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A heady mélange of Chinese and Malay flavours teamed with hints of Indian and Thai, Nyonya- otherwise known as Peranakan- is the food of the Straits Chinese, ethnic Chinese from Fujian and Guangdong Provinces in China who migrated to the Malay Peninsula towns of Penang, Singapore and Malacca in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Chinese came to Malaya for a variety of reasons- including wide spread poverty and political turmoil in China and an abundance of menial labour jobs in the then colonies of British Malaya. With obvious preferences for Chinese food and the flavours of their homeland’s eastern and southern seaboards, but unable to find the required fresh herbs and vegetables in the humid tropics, these immigrants started teaming their traditional cooking techniques with local produce. It could- one might say- be an original locavore cuisine. Blending distinct Chinese flavours drawn from five spice, fish maw, soya sauce and fermented soybeans with the zesty Southeast Asian herbs, coriander, galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime, Nyonya cuisine was born.
Nyonya means Straits Chinese woman, as it was women who held court in the kitchens and oversaw the protection and handing down of recipes. Leveraging the trade and business opportunities available in the colonies, over time many of these early Chinese immigrants became wealthy, affording them large families and households of servants. This wealth transformed Nyonya cuisine, refining dishes in a way that only an abundant of kitchen staff could provide. Many of the dishes became both complicated and excruciatingly time consuming to cook.
A popular saying was that mark of a fine Nyonya meal was determined by how much time had been spent preparing it. Dishes like ayam buah keluak, using the nut of a tree from Indonesia which has to be leached of its poison over the period of a month before being cooked into a curry, and nasi ulam Nyonya, a blend of meticulously shredded kaffir lime leaves, Thai basil, betel nut leaves, cashew leaf shoots, lemon basil and ginger torch flower with rice and shredded pounded coconut, graced the tables of Nyonya households and fashioned tradition. Changes in wealth, packaged foods and demographics with women going into the workforce in the 1950’s changed Nyonya cuisine yet again. With less time and money available, many dishes became the domain of festivals only.
Additionally, many older cooking appliances, like batu giling, the stone slab used for grinding spices, wooden coconut graters and clay moulded wood fired burners, also fell by the wayside. These days most Nyonya cuisine is only found in the home, or the occasional die-hard restaurant. Quick cook dishes are still prevalent on the streets of Singapore and Penang. Popiah wraps pickled radish, firm tofu and the ever-present belacan (fermented shrimp paste) into a fresh thin crepe wrapper, giving a nutty, fresh and shrimp flavour. Assam laksa matches Chinese rice noodles with mint and Thai basil and a sour, tamarind and mackerel based soup. Not all Chinese food that came to the Malay Peninsula was altered, and it’s still possible to find original peasant dishes like duck, pork and sweet meats braised in a boiling cauldron of five spice and soya sauce and served with congee, or rice porridge. Likewise, there are different variations of Nyonya cooking, pending location.
While Singapore and Penang- the two administrative centres for the British- maintain similar Nyonya cuisines, the Chinese from Phuket developed a strain inherently Thai. Well before Phuket became the hangout for foreign hedonists, it was the site of a prosperous tin mine operated by Straits Chinese who migrated there from Penang, a day’s sail down the Andaman coast. As Chinese women were not allowed passage to Thailand until the 1920’s, the immigrants married local women.
They and their cuisine became known as Baba, meaning Straits Chinese man. Dishes mingled the more acidic, sweet and sour flavours prevalent in Thailand with Chinese non-perishables and cooking styles. Yehu engchay is lightly boiled vegetables and squid rings served with a pungent fermented soya bean sauce. Yellow curry with silken tofu is called tawchaew-lon; the ubiquitous Nyonya favourite, char guay tiou, has a similar taste to its Penang cousin, but is spicier, sweeter and invariably more Thai.