Nyonya food is a delicious fusion of Chinese, Southeast Asian and European influences. The unique culture of the babas and nyonyas (baba for male, nyonya for female), or the Peranakans, evolved more than 700 years ago when Chinese traders travelled to Malacca. During their sojourn there, many intermarried with local women and adapted to their way of life.
From these cross-cultural unions, a hybrid culture evolved with Chinese, Malay, Javanese, Sumatran, Thai, Balinese, Indian and European flavours as Malacca was ruled by three colonial powers, the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Local in essence but proudly Chinese in form, filial piety and ancestral worship are core values. The community’s wealth and prestige reached its zenith during British rule till the onset of World War Two. Today, the baba nyonya cultural heritage is renowned globally for its alluring sarong kebaya, colourful porcelain and most of all, its cuisine.
As a sixth generation Nyonya myself, I have enjoyed the pleasures of wonderful Nyonya food as my mother was a superb cook. In the past, recipes were never written down, but passed down hands-on in the kitchen. Young Nyonyas were trained to excel in culinary skills and become good homemakers. Today the modern Nyonya is no longer confined to the household. The price of progress however is many Nyonya dishes are disappearing as making them is labour intensive and time consuming.
Using an array of ingredients and cooking methods, the Nyonyas concocted a delightful cuisine with piquant flavours and multicultural influences. Many ingredients such as ginger flower (bunga kantan), lemon grass (serai), kaffir lime, pandan, galangal (lengkuas), chilli and wild pepper leaves (daun kaduk) were grown in domestic gardens. The colouring for Nyonya cakes such as kueh koci or kueh talam is from flowers: the blue pea flower or juice extract from the pandan leaf. Leaves, stems, flowers and roots are used as ingredients for flavorful dishes such as nasi ulam (herb rice) with strong Malay influences and kerabu salads. Western influences such as Worchester sauce, breads, custards, peas and potatoes are also incorporated into Nyonya cuisine resulting in delicious concoctions, e.g. the scrumptious roti babi, a minced meat and crab-filled sandwich dipped in egg and pan fried, served with tabasco sauce.
Nyonya curries are spectacular, from devilishly spicy lemak curries with Portuguese and Indian influences to delicious Thai-inspired spicy-sour ones using tamarind juice (e.g. gulai Assam tumis).
The sambals are to-die-for, a hot favourite is prawn sambal with petai. The petai is sourced from the jungles and contains certain wind-expelling properties. Another favourite is the buah keluak curry cooked with chicken or pork. The buah keluak has been called the black truffle of Asia with its earthy ‘umami’ flavours. The Nyonyas toss in a handful of these nuts with its blackish edible interior into their curries resulting in a slice of culinary heaven.
My personal favourites are the otak otak, Assam Laksa, chicken pong teh, pineapple and prawn curry, ayam buah keluak, itik tim or duck soup with salted vegetables, pork curry with potatoes, and joo hoo char. I could just go on and on….
- By Lee Su Kim -
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