The Peranakan are a minority race of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage. A Peranakan lady is known as a Nyonya, while a Peranakan man, Baba. Traditionally known as Straits Chinese, they are descendants of Chinese immigrants from provinces such as Fujian and Guandong. Over time, they embraced the local customs while retaining part of their ancestral heritage. Most settled in the coastal towns of Malaya’s Penang, Melaka and Singapore, and parts of Thailand and Indonesia.
This fusion of Chinese and Straits cultures has produced a range of decorative and heritage-rich art and crafts, such as embroidered shoes, purses and vibrant wares of mostly floral and peacock designs. Penang has a long and proud Nyonya Baba heritage, which has integrated the Fujian background from China while adopting many aspects of local culture.
The Nyonyas are proud of their heirloom recipes and savouries, which they often serve in rare antique wares. Nyonya food fondly connects the Peranakans to their roots and has become a distinctive aspect of their identity and culture.
Also known as village salad, nasi ulam is a traditional dish in Nyonya Peranakan (Straits Chinese) cuisine. This dish has been described as the queen of all Peranakan rice dishes. Nasi Ulam is a common Nyonya Herb Rice packed with dried shrimps, julienned ginger flower bud, kerisik (toasted grated coconut), and aromatic herbs. For a game changer, julienned lemon leaves, mint leaves, basil leaves and sliced onions are added together into the steamed rice and fried into a delicious fragrant mixture as shown below. Coconut milk and ground turmeric powder are also added for the flavour and its distinct yellow colour respectively. Generous strips of ‘daun kaduk’ or scientifically known as ‘Piper sormentasum’ are common in nasi ulam.
Jui Hu Char is stir fried jicama with cuttlefish – to give its distinct taste. For the uninitiated, jicama is the crisp white succulent edible tuber of yam bean. It is usually wrapped in green lettuce as a filling and eaten in bites. This favourite Nyonya dish consists mainly of jiu hu (shredded cuttlefish), bang kuang (jicama), carrots, and cabbage. Other ingredients include pork belly strips and slices of black Shitake mushrooms. Using a mandolin, the ‘bang kuang’ and carrots are shredded or julienned and stir-fried with other ingredients for a crunchy texture. A lot of love and work are required in the preparation of this delicious dish that is also a favourite amongst the locals and tourists alike.
As the name suggests, ‘Perut Ikan’ is fermented Fish stomach curry. This signature dish is a Nyonya food specialty that is sumptuous.
Perut ikan is a curry-like dish of various vegetables, aromatic herbs, and fermented fish stomach of rich, savoury, and spicy bursts of flavours. The trick is to sauté your spice paste until fragrant and then, add in the fermented fish stomach with vegetables. Add in coconut milk, and bring to a boil or simmer it until cooked. Keep stirring now and then so that no vegetables sink to the bottom and become overcooked. It takes lots of patience and time in the preparation for quality Nyonya food with recipes being handed down from generation to generation with the style of cooking and secret ingredients kept intact.
Lor Bak is also affectionately known as five-spice pork roll. Lor bak is made with marinated pork in Chinese five-spice powder and then rolled up with thin bean curd skin or soy bean skin. Then it is deep fried until crispy and fragrant. Cut cucumbers are served on the side with Lor Bak for that crunchiness. Any tourists to Penang who love meat will find this dish delightful and unique. Lor Bak is best eaten on its own instead of pairing it with chilli sauce that may mask the distinct flavours of the five-spices marinated meat.
So there you have it – awesome Nyonya food treats to tantalise your taste buds – and attract repeat clientele to famous establishments. People of all ages and cultures will love them and tourists to Penang should try the above delicious dishes and order them whenever you happen to patronize any Nyonya restaurants such as those in Penang. Do check out the various establishments below:
Richard Rivalee Restaurant
Address: 79-G-45, Jalan Dato Keramat, George Town, 10150 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Phone: +604-370 7140
Hai Nan Town Restaurant
Address: Tanjung City Marina, 8A, Pengkalan Weld, 10300 George Town, Penang
Phone: +604-263 8633
Mum’s Nyonya Cuisine
Address: 31-D, Lorong Abu Siti, George Town, 10400 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Phone: +604-229 1318
Ivy’s Nyonya Kitchen
Address: 58, Jalan Chow Thye, George Town, 10050 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Phone: +6013-433 7878
Nonya Baba Cuisine
Address: 44, Jalan Nagor, 10050 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Phone: +604-227 8035
The Legend Nyonya House
Address: 2, Gat Lebuh Chulia, George Town, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Phone: +604-251 9598