Friday, August 28, 2009

The Origin of Nyonya Cooking

Long before Marco Polo, the Chinese excelled as traders, travelling from China to Malacca as early as the 13th century to trade timber, tin and spices. Traders were mostly men.

Malacca was known as a popular world trading centre in the early 18th century.

Lately, some historians argue that there were no intermarriage between the Chinese and Malay. Due to war and famine in China around the 16th century, the Chinese came to South East Asia to earn a living, mainly trading in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. Some of them embraced Thai and Burmese customs and the influences of their cuisines. Some brought their wives with them; it was a prestige custom to marry local Chinese maidens from good family. They adapted to the local lifestyle, speaking Malay while retaining some of their ancestral celebrations and they are known as “Peranakan”. They settled mainly in Penang.

There were few Chinese women in the Malay Peninsula resulting in Chinese men marrying Malay women, with descendants known as “Straits Chinese” or “Peranakan”.

The male is called “Baba” and the female “Nyonya”.

The birthplace of “Baba & Nyonya” is in Malacca, situated about 200 km south west of Kuala Lumpur. The culture and tradition of Malacca has been influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Chinese and Malay peoples.

The “Baba & Nyonya” museum in Malacca has certainly preserved the history of the era. There are some narrow streets, long houses (typical of Baba & Nyonya) and quaint antique shops and Portuguese museum.

Beaded slippers known as “Kasut Manek” and sewn by young Nyonya maidens can still be seen in museums and shops.

Various Nyonya and local foods include “SatayCelop”, “Portuguese Devil Curry” and “Oo Koo”, which is similar to “Ang Koo” but the pastry is made from the juice of black leaves. These can only be found in Malacca.

The art of Nyonya cooking used to be compulsory learning for young girls. They were taught to practise cooking to perfection before marriage or they would be regarded by their in-laws as not brought up properly and a disgrace to the family.

Intense training started in early childhood; young girls were taught basic preparation, such as cutting pieces of onion and garlic, scraping coconut from coconut scraper, cleaning vegetables, cleaning fish, peeling prawns, pounding chillies with pestle and mortar, and using grinding stone to grind the curry paste.

The second step would be cutting vegetables into floral designs, cutting meat and gradual introduction to cooking. The beginner was under strict supervision of the elderly members of the kitchen.

The Nyonya are known to be meticulous in their cooking.

With the use of modem appliances, the Nyonya admits that the work in the kitchen is less tedious and time consuming, but the traditional Nyonya believes that their old methods of grinding, pounding and cooking their food is the best method.

The basic ingredients in Nyonya cooking are lemon grass (serai), galangal (lengkuas), coconut milk (santan), chillies and spices as well as palm sugar (gula rnelaka), rice flour and screw pine leaves (pandan leaves).

There are three variations in Nyonya cooking – Penang, Malacca and Singapore.

The Penang style of Nyonya cooking was influenced by Thailand, while the Malacca and Singapore style of Nyonya cooking was influenced by Indonesia because of its proximity.

It is often said that the Chinese in Penang are so different from those living in other states. They speak a sing-song Hokkien dialect that is more refined in terms of intonation and pronunciation, mixed with many Malay words.

Their cooking is neither distinctively Chinese nor Malay but a blend of both cuisines.

A young Nyonya in the early days was expected to display skills which included making a good plate of curry, “Achar Awak” (pickled vegetables) and a beaded slipper or two.

Marriage potential was judged by good cooking skills and of course, good looks and a sweet disposition.

Nyonyas in Malaysia who were still educated in the traditional ways of cooking are well into their seventies and eighties. For many, their traditions and way of life are things of the past.

However, there are many people and expatriates all over the world who are still practicing Nyonya cuisine.


Gen Ho said...

Congratulations on your new blog ! Thank you very much for sharing your passion and experience on Nyonya(or Nonya) food cooking with us. We will be looking forward to read more of your postings here !

Good Luck.


Bee Lee Tan said...

Thanks.Nyonya cuisine is a dying art. I would like to bring the culture to the younger people so that it is no longer a secret in the market place.You can do it too.
Bee Lee