the Peranakan (Malay for "descendants of the intermarriage between indigenous people with foreigners"). The women are called Nyonya (and the men Baba), and the Peranakan cuisine common throughout Singapore and Malaysia is, not surprisingly, also referred to as Nyonya food. What I just learned is that the word Nyonya traces its roots back to the Portuguese word for lady, dona. In old Portuguese this was donha, closer to the Spanish doña. In Macau, the local creole pronounced it nhonha, i.e. "nyonya". The use of the Macanese term of address for ladies somehow led to the word referring generically to all Straits Chinese women in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. A part of Nyonya food that has become common across the region is their version of kaya, a jam made from coconut milk, eggs, sugar and flavoured with the essence of pandan leaves. The jam itself, by virtue of its main ingredients, is assumed to be the invention of a Portuguese Eurasian since local Southeast Asians do not use eggs and sugar in the same way. The full name for kaya is srikaya (a mix of the Sanskritic honorific sri- and the Malay word kaya meaning rich), and lo and behold, there's a Portuguese dessert from Alentejo called sericaia made from milk, eggs and sugar (and flavoured with cinnamon). Even in Portugal, sericaia is reputed to have been introduced from... 16th century India! The world is more connected that we realize, and so much history can be traced through words.

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