Nyonya recipes evolved from the families known as Straits Chinese or Peranakan, which in the Malay language means 'born here'. These are the descendents of early Chinese settlers in Malacca who had married Malays. The Peranakan men are called Baba, while the ladies are known as Nyonya.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 fusion of both Chinese and Malay elements.
This luxuriously flavoured fare is a marriage of Chinese cooking style with Malay ingredients and condiments. The cooking method utilises a variety of spices, coconut milk, tamarind and belacan. Belachan is one of the key ingredient, it is a dried shrimp paste, comes in the form of a pressed brick or cake. Just a tiny amount is needed of this paste to add sweetness to meats, intensity to fish & seafood and a 'kick' to vegetables. When uncooked, the pressed cake has a powerful scent, like "smelly cheese", but don't be put off - it mellows out and harmonizes in the cooking, leaving behind an understated richness that cannot be reproduced.
Peranakan recipes are usually spicy, employing pungent roots like lengkuas (galangal), turmeric and ginger; aromatic leaves like daun pandan (screwpine leaf), daun limau purut (fragrant lime leaf) and daun kesum (laksa leaf); together with other ingredients like candlenuts, shallots, shrimp paste(belachan) and chilli. Lemon, tamarind, belimbing (carambola) or green mangoes are used to add a tangy taste to many dishes..
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 laksa leaf. One of the most popular Nonya dishes among Malaysians and their southern neighbour of any background is the Laksa, a rice-noodle soup that marries Malay seasonings with Chinese noodles
Although the northern state of Penang is regarded as the stronghold of authentic Mamak cuisine, these days Mamak restaurants are found throughout Malaysia and have become a firm favourite among city folks. Open round-the-clock, Mamak restaurants provide an open-air, casual dining ambience. Aside from its irresistible taste, affordability is another key factor that gives Mamak food its overwhelming popularity.
The Peranakans are also renowned for their scrumptious and colourful cakes and sweet, sticky delicacies to end the meal. Nonya kueh or cakes are rich and varied, made from ingredients like sweet potato, glutinous rice, palm sugar and coconut milk of Malay influence and the Chinese influence is the inclusion of ingredients such as red beans, green beans or mung beans. The vanilla bean used for essence is replaced by a local plant leaf Pandan leaves (Screwpine leaves), giving Nyonya desserts it's distinctive qualities!
Curry Chicken Kapitan - A distinct Nyonya fare, this spicy curry makes a great accompaniment to rice, roti jala (Malay lacy pancake) or pulut kunyit (glutinous rice cooked with turmeric). Just as any Nyonya main dish, curr y kapitan is cooked with copious amounts of ingredients and spices, particularly tamarind. As the story goes, this dish got its name when a Dutch sea captain asked one of his Indonesian crew what is for dinner and the answer was ‘Curry, Kapitan’.
Ayam Pongteh - Ayam pongteh refers to chicken cooked with preserved soy bean paste, dark soy sauce, palm sugar and potatoes. The blend of ingredients gives it a combination of sweet and savoury taste. It is said that ayam pongteh tastes even better after being kept in the fridge for a day or two, as the chicken chunks become infused with the flavours of the gravy.
Assam Curry Garoupa -This is a dish that epitomises a typical Nyonya fare. From tangy to spicy, sweet to sour, this dish delights the taste buds with bursts of different flavours. A variety of ingredients are used to make the assam curr y gravy. Among them are tangy tamarind juice, which enhances the taste of the fish. Other ingredients include shallots, garlic, galangal, candlenut, lemongrass, torch ginger, polygonum (laksa leaf), chilli, turmeric powder, belacan powder, chicken stock and sugar. Assam curry garoupa is best savoured with a steaming plate of rice.
Enche Kabin - Sometimes also spelled as Inche Kabin, this is a popular Penang Nyonya fare of Hainanese influence. It is deep-fried chicken marinated in spices and coconut milk. Back in the British colonial days, this fluffy, flavourful deep-fried chicken was served as a popular cocktail snack at par ties and get-togethers. Today, the tender and juicy fried chicken is a favourite among all, especially children. It is excellent as a side dish for rice.
Nyonya Kuih - The word kuih refers to an assortment of cakes, snacks or dumplings. Mention kuih and chances are that Nyonya kuih would come to mind. Eaten as a dessert or snack, Nyonya kuih is especially popular for its variety of colours, shapes and delicious taste. It is usually very sweet and starchy and made from ingredients such as glutinous rice flour, tapioca, yam, sweet potato, green pea flour, coconut, palm sugar and pandanus leaves. There is a wide array to choose from, but the favourites include kuih angkoo (an orange-coloured dumpling containing sweet nut paste), kuih keria (sweet potato doughnut glazed with sugar), onde-onde (little pandanus-flavoured balls containing melted palm sugar) and kuih lapis (layered steamed cake). Nyonya kuih is easily available at eateries and even from peddlers.