Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine comes from the Peranakans, descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled in Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Indonesia inter-marrying with local Malays and combines Chinese, Malay and other influences. The old Malay word nonya (also spelled nyonya), a term of respect and affection for women of prominent social standing (part “madame” and part “auntie”), has come to refer to the cuisine of the Peranakans.
Nyonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients with various distinct spices and cooking techniques used by the Malay/Indonesian community. This gives rise to Peranakan interpretations of Malay/Indonesian food that is similarly tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal. In other instances, the Peranakans have adopted Malay cuisine as part of their taste palate, such as assam fish and beef rendang. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal (a subtle, mustard-scented rhizome similar to ginger), candlenuts as both a flavoring and thickening agent, laksa leaf, pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius), belachan, tamarind juice, lemongrass, torch ginger bud, jicama, fragrant kaffir lime leaf, rice or egg noodles and cincaluk – a powerfully flavored, sour and salty shrimp-based condiment that is typically mixed with lime juice, chillies and shallots and eaten with rice, fried fish and other side dishes.
There are regional variations in Nonya cooking. Dishes from the island of Penang in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia possess Thai influences, such as more liberal use of tamarind and other sour ingredients. Dishes from Singapore and Malacca show a greater Indonesian influence, such as the use of coconut milk. A classic example is laksa (a spicy noodle soup), which comes in two variants: the sour asam laksa from Penang and the coconut milk-based laksa lemak from Singapore and the southern regions of Peninsular Malaysia.
The flavor of laksa and other Nonya recipes is determined by the rempah, which in Malay means spices. The various combinations are pounded into a paste with pestle and mortar, with a very specific texture and density. It is said that a nonya can determine the culinary skill of a new daughter-in-law simply by listening to her preparing rempah with a mortar. Nonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next, and because of the time-consuming preparation of these dishes, it is a cuisine that is often at its best when served at home. Laksa is a notable exception to this rule.
Examples of Nonya specialities include otak-otak, a popular blend of fish, coconut milk, chilli paste, galangal, and herbs wrapped in a banana leaf; Ayam Buah Keluak, a distinctive dish combining chicken pieces with nuts from the Pangium edule or kepayang tree to produce a rich sauce; and Itek Tim, a classic soup containing duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables, and preserved sour plums simmered gently together.
My favourite happens to be Ayam buah keluak, a chicken stew cooked with the nuts from the “Kepayang tree” (Pangium edule), a mangrove tree that grows in Malaysia and Indonesia. For this recipe, the contents of the buah keluak is dug out and sauteed with aromatics and seasonings, before it is stuffed back into the nuts and braised with the chicken pieces. Yum!
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