Malaysian Food


What is Nyonya Food?

What is Nyonya Food?China has always traded with lands near and far across the globe. During the Ming Dynasty, as a diplomatic gesture to strengthen ties with the rich and strategic port of Malacca on the Malayan Peninsula, the Emperor of China betrothed his daughter 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 Malacca, 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 Straits Chinese. 

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 belacan [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 like Kangkung Belacan. 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 - that 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.

Nyonya 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 [Averrhoa 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 quintessence!




Malaysian Food



Malaysian Food




What Are Nyonya Dishes?

Enche Kabin : 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.

Chicken Kapitan : this curry is a distinctly Nyonya flavored chicken curry using tamarind juice, candlenut, fresh turmeric root and belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan], a shrimp paste, among other ingredients. Besides the usual steamed white rice, this dish is excellent served with Roti Jala.

Kangkung Belacan : Belacan Water Spinach. Kangkung [also spelt Kangkong] is similar to spinach. It is also known as Water Convolvulus, or more commonly, Water Spinach. One of the most popular Malaysian vegetable dish - stir fried with a blend of chilies, dried shrimps and belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan].

Assam Laksa : Noodles in Tangy Fish Soup - Thick rice noodles are served in a tangy fish soup/gravy. Not at all fishy, the soupy gravy is made with mackerel and lots of aromatic herbs. Fresh garnishing of shredded cucumber, lettuce, pineapple, onion and fragrant mint leaves finishes the dish. In general the term Laksa refers to Malay style laksa, sometimes referred to as Malay Laksa. There are slight variations of laksa in different parts of the country. This version of laksa is from the 'hawker food capital' of Malaysia - Penang, famous for it's Penang Laksa or Penang Assam Laksa.

Laksa Lemak : 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.

Ayam Pongteh : 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.

Belacan Clams : Fresh clams [Lala, in Malay] harvested off the coastlines of Malaysia are stir fried Nyonya-style in spicy blend of chilies, shallots, lemongrass, galangal and belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan].

Mee Siam : Siamese Noodles - is a noodle dish influenced by neighboring Thailand, formerly known as Siam. Thin rice vermicelli [Lo Mien noodles] are stir fried in a special sauce with shrimp. A squeeze of limau kasturi [kalamansi limes] just before eating, adds to this unique tasting noodle dish.

Babi Chin : 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

Rojak : Exotic Malaysian Salad - also called Penang Rojak, is a fruit and vegetable salad tossed in a special sauce. Simply labeled Rojak Sauce, the sauce is made from a thick black molasses-like paste called haeko, pronounced 'hey-ko' or Prawn Paste [Otak Udang, in Malay]. This is combined with palm sugar, tamarind paste and other ingredients. Pineapple, 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 typical chicken curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe includes Meat Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' curry! Some ingredients may vary - Nyonya homes might add buah keras [candlenut], lengkuas [galangal] or belacan [dried shrimp paste].

Malaysian Fish Curry : is a typical fish curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe includes Fish Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' 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 belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan] a dried shrimp paste.



What Are Nyonya Desserts?

Bubur Cha-Cha : Dessert Porridge - A dessert of cooked sweet potato, yams, sago, coconut milk and rock sugar made fragrant with pandan -screwpine leaves.

Cendol : Coconut Ice Frosty  - small strips made from green pea flour and sweet red beans are topped with shaved ice and thick coconut milk.


















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