Aishah Lim, the 39-year-old owner of Ah Lim Nasi Lemak, is a Peranakan Muslim hawker in Singapore who blends her heritage and faith into her culinary journey. Her story is about celebrating her roots, breaking stereotypes, and following her passion, even while people may doubt her faith.
A Peranakan Muslim Heritage
Aishah Lim's background is a fascinating blend of Peranakan culture and Muslim faith. Born to parents who are both Chinese Muslim converts, Aishah grew up with the rich mixture of both her cultural and religious heritage. Her upbringing was a unique experience, as her parents both come from Peranakan families.
Peranakan culture is known for its distinct traditions, including the Peranakan Baba language and cuisine. Aishah's family spoke Peranakan Malay at home, which influenced her language development. Although of Chinese descent, she never formally learned Mandarin, picking up the language primarily through TV dramas that she would watch with the rest of her family.
The influence of her Peranakan culture shaped Aishah's early perception of language and identity. Initially, she believed her Malay language was the standard until she realised the differences when interacting with friends who spoke standard Malay.
Preserving Heritage through Cuisine
A pivotal aspect of Aishah's life is her passion for cooking, a skill she inherited from her mother, who is an excellent cook. The diverse dishes her mother prepared instilled in her a love for culinary arts. Aishah's family constantly enjoyed a vast array of dishes, ensuring that no two meals were the same, even during Ramadan.
Aishah's journey into cooking also involved adapting to her mother's recipes. As she ventured into the culinary world, she embraced her Peranakan heritage by learning traditional recipes and adopting her mother's methods. A significant part of her identity became intertwined with the delicious Peranakan flavours that she added into traditional Malay dishes - like Lontong, Kway Teow, and more.
Challenges and Stereotypes
Despite her deep connection to her Peranakan heritage, Aishah faced challenges and stereotypes as a Peranakan Muslim business owner. Aishah shared a remarkable incident that happened in the early days of her business.
“I'm not sure if you saw the TikTok going around. My restaurant was posted in a Halal Facebook group, and this lady left a comment saying, 'Even if it's halal, I will not patronise it because the owner does not respect the authenticity of nasi lemak.”
Aishah was baffled by the comment and the assumption that her shop lacked authenticity just because she didn't use a Malay name. The comment took a disturbing turn when the lady made a racist remark, suggesting that Aishah might be a 'fake' Muslim wearing a hijab just to attract customers. Aishah expressed her disbelief, acknowledging that such misconceptions still exist.
However, the negative comment led to a surprising turn of events. Many other customers and people in the community rallied behind her, vowing to support her business. This incident contributed to the growth of her name and business, demonstrating the power of community support and dispelling stereotypes.
Business Journey and Heritage Integration
Aishah embarked on her culinary business venture, starting as "Aishah's Snack Corner." The initial concept was a stepping stone to her eventual specialisation in Nasi Lemak. The transition was motivated by Aishah's desire to stay true to her heritage and offer the authentic flavours she grew up with to her customers. The name "Ah Lim Nasi Lemak" is a reflection of her Chinese Peranakan identity and serves as a symbol of cultural pride.
While Aishah faced criticism for her chosen name, it ignited a broader discussion on cultural authenticity and the significance of heritage. The controversial remarks led to increased public support and helped her gain recognition.
Aishah aspires to expand her business while staying true to her roots. The prospect of incorporating Peranakan dishes into her menu is a possibility, but she acknowledges the challenges, given the misconceptions surrounding the cuisine.
Ultimately, Aishah Lim is someone to look up to for those looking to preserve their heritage while also breaking down its stereotypes and embracing diversity. Her culinary venture exemplifies the importance of celebrating one's cultural identity while remaining true to one's faith.