The culinary history of Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine is a long and rich one. Born from the migration of Chinese sailors to the Malay Archipelago during the 13th century and onward, it’s a fusion of local ingredients, traditional Chinese cooking techniques and flourishes of both colonial (Dutch, Portuguese and English) and neighbourly (Thai and Indian) influence.
The key to this cross-culinary marriage lies, aptly, in the literal marriage between Chinese sailors and local Malay women of Siamese, Burmese, Javanese and Batak descent. Chinese women were not allowed to accompany the male seafarers on their trip – in fact, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that women began migrating to the Malay region – so naturally, interracial marriages were common. This spawned a population known as ‘Peranakan’, a term denoting the offspring of a local and a foreigner, and a delicious new style of cooking.
Keeping with the patriarchal customs brought over by Chinese sailors, Peranakan women (‘Nyonyas’) were expected to look after the home and, in particular, the kitchen. This room was fondly referred to as perut rumah (‘stomach of the house’) and considered to be at the centre of family life, so the domestic responsibility was desirable to most. Peranakans viewed culinary aptitude as a sign of a “good woman” driving Nyonyas to become fastidious cooks. They started early, too. Just like a restaurant’s chefs’ line, young women would earn their stripes in a domestic kitchen learning to grind spices, prepare sambal belachan (chilli with shrimp paste) and chop vegetables before they could cook dishes of their own. Some wealthier families even hired a Nyonya with strong cooking experience, known as a Bibik, to teach their daughters.
Mastering the basics
With the obvious exception of pork consumption, Nyonya and Malay cuisines are closely related. (Malaysian Malays who make up half of the country’s population are Muslim and therefore don’t partake.) Both cuisines extensively use pungent roots, such as kunyit (turmeric) and galangal, aromatic leaves and spices in their cooking. Chilli, in both its raw and dried form, is also a popular ingredient, along with plant stems like lemongrass, coconut milk, palm sugar, lime juice and, of course, belachan – a pungent paste made from tiny dried shrimp-like crustaceans.
Unlike Malay cuisine, Peranakan carries a strong Chinese legacy in its choice of techniques, tools and tastes. The sailors primarily migrated from China’s Fuijian province, bringing with them a predilection for dried fungus, glass noodles and salted soybean paste. Chinese influence can also be seen in the many soup and seafood dishes, such as this hot and sour fish curry (gulai tumis ikan).
Nyonya women wouldn’t be revered cooks if they didn’t bring their own flourishes, too. They created new dishes, such as pongteh (braised pork with fermented soya beans), experimented with local fruits and vegetables, and excelled in making delicate, often colourful kueh (sweets).
Some classic Nyonya recipescan be incredibly time-consuming, involving multiple and meticulous steps which demonstrate the ability (and patience) of cooks. In the context of today’s fast-paced world, these recipes can seem antiquated. Take, for instance, zong (also known as joong). These glutinous rice cakes require four hours of preparation, five hours’ cooking, plus a night of rice-soaking before anything can start. What could possibly justify such a lengthy affair you ask? Well, to quote an article from the Journal of Ethnic Food, for Peranakans “food is not merely for daily consumption, but as a method to nurture family bondage during auspicious celebrations, ceremonies and ancestral worship”. It is the act of cooking – which, for many special occasion dishes, necessitates the whole family to be involved, that provides an opportunity for cooperation, intimacy and bonding. Cutting corners would simply diminish the special experience that cooking creates.
Despite this, technology and globalisation have affected the cuisine somewhat. In the past, the cooking capability of a Nyonya would be judged on the speed and quality at which she crushed rempah (spices) with a batu lesong (mortar and pestle). Today, the electric spice grinder often wins out. Nevertheless, thanks to the Peranakan diaspora, popularity of Southeast Asian restaurants in countries such as Australia, and food tourism boom in Singapore and Malaysia, it looks like Nyonya cuisine will thrive for a long time to come.
"When I was still living in Malaysia and in primary school, nasi lemak is what I had for recess every day. Traditionally, these are packaged in banana leaf, but at school it was plastic-lined newspaper. I’m always amazed when I eat this dish because it shows how little you need to create mammoth amounts of flavour. It’s such a great example of traditional eating, with rice at the centre of every meal. The accompaniments are designed to be punchy and well-seasoned, so you need very little to bring the rice to life, a clever device for a humble existence." Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co.
When the Chinese migrated to Malaysia and Singapore in the 15th and 16th century, the confluence of cultures gave birth to a new one, known as Nyonya (or Peranakan or Straits Chinese). This rich chicken curry epitomises the flavours of this now-cherished cuisine.