Nyonya Food

What is Nyonya Food?

Thanks to http://www.MalaysianFood.net

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 thePeranakan 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 andNyonyas 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 andNyonyas settled in Penang and Singapore – and therefore – were also called Straits Chinese. 

While many ancestral customs and traditions of their Chinese forefathers are still practiced, Babas andNyonyas 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 isbelacan[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.