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Photo: Daniel Chan

Guide to Nyonya food

Nyonya food has become a mainstay in our everyday lives. But what exactly do we know about it? Loke Poh Lin finds out

Written by
Time Out KL contributors
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Peranakan food is already so woven into the fabric of Malaysian cuisine that you may have eaten its dishes or a close cousin without even suspecting their origins. Typical dishes we eat every day – like nasi lemak, laksa, kuih and more – will almost always have a Peranakan version. Here are some things you need to know about this original fusion cuisine.

‘Peranakan’ refers to a culture, not just a type of cuisine
In the 1400s during the height of the spice trade, there were a slew of marriages between locals and the early Chinese arrivals to our shores. These unions brought about new practices and habits as the Chinese kept to 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.

littleheritagehouse
Little Heritage House
Photo: Daniel Chan

Not quite Chinese but not fully Malay either, the Peranakans – also called Straits Chinese – had developed an entirely new culture with their own dialect, cuisine and practices. For example, the spoken language of Peranakan descendants is a form of Malay interspersed with Hokkien (typically Penang’s Baba Nyonya); their form of dressing and adornment comprises, among others, an updated version of the baju kurung with the addition of the kerongsang; and they even have special beaded shoes – kasut manek – that you can still get in Peranakan neighbourhoods in Penang or Melaka.

It’s one of the original fusion cuisines
When it comes to food, Nyonya cuisine is a fine hybrid of Chinese and Malay flavours, using an abundance of ingredients and techniques from both cultures. Generally, Chinese dishes are adjusted with the use of Malay spices.

inchikabin
Inchi kabin
Photo: Daniel Chan

In the Nyonya kitchen, santan, gula Melaka as well as local herbs like lengkuas, bungakantan, daunpudina, daunkaduk and serai sit alongside soybean paste, ginger and salted vegetables. The combination of these flavours resulted in a type of cuisine that is altogether tangy, sweet, sour and spicy. For instance, the typical curry dish takes on a unique Nyonya twist with the generous use of santan and various spices and herbs.

Furthermore, Nyonya cooking is also influenced by colonial powers: think Portuguese, Dutch and the British. The signature Nyonya dish of inchi kabin comes with a dip that has the English Worcestershire sauce as one of its main ingredients.

There are regional differences
If you’re of the mindset that Nyonya cooking is a uniform, standardised cuisine, that’s not true – the cuisine varies from region to region, town to town. And in Malaysia, the Nyonya food that you get in Penang has a different taste from what you get in Melaka.

buah keluak
Ayam buah keluak
Photo: Daniel Chan

Generally, Nyonya food in the north has more tangy and sour accents due to Thai influences, which dictate a heavier hand with sour ingredients like tamarind. Think Penang assam laksa. On the other hand, southern Nyonya cuisine is sweeter and richer from the abundant use of coconut milk and relatively more Malay spices from Indonesian influences. Case in point: The distinct Nyonya dish of ayam buah keluak features the popular Indonesian export of buah keluak.

Different occasions call for different dishes
Not all Nyonya dishes are created equal. There are dishes that the Baba Nyonya eat on a daily basis, and then there are dishes that are only prepared for special events – like weddings or birthdays – or specific purposes (as offerings to ancestral altars or served at funerals).

cendol
Photo: Daniel Chan

Dishes with auspicious meanings are usually served only during celebrations, like the kerabu ong lai (pineapple) – ‘ong lai’ sounds like ‘prosperity arrives’ in Hokkien. Celebrations are also usually the only time when elaborately prepared dishes like kari kai (curry chicken) are typically eaten due to the expensive ingredients or the amount of hard work that go into the preparation of the dish.

Fun fact: Not only are there different dishes for different occasions, the tableware used are also sometimes unique to the event. Wealthy families have many sets of Straits Chinese crockery and Victorian china, but these are considered too precious for everyday use and are only brought out for major celebrations.

Five definitive Nyonya ingredients

Buah keluak
Photo: Daniel Chan

Buah keluak

This ‘truffle of the East’ with an earthy taste has to be prepared with expert care as they contain toxins.

Bunga kantan
Photo: Adrian Cheah/iStock

Bunga kantan

With its distinct fragrance and pretty pink hue, the bud of the red ginger plant gives Nyonya dishes a lift both visually and taste-wise.

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Daun limau purut
Photo: iStock

Daun limau purut

Kaffir lime leaves give Peranakan curries a citrus hit and is also eaten raw (finely cut) in dishes like nasi ulam.

Bunga telang
Photo: iStock

Bunga telang

When crushed, the blue pea flower is what gives certain Nyonya kuih like pulut tai-tai and Nyonya rice dumplings their natural blue colour.

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Daun kesom
Photo: iStock

Daun kesom

Also known as Vietnamese coriander, it lends a peppery dimension to rich coconut curries and sauces.

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