To my shame, before setting foot in Penang I had never heard of Nyonya culture or their unusual and beguiling cuisine. The vibrant dishes emerging from Nyonya kitchens are the most visible and well-known signature of a small but unique community dating back to the mid-fifteenth century.
The backstory goes that the Chinese Emperor allegedly betrothed his daughter Princess Hang Li Po to the Sultan of Malacca. Smart move, as it cemented a mutually-beneficial relationship where China helped to protect Malacca, while in return Malacca gave China a strategic naval base for its fleets heading out across Asia. Everyone’s a winner. The Princess and her court thus established the first permanent Chinese settlement in Malacca at what came to be known, somewhat unimaginatively, as Bukit Cina or China Hill. So in time, through intermarriage with local Malays and a hybrid language of Malay and Chinese dialects, Nyonya (or Peranakan) culture was born and communities grew in areas including Malacca, Penang and Singapore.
What makes Nyonya cuisine so special – and unusual – is that it combines both traditional Malay and Chinese ingredients and spices. Fresh herbs, tamarind, the ubiquitous belacan (dried shrimp paste), green mangoes, chillies, shallots, kaffir and pandan leaves are some of the building blocks of the dishes found in northern Nyonya cuisine – southern cuisine tends to be sweeter, with coconut milk and more traditional Malay spicing.
Everyone in Penang will of course tell you that it is home to the best of Nyonya cooking. I haven’t had the chance to explore the regional variations yet, but what I did experience was a revelation. My guide and mentor was the food writer CK Lam and her husband. CK is a treasure trove of knowledge and insight on all that is good to eat in Penang and across Malaysia, from hawker food to high-end dining. Hailing from KL, she set up her blog as a way to allow her sons to keep in touch with their wonderful home cuisine. Check her out here: www.what2seeonline.com
In CK’s estimation the most authentic Nyonya restaurant in Penang is Little Kitchen @Nyonya, located in a late nineteenth century townhouse a few blocks away from the old town. On a typically sultry and steamy Penang evening, CK, her husband and I met up there for my Nyonya cuisine 101.
It’d be misleading to call this is a restaurant as you are definitely eating in someone’s house – and a beautiful one, at that. The sign outside advertises bird’s nest soup, the business of the original owners, whose descendants still live there today. You dine in the front room, with the family living rooms, bedrooms and kitchen to the rear.
There’s unfortunately no way that I can begin to recall the intricacies and ingredients of all the dishes we sampled together, particularly as most of my notes got wiped, so I’ll just pick out my highlights.
The most iconic – and certainly the most theatrical – was nasi ulam Nyonya, or Nyonya herbed rice. It involved intricate preparation by the owner Mr Loh as he picked and then rolled together an assortment of herbs into a three inch cigar shape and then chopped. But not just any old chopping. Sixty times. With a huge cleaver.
Gently mixing the herbs in with the spices and rice, it delivered a small bowl humming with turmeric, lemongrass, shallots, powdered coconut, salted fish, powdered dried shrimp, Thai basil, ginger finger roots, red chilli, lime, kaffir lime leaves, ulam raja, peppermint, betel nut leaves, cashew shoots, lemon basil and at least a couple more ingredients that I’ve probably forgotten:
It’s the kind of dish that the word ‘fragrant’ was invented for, layer upon layer of intricate and delicate flavour, somehow all complimentary, none too overpowering. Next up sweet and hot and sour sambal prawns came and were quickly dispatched:
Then Tu Kua Lor Bak bought pork meat and liver, wrapped in bean curd sheets and fried until crisp, served with a spicy sweet sambal:
There were more curries and sides before a dessert platter heaving with sticky kuih talam (pandan and coconut cake), glutinous rice porridge and a sweet potato, banana and tapioca soup called pengat. A drink which deserves a much wider audience, nutmeg tea, accompanied throughout.
Mr Loh then showed us the kitchen and the rest of the house where there were sweet and sharp and hot homemade ‘achar’ or pickles and a wall of herbs and spices:In addition to memories of a family house for well over a century:
Little Kitchen @Nyonya, No. 179, Lebuh Noordin, 10300 Penang, Malaysia. Tel: +604-261 6731