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Try before Die: Malaysia’s Nyonya Cuisine

Not many know of Malaysia’s Peranakan. A lovechild of Malay and Chinese culture, the Peranakan culture or Baba Nyonya boasts unique tastes in their cuisine – a legacy of marriages between Chinese immigrants and native Malaysians in Melaka during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the 1400s, Melaka was an important Portuguese and Dutch trading route, and the quest for spices resulted in a European community with large plantations growing cloves, pepper and nutmeg. Eager to benefit from these riches, and hoping to escape famine and poverty during Manchu rule, Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs flocked to Melaka. The Chinese settlers, who were largely male, intermarried with Malay women, and so the Baba-Nyonya community was born. 

These unions brought about new practices and habits as the Chinese kept many of their traditions while adopting Malay customs and language. This adaptation of cultures resulted in the birth of the unique Peranakan (meaning ‘of local birth’) way of life and with it, came the Nyonya cooking.

Here is a list of Nyonya dishes that you must try whenever you’re in Malaysia, especially if yu are going to Melaka or Penang.

Nyonya Laksa

A mouthwatering coconut curry soup, Nyonya Laksa is a mainstay of Baba Nyonya cuisine. There are a number of laksa variations and the ingredients change from region to region. It is traditionally made with a fish-based gravy of prawns, often combined with chicken, and served with thick rice noodles or thin vermicelli. The final dish is garnished with a plethora of ingredients, including Vietnamese coriander, sliced cucumber, omelette, clams, fish ball and foo chok (fried bean curd) with a dollop of chilli sambal paste – it’s a must try.

Babi Pongteh (Nyonya Stewed Pork)

Babi Pongteh is a succulent meat dish of stewed pork (babi) and potatoes in a heavy gravy sauce, commonly served with steamed rice. Shallots and garlic are pounded into a thick paste and sautéed until fragrant, along with dark soy sauce and palm sugar, which lend the dish its dark hue. Pork or chicken is added in, along with water, potatoes and mushrooms, then left to simmer until the gravy has thickened and the meat is tender. Ingredients are often left to steep overnight in order to enhance flavour.

Udang Masak Lemak Nanas (Prawns & Pineapple in Coconut Gravy)

Simultaneously fruity, sour and spicy, Udang Masak Lemak Nenas, a rich, creamy dish made with prawns and pineapple, is traditionally prepared for Chinese New Year feasts and at family reunions. The sweet and tangy flavour of pineapple marries nicely with fragrant spices such as tamarind and lime leaves. A spicy chilli paste is wok sautéed and transferred to a cooking pot with water and pineapple chunks, where it simmers with coconut milk and prawns, resulting in an exquisite dish packed with flavour and aroma.

Ayam buah keluak (Chicken with “Black Nuts”)

This exotic dish is made using the seeds of the kepayang (known as “black nuts”), a tall tree native to the Mangrove swamps of Malaysia and Indonesia. The nuts are poisonous and can be deadly if not cooked, so they’re soaked in cold water for at least two days, after which the flesh is scooped out and pounded into a paste with salt and sugar, before being stuffed back into the shell. The chicken and kepayang seeds are simmered for hours and coated with sautéed spice paste and tamarind puree, resulting in a piquant dish that melts in your mouth.

Nyonya Mee Siam (Fried Rice Noodles with Chilli Paste)

A prawn-flavoured dish of fried vermicelli noodles, mee siam was influenced by neighbouring Thailand (its name translates as “Siamese noodles”). It is served with hard boiled egg, shredded omelette and fishcake. Calamansi limes are squeezed over the noodles, which are often served with a side of chilli sambal paste, giving the dish a gentle sour and spicy kick.

Nyonya Chendol

Very similar to cendol, a popular Southeast Asian dessert, Nyonya Chendol is made with coconut milk, flavoured pandan leaf, jelly noodles, red beans and shaved ice with added sweetness from gula Melaka (palm sugar). This delicious ice-cold delicacy is particularly refreshing on a hot Malay day.

Nyonya Chap Chye (Nyonya Mix Vegetables)

Hokkien for “mixed vegetables”, chap chye is a simple stir-fried vegetable dish with its roots in Fujian province. It’s surprising how the mild-looking dish has managed to hold its own among the spicy, sharper flavours of Nonya cuisine. The secret is in its liberal use of taucheo and prawn stock. It is worth noting that every Peranakan household and restaurant worth its salt will have its own heavily-guarded chap chye recipe.

Kueh Salat (Pandan & Glutinous Rice Cake)

Kueh Salat is easily the favorite dessert amongst Peranakans. The green custard that sits on the blue-ish glutinous rice is made by blitzing up a lot of pandan leaves. Nyonyas in the past relied on Suji pandan leaves which are darker and smaller. The natural blue in the rice layer comes from Blue Pea flowers, an ingredient commonly used in Peranakan cuisine for its pretty blue colouring. The final dessert is a creamy kaya custard paired with a slightly savoury glutinous rice base.

No two Nyonya dishes are the same

When trying Nyonya dishes, one must remember that no two dishes are the same, as each creation is an interpretation based on the preferred flavours and ingredients of the chef. Some of the signature ingredients used in Nyonya/Peranakan cooking include coconut milk, laksa leaves, lemongrass and tamarind. There are of course countless others, as the cuisine is known for being highly flavourful – precisely because so many different ingredients are used in each dish. If you think you’ve tried a dish in Melaka, you might find the same dish taste a little different in Penang.

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