has always traded with lands near and
the globe. During the Ming Dynasty, as
a diplomatic gesture to strengthen
ties with the rich and strategic port
Malacca on the Malayan Peninsula,
the Emperor of China betrothed his
Princess Hang Li Po to the
Sultan of Malacca.
The royal princess and her entourage of about 500
formed the first permanent Chinese settlement in
Malacca at Bukit China or China
Hill. These early Chinese settlers wed local Malay brides and gave rise to the first generation
of mixed Chinese-Malays known as Peranakan, the male being known as Baba and the
female as Nyonya, pronounced nyoh-nyah and sometimes spelt Nonya.
The term 'Peranakan' originated in Indonesia for the descendants
of immigrant Chinese who had married and integrated with local Indonesians. Akin
to the Peranakan in
Indonesia, these descendents of
mixed Chinese-Malay had forsaken their
Chinese mother tongue and spoke the
local Malay language,
assimilated Malay customs, culture and
dress. Descendants of this early
Peranakan community in Malaysia then married within their own community of
Babas and Nyonyas
establishing a strong hybrid culture
proud of it's heritage.
It was around this era, that the rich
and strategic trading port of
had attracted the
attention of the Portuguese. The strong
naval armada of the Portuguese soon captured Malacca, making it a Portuguese colony for the next 130
years. After Malacca
fell to the Dutch, who took over from the Portuguese as the main European trading power
in the region, the British started exerting their control in the area. In
1786 Sir Francis Light, representing the British East India Company, established
British control of the island of Pinang, now called Penang, and opened the port to trade. The 1824
Anglo-Dutch Treaty with the British ended the Dutch presence on the Malay
Peninsula. Two years later, in 1826, the British East India Company united Penang, Malacca and
Singapore into a British colony, calling it the 'Straits Settlements'. The
rest of the Malayan Peninsula
remained under the control
and rule of the Malay Sultans. Although the first
Peranakan communities first proliferated in Malacca, many Babas and
Nyonyas settled in Penang and Singapore - and therefore - were also called
Since many ancestral customs and traditions of their
Chinese forefathers are still practiced, Babas and Nyonyas
assimilated the local Malay way of life. The Malay language is spoken at home,
though curiously interspersed with
some Chinese dialect. The local Malay attire
sarong kebaya is worn and many ceremonial traditions,
such as weddings, are celebrated in traditional Malay custom. This unique marriage of cultures resulted in
a novel marriage of cuisines, both Chinese and Malay, and is what is now known
in Malaysia as Nyonya food.
While Nyonya [often spelt Nonya] food contains many of the
traditional ingredients of Chinese
food and Malay spices and herbs,
Nyonya cuisine is eclectically
seasoned and different than either
Chinese or Malay food. It is
fusion cuisine at it's best! As
in Malay cooking, a key ingredient in Nyonya cuisine is
[also spelt belachan or blacan]
pronounced blah-chan - a dried shrimp paste.
It's commonly in the form of a pressed
brick or cake. Not overly 'fishy', a
tiny amount of this paste adds
sweetness to meats, intensity to fish
& seafood and a 'kick' to vegetables
It makes a flavorful base for
sauces and gravies, adding depth and an intriguing taste that you can't quite
decipher. When uncooked, the pressed cake has a powerful scent,
like "stinky cheese", but
don't be put off - it mellows out and harmonizes in the cooking, leaving behind
an understated richness that cannot be reproduced. Best
described as a natural flavor enhancer, belacan is what gives many of the
foods from Southeast Asia - Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam
authentic zest and flavor underlying the dense fabric of spice and herbs!
Nyonya food originating from the North of Malaysia - Penang,
and Nyonya food originating from the South - Malacca and Singapore, have distinct differences.
cooking in the South has an
Indonesian influence. The food is generally sweeter, richer with liberal use of coconut milk
and more traditional Malay spices. In Malacca especially, Nyonya cooking is
heavily influenced by Portuguese-Eurasian style of cooking. Many Nyonya dishes are indistinguishable from Portuguese-Eurasian dishes, with both
kitchens using similar ingredients and methods of cooking.
Nyonya food in the North drew inspiration from
neighboring Thailand. Nyonya food in the North, Penang, has a preference for
tangy or sour food such as the famous
Penang Assam Laksa. Tamarind paste is used as a souring agent as well as green mangoes and Belimbing or Belimbi
Bilimbi], a close but sourer relative of Carambola also called Starfruit. Similar
to belacan but slightly sweet tasting - a black color molasses-like paste
- locally called haeko [pronounced 'hey-ko'] or Otak Udang, in Malay
[Prawn Paste, in English] is also used
in many Nyonya gastronomic creations.
Nyonya cooking is not only about the blending of pungent
roots but also the long marinating of meats and seafood before it is cooked.
Fresh herbs such as lemongrass, lengkuas [galangal or wild ginger] and kunyit [turmeric root]
are pounded, more often than not, by hand using a granite mortar & pestle.
Chilies, candlenuts, shallots and
belacan are a must in most
Nyonya dishes. Aromatic leaves such as kaffir lime leaves, pandan or pandanus [screwpine
leaves], daun salam [fresh bay leaves] and daun kunyit [turmeric
leaves] add 'Nyonya zest' to it's wonderful cookery.
One can easily spot authentic Nyonya food in Malaysia by
its cooking style and the word 'Nyonya, sometimes spelt 'Nonya',
as a prefix, such as Nyonya Laksa, Nyonya Chicken Curry,
Nyonya Prawn Sambal or Nyonya Fried Rice. Nyonya food is in a unique
gastronomic realm all of it's own - with specific and subtle nuances of tastes
and flavors, quite undiscovered still in the international culinary world.
Nyonya cuisine is also famous for it's Kuih [cake
or dessert]. Nyonya desserts are varied and extraordinary. They are strongly Malay influenced
- made from local ingredients such as sweet potato, yams, agar agar, gula
Melaka [palm sugar], coconut milk, glutinous rice - and Chinese ingredients
such as red beans, green beans or mung beans. The ubiquitous vanilla bean used
for essence is replaced by a local plant leaf Pandan or
Pandanus [Screwpine leaves], giving Nyonya desserts it's signature
: Chicken Bites - bite-sized pieces of chicken
are marinated in soy sauce, oyster sauce, five-spice powder, black pepper, ginger and
scallions, then dipped in egg and flour and deep fried. Popular as a bar snack,
this dish can be served hot or cold.
: this curry is a distinctly Nyonya flavored chicken curry using tamarind juice,
candlenut, fresh turmeric root and
[also spelt belachan or blacan], a shrimp paste, among other ingredients.
Besides the usual steamed white rice, this dish is excellent served with
: Belacan Water Spinach. Kangkung [also spelt Kangkong] is
similar to spinach. It is also known as
or more commonly, Water Spinach.
One of the most popular Malaysian vegetable dish - stir fried with a blend of chilies, dried
[also spelt belachan or blacan].
: Noodles in Tangy Fish Soup - Thick rice noodles are served in a tangy
soup/gravy. Not at
gravy is made
mackerel and lots of aromatic
general the term
Malay style laksa,
There are slight variations of laksa in different parts of the country. This version
of laksa is from
of Malaysia - Penang, famous
: Noodles in Spiced Coconut Soup - Laksa Lemak, usually refers to
the Chinese-Malay or Nyonya style of laksa sometimes called Nyonya Laksa,
or even Laksa Siam in Penang. Lots of fresh aromatic herbs goes into the making
of the soupy gravy. The key ingredient that makes this version of laksa rich and
robust is coconut milk.
: Miso Soy Chicken - Chicken is cooked with preserved soy beans [Miso], dark soy sauce,
sugar and other ingredients. This slightly sweet, chili-free dish is a hit
with kids and made daily in some Nyonya households. This recipe
is also made with pork Babi Pongteh.
are stir fried
[also spelt belachan or blacan].
: Siamese Noodles - is a noodle dish influenced by neighboring Thailand,
formerly known as Siam. Thin rice vermicelli [Lo Mien noodles] are stir fried in
sauce with shrimp. A squeeze of limau kasturi [kalamansi limes]
just before eating, adds to this unique tasting noodle dish.
: Stewed Pork Belly - A stewed dish of pork, preserved soy beans [Miso] and soy sauce flavored with coriander. The key to this dish is the cut of meat - pork belly is a must and is what makes this dish!
Exotic Malaysian Salad - also called Penang Rojak, is a fruit and vegetable salad tossed in a special sauce.
from a thick
haeko, pronounced 'hey-ko'
apple, guava, green mango, jicama and cucumber
are tossed in this sauce with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds.
Thai Bird chilies are added to give this exotic salad a fiery kick!
Malaysian Chicken Curry
: is a
has just the
of spices for
may vary - Nyonya
is a typical
It has just the
of spices for
fish curry! Nyonya homes might
cook with kunyit basah [fresh turmeric root], lengkuas [galangal], serai [lemongrass], assam jawa [tamarind], bunga kantan [torch ginger], candlenut [buah keras or kemiri nut] and
or blacan] a dried shrimp paste.
A dessert of
cooked sweet potato, yams, sago, coconut milk and rock sugar made fragrant with pandan -screwpine leaves.
Coconut Ice Frosty - small strips made from green pea
flour and sweet red beans are topped with shaved ice and thick coconut milk.