“Cathy! Make sure you cut the turnip for the jiu hu char (stir-fried turnip with cuttlefish dish) very fine, and not kasar (rough)! Only barbarians eat kasar food. When you cook, it must be with finesse. Cannot chin chai, chin chai (be careless). Understand? Young people these days, like to take short cuts only!”
I remember my Penang Nyonya mum, Anne Leong, admonishing me when I was younger and trying to accomplish my cooking tasks quickly. We were fortunate to have many delicious Nyonya meals at home which included asam fish, asam laksa, Nyonya achar, and Nyonya chang (rice dumplings) among others.
According to Dr. David Neo, cultural researcher and senior lecturer with the College of Creative Arts at UiTM Malaysia, food plays a very large part in Baba Nyonya culture and remains a living legacy today. For many Peranakan women, the kitchen was the centre of their lives. It was where they gathered, cooked communally, and ate, oftentimes with their fingers, like the Malays. They would laugh and cry in the kitchen, which was the focal point for household politics, gossiping, and in-fighting. In the Peranakan household, the kitchen was called perot rumah or ‘stomach’ of the house for the central role that it played.
Today this living legacy continues thanks to the efforts of dedicated chefs such as Debbie Teoh, who is an expert in Penang and Melaka Nyonya cuisine. With over 25 years in the cooking industry, Teoh was born and grew up in Melaka with Peranakan parents. Teoh has received worldwide acclaim for her cooking skills from renowned global chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi and has been showcasing her food for the last two decades at global food events such as Terra Madre in Turin, Italy.
Teoh informs that Nyonya food is one of the earliest fusion cuisines ever, dating back to about 600 years ago, and it draws from other rich cuisines such as Malay, Chinese and British.
She says, “If you look at the history of the common ladies finger Nyonya dish, it contains elements of this unique heritage. The dish is made by just scalding the ladies fingers and serving them with an accompanying dip comprising taucheo (fermented yellow bean paste), bird’s eye chilis, calamansi lime juice, and sugar. The Chinese use taucheo but they don’t use a lot of chili, sugar, and calamansi lime which are Malay in origin. So, you can see both cultures coming together in the dish.”
“The more I cook and educate people, the more I see connections to our common ancestors. It is the same with jiu hu char. The cuttlefish in the dish is from China but you eat it with sambal belachan (chili dip), which is drawn from Malay cuisine. It is a beautiful marriage of cultures in one dish.”
“Being part of the Straits Settlements and acting as compradors during the British occupation, the Peranakans incorporated British influences in their food as well. For example, roti babi (bread stuffed with pork) from Penang is a mix of Chinese cuisine (use of pork), Malay (coriander and chekor), and British (bread, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard). The dish’s dipping sauce contains calamansi lime, yellow mustard, bird’s eye chilis, salt, and sugar.”
As with other aspects of the Baba Nyonya culture, the Peranakans pride themselves on cuisine which is refined (or alus) and meticulously prepared. Teoh said, “All spices must be finely ground for the spice paste. For example, chili flakes must not be visible in the paste.” Like her predecessors, Teoh also prefers to prepare food from scratch such as peeling shallots, galangal and lemongrass by hand, even though they may be bought pre-prepared.
A few people working with her have said, “You bodor la. Sakitkan badan sendiri. (You’re stupid and making yourself miserable.)” However, Teoh finds that the flavour is different when freshly prepared ingredients are used. She says, “If it is not prepared the proper way, and with too many shortcuts, it will affect the final taste of the dish, rendering it non-authentic.”
Aside from precise steps employed in the food preparation, Nyonya cuisine should also be presented in a way that is dainty and pleasing. Teoh said, “In a Peranakan household, for example, Nyonya kuih (teacakes) should be served in small, bite sized pieces, and consumed in one or two bites at most. If the kuih pieces are too large, the person eating it would need to open his mouth wide, and it would be seen as lacking finesse.”
Another hallmark of Nyonya food is its rich, strong flavours. The Peranakans regularly use aromatic herbs to flavour their dishes and produce complex tastes. The predominant herbs used are lemongrass, galangal and turmeric. Additionally, they use kaffir lime leaves, bunga kantan (torch ginger bud), daon kesom (laksa leaves), daon kemangi (basil leaves) and daon kunyit (turmeric leaves). Coconut milk is also used heavily. Teoh said, “The strong flavours do not necessarily mean that the dish is spicy. For example, babi pongteh, a sweetish and creamy pork dish, is non-spicy but has a rich distinct taste due to caramelised shallots and garlic.”
Belachan or “Peranakan cheese”, a strong-smelling paste made from fermented shrimps is another staple in their sambal belachan, which is regularly eaten with daily dishes for an extra flavour boost. Another favourite is salty chincalok, fermented small shrimp served as a condiment with chili, shallots and calamansi lime.
In Malaysia, Nyonya food is popular mainly in states such as Penang, Melaka (that is, states which were previously part of the Straits Settlement), and in modern times in city centres such as the Klang Valley. Interestingly, the flavours and names of dishes vary between these states. Nyonya cuisine in Penang for example is more Thai influenced with tangy and salty dishes, while in Melaka, dishes have a sweeter and creamier taste.
Signature Nyonya dishes from Penang include hu pio t’heng (fish maw soup), kari kapitan (kapitan curry), kari kei (curry chicken) and jiu hu char. Meanwhile, in Melaka, signature dishes include babi pongteh (pork stew), udang masak lemak nenas (prawn with pineapple and coconut milk), and ikan cili garam (fried fish with chili and salt).
At the Terra Madre festival in Turin, Italy, Nyonya cuisine is sadly classified as a “dying food culture.” In fact, according to Teoh, there are certain Nyonya dishes which are nearly extinct as many Peranakan families jealously guard their recipes and only pass them to family members. In Melaka, babi masak tohe or tohay (pork dish with fermented rice paste) cannot be found in restaurants, and only in very few households. In Penang, kun chiang, a dish featuring pork intestines stuffed with glutinous rice and peppercorns, is also becoming very rare.
Teoh however actively contributes to stemming the tide of this decline with her active role in promoting Nyonya cuisine. She has written seven cookbooks, including two on Nyonya cuisine, importantly documenting well-loved recipes. She is currently working on her eighth cookbook. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she also joined a chef’s collective known as the Masters of Malaysian Cuisine (MOMC) to promote local cuisine via free online live cooking demonstrations. The events were highly popular in the European region such as Germany and Switzerland.
Additionally, Teoh organises monthly dinner events known as tok panjang (referring to the traditional elaborate Nyonya feasts served on a long table), offering diners a private dining experience. The last two events were held in February and March 2022 in Temu House, Petaling Jaya. She also offers cooking classes on Nyonya favourites, and regularly sells Nyonya combo delights.
She concludes, “As far as possible, Nyonya cuisine should remain authentic. However, I understand the need to evolve and adapt to preserve our valuable food heritage. For example, if the younger generation prefers to use the pressure cooker instead of cooking for hours on the stove, so be it, as long as the integrity of the ingredients are preserved. I would prefer for this to happen, rather than there be zero attempts at recreating our beloved food culture.”
Cover image by Debbie Teoh.