spirit of NYONYA cuisine is not just about food and cooking style, it is also about a
way of life that flourished during the Straits settlements of the 18th and 19th centuries,
and the remnants of which, is still found in Singapore and parts of Malaysia.
Nyonya recipes evolved from the families known as Baba Chinese, Straits Chinese or
Peranakan, which in the Malay language means 'born here'. These are the descendents of
early Chinese settlers in Malacca who, faced with restrictions on the emigration of Chinese
women, had married Malays. The men are referred to as 'Babas' and the ladies as 'Nyonyas'.
This is why Nyonya cuisine is sometimes called the 'food of love' or 'makanan embok - embok'
in Malay. The combined heritage of two such vital culinary traditions as Malay and Chinese
makes for an especially rich and unique cuisine.
families stood apart from the Chinese immigrants who came to Malaya later as laborers - they
were wealthy and established, they held British citizenship, and they possessed a distinct
Malay-influenced domestic culture and cuisine. Being generally good at business, they see
their wealth increasing, mainly through the participation in the rubber industry and lived
in splendid homes. Many of these ancestral homes are now living museums, silent
reminders of a once glorious past. Many Peranakans do not speak any Chinese dialect
but speak what is referred to as "Baba Malay". It is a quaint mixture of mainly Malay words
with liberal doses of Chinese words.
However, no amount of wealth will
save the daughters of each household from being trained in the kitchen as part of their
education as future Peranakan wives. The real secret of Peranakan cooking is in the
detailed and painstaking preparation of spices to be used in any particular dish. The
womenfolk of the community take great pride in their culinary skills. The recipes in the
early days were closely guarded secrets and only passed from mother to daughter. In this
way, the distinctive cuisine was preserved and developed.
Confined as it was to the domestic sphere of a small and elite social group, Nyonya food was
not widely known and appreciated until after the independence of the Malay peninsula and the
social changes that have occurred between Malaysia and Singapore that have made it so.
Nyonya restaurants now exist where they were none before. Ironically, the same dynamic also
poses quite a serious threat to the cuisine's future. Modernization and affluence are
favoring the adoption of Western food habits among the new generations in the Nyonya
community. Social traditions have changed too. No longer do the Peranakan form a distinct
community which trains its daughters as custodians of a unique domestic culture. Nyonya
cuisine now depends on deliberate, commercial, personal and professional promotion to
preserve it, and time alone will tell if this will prove sufficient.
Asian Melting Pot
Subscribe to our FREE e-newsletter below
Distinct differences evolved between the cuisine of the Penang Nonyas and that of Malacca. Penang, being
geographically closer to Thailand has produced a range of Nonya food that
exhibits a passion for sourness, combined with fiery hot chilies, fragrant
herbs and pungent black shrimp paste. The sour flavor is the result of the
fondness of Nonya cooks in using lots of lime and tamarind juice. The
Malaccan Nonyas, on the other hand, tend to prepare food that is generally
rich in coconut milk and Malay spices such as coriander and cumin. Sugar
is quite liberally featured in the recipes of their southern cousins. One
very unique style of the Nonya cuisine is their imaginative ways of
preparing fruits and vegetables. Sweet potato leaves, tiny sour carambola,
unripe jackfruit and the heart of the banana bud are all transformed in
the kitchen, added to and blended with aromatic leaves such as kaffir,
turmeric, pandan, and polygonum or laksa leaf. One of the most popular Nonya dishes among
Malaysians and their southern neighbor of any background is the Laksa,
a rice-noodle soup that marries Malay seasonings with Chinese noodles.
aside, an interesting feature of the Peranakan fashion was the golden hairpins and beautiful
beaded shoes worn by the Nyonyas to compliment their equally unique Malay influenced
dressing known locally as 'Pua Teng Teh', where the dress (sarong) ends three
quarters of the way down from the knee and are held together by a set of jewelry called 'Kerongsang'.
Before the advent of radio and television, the 'Dondang Sayang' was a popular
form of entertainment of many Babas and Nyonyas, especially during wedding festivities.
Though it has waned in popularity, there remain to this day, many traditional Peranakans who
work very hard to keep the traditions of Dondang Sayang alive. Although Peranakan
community is classified as Chinese in official matters, the government has acknowledged its
uniqueness and given it the recognition it richly deserves.
published by asianrecipesonline.com