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:
A mouthwatering coconut curry soup, laksa nyonya is a mainstay of Baba Nyonya cuisine. There are a number of laksa variations and ingredients change from region to region. It is traditionally made with a fish-based gravy of prawns, often combined with chicken, and served with thick rice noodles or thin vermicelli. The final dish is garnished with a plethora of ingredients, including Vietnamese coriander, sliced cucumber, omelette, clams, fish ball and foo chok (fried bean curd) with a dollop of chilli sambal paste – it's a must try.
Ayam pongteh is a succulent meat dish of stewed chicken and potatoes in a heavy gravy sauce, commonly served with steamed rice. Shallots and garlic are pounded into a thick paste and sautéed until fragrant, along with dark soy sauce and palm sugar, which lend the dish its dark hue. Chicken is added in, along with water, potatoes and mushrooms, then left to simmer until the gravy has thickened and the chicken is tender. Ingredients are often left to steep overnight in order to enhance flavour.
Simultaneously fruity, sour and spicy, udang masak lemak nenas, a rich, creamy dish made with prawns and pineapple, is traditionally prepared for Chinese New Year feasts and at family reunions. The sweet and tangy flavour of pineapple marries nicely with fragrant spices such as tamarind and lime leaves. A spicy chilli paste is wok sautéed and transferred to a cooking pot with water and pineapple chunks, where it simmers with coconut milk and prawns, resulting in an exquisite dish packed with flavour and aroma.
This exotic dish is made using the seeds (known as “black nuts”) of the kepayang, a tall tree native to the mangrove swamps of Malaysia and Indonesia. The nuts are poisonous and can be deadly if not cooked, so they’re soaked in cold water for at least two days, after which the flesh is scooped out and pounded into a paste with salt and sugar, before being stuffed back into the shell. The chicken and kepayang seeds are simmered for hours and coated with sautéed spice paste and tamarind puree, resulting in a piquant dish that melts in your mouth.
A prawn-flavoured dish of fried vermicelli noodles, mee siam was influenced by neighbouring Thailand (its name translates as “Siamese noodles”). It is served with hard boiled egg, shredded omelette and fishcake. Calamansi limes are squeezed over the noodles, which are often served with a side of chilli sambal paste, giving the dish a gentle sour and spicy kick.
Very similar to cendol, a popular southeast Asian dessert, nyonya cendol is made with coconut milk, flavoured pandan leaf, jelly noodles, red beans and shaved ice with added sweetness from gula Melaka (palm sugar). This delicious ice-cold delicacy is particularly refreshing on a hot Malay day.
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.