Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Nyonya Cusine

Malaysia is rich and diverse in its culture, with the population consisting of Malay, Indian, Chinese and the mixes these groups have become. The most famous being the Peranakan Baba-Nyonya. Peranakan means Descended from, whilst Baba means Man and Nyonya means lady. 
So the story goes, in the 15th century, the city states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as the kingdoms of China and Siam. Close relations with China were established in the early 15th century, during the reign of Parameswara, when Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim Chinese, visited Malacca. According to traditional accounts in 1459, the Emperor of China sent a princess, to the Sultan of Malacca as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The royalty and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina and eventually grew into a class of straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakan. The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins, but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. They developed a unique culture and distinct foods. Numerous sources claim that the early Peranakan inter-married with the local Malay population, this may might derive from the fact that some of the servants who settled in Bukit Cina that travelled to Malacca with the Admiral from Yunnan were Muslim Chinese. In the early 1800s, new Chinese immigrants to the Straits Settlements bolstered the Peranakan population.
Nyonya cuisine is a thing of love. It's not something you can come home from work and throw together ..... It takes care, time and passion to create such delicious tasting food. It does remind me of traditional Mexican food, which you have to spend ages just working on one component, and a dish may contain several of these, before you add them gradually together to create a thing of wonder. Nyonya food is the same in that respect. Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences into a unique blend. Nyonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients and wok cooking techniques with spices used by the Malay community. The food is tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal.
There are two different schools of Nyonya cuisine. The dishes from the Island of Penang and the North show major influences of Thai cooking, they are more sour from the use of tamarind, compared with the Nyonya of Malacca which shows more Indonesian influences and uses more 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. Both are equally delicious but totally different. 
In Georgetown there is a restaurant that still holds true to true Nyonya cooking. It is called Baba-Nyonya Cuisine. The cook Miss Khoo, who is a 4th Generation Nyonya is very proud of her heritage. She was delighted to show us around and show us some traditional Nyonya ornaments to her restaurant come home. The restaurant is on a street of old Nyonya houses, which most have been turned into restaurants. Hers is quite small, only 4 tables greet you as you enter. There is a screen which houses another two tables if she gets busy. Luckily on our visit, only 2 tables were occupied, but we were told the night before around 45 people showed up for dinner. As she seems obsessed with doing all the cooking herself she must have been really shattered afterwards. 
The unique flavour of Nyonya recipes is determined by the rempah, a combination of spices pounded into a paste with pestle and mortar, with a very specific texture and density. It is said that a Nyonya mother can determine the culinary skill of a new daughter-in-law simply by listening to her preparing rempah with a mortar. Nyonya 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 or in this restaurant, bit like Moroccan food. 
After browsing the menu we opted a starter of Top Hats. Opened topped deep fried rice wafer filled with a filling similar to spring rolls. They were very delicate. For mains we ordered Chicken Curry Kapitan (so named, some hundred years ago or so, a Dutch sea Captain asked his cabin boy what was for dinner that night. "Curry Kapitan" was the reply. It is a dense curry cooked with chicken and flavoured with candlenuts which also add to the thickness of the sauce. We also ordered a plate of hong bak, pork cooked for an age, and comes finished on the plate in a thick gravy. We also had a plate of local greens cooked in a fish paste. Sorry can not remember the name, and can not find it anywhere, but it was delicious. 
The meal and experience of eating really traditional food was great. The curry was divine as all curries should be, but aren't. The beef was melt in the mouth stuff. It was kind of a privilege to eat here and have someone lovingly cook for you and be very proud of her food, culture and heritage. 
We are looking forward to Malaka

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