Rough Guides author Kiki Deere delves into Malaysia's unique Baba-Nyonya (Peranakan) community and introduces us to their unforgettable cuisine.
The delicious hybrid cuisine of Malaysia's Baba-Nyonya is one of southeast Asia's finest. Like the community from which it takes its name, the cooking style is a unique hybrid of Chinese and Malay culture – a legacy of marriages between Chinese immigrants and native Malaysians in Melaka during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
At this time Melaka was was an important Portuguese and Dutch trading route, and the quest for spices resulted in a European community with large plantations growing cloves, pepper and nutmeg. Eager to benefit from these riches, and hoping to escape famine and poverty during Manchu rule, Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs flocked to Melaka. The Chinese settlers, who were largely male, intermarried with Malay women, and so the Baba-Nyonya community was born.
The Baba-Nyonyas adopted Malay customs and social practices while retaining Chinese traditions and religious beliefs, and over time, developed their own unique dialect, Baba Malay. But it’s their blend of Chinese and Malay cooking that remains the most significant legacy.
Their cuisine marries Chinese wok cooking styles with Malay ingredients and condiments, such as candlenut, Vietnamese coriander and fermented shrimp paste, relying on sour sauces and coconut milk. Added in the mix are Indian and Middle Eastern spices, Javan vegetables such as buah keluak (black mangrove tree nuts) and ulam (a plant native to Asian wetlands), resulting in a truly distinctive cuisine that bursts with flavours. Nyonya cooking simultaneously tastes sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
Here are six Baba-Nyonya dishes you have to try:
Where to try it
The restaurant of the Casa del Rio Hotel in Melaka is open to non-guests and serves traditional sweet and savoury Nyonya dishes in pretty tiffin boxes at high tea (noon–4pm). Their nyonya mee siam has a mouthwatering sour gravy sauce flavoured with tamarind, chilli and dried prawns, and is garnished with fresh prawns and a fried beaten egg that is rolled, sliced and sprinkled over the dish.