Thursday, May 30, 2024

Nyonya Cuisine: Rediscovering Heritage Through Home Cooking

Nyonya food in Malaysia is a unique and flavorful cuisine that combines Chinese and Malay cooking (MALAY DESSERTS) styles, with extra influences from Portuguese and Eurasian foods in Melaka. This delicious blend comes from the Peranakan community, where Chinese immigrants married local Malays. Nyonya dishes use lots of spices like lemongrass and turmeric, along with coconut milk and pandan leaves. When the Portuguese ruled Melaka in the 16th century, they introduced new cooking methods and ingredients like vinegar and more spices, which became part of Nyonya cooking (PETAI SAMBAL).

Additionally, Eurasian cuisine, which blends European and local flavors, has also influenced Nyonya food, adding to its rich and diverse taste. Dishes like Devil’s Curry (MUTTON DEVIL CURRY) show how Nyonya food has mixed different cultural flavors to create something special and tasty.

How do I, Ms. Nava, know so much about this cuisine? From my culinary credentials and attending cooking classes on Nyonya cuisine, I also learned from people who were willing to share their Nyonya cooking knowledge. Additionally, from my holidays in Malacca, I have tasted and picked up the flavors and tastes of Nyonya cuisine, which led me to experiment with it in my kitchen.

The list of Nyonya dishes I have cooked is extensive, and I am excited to share it with all of you.

Nyonya Prawn Sambal
For the Sambal Paste (Blend with some water)
Dried red chilies (to taste)
1 large red onion
1-inch ginger
5 cloves garlic
1/2 inch roasted shrimp paste/belacan

Other Ingredients
6 large prawns (with skin and tail intact, veins removed, and turmeric powder added)
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp onion paste
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
Tamarind juice/air asam (to taste)
1 large lemongrass, smashed
4 to 5 kaffir lime leaves, sliced
Palm sugar (to taste)
Salt (to taste)
3 tbsp oil

Heat oil in a pan.
Add the sambal paste and cook until aromatic and the oil separates.
Add lemongrass and chopped tomatoes. 
Stir and cook until the tomatoes break down and form a thick sambal paste.
Pour in tamarind juice, add palm sugar, salt, and prawns. 
Stir well and cook until the prawns are cooked through.
Be careful not to overcook them as they will become rubbery.

"Alternatively, you can discover how to cook Nyonya Prawn Sambal from the attached video. Just know that I've provided an alternative for the sambal paste. If you're someone like me who prefers to blend chillies, garlic, ginger, and onions and store them in the fridge, you can use this pre-made paste for the sambal. It's more convenient than blending the ingredients each time you need to make it."

Nyonya Okra/Bendi Sambal Recipe
1 packet okra/bendi, steamed or simmered until tender (cut into bite sizes, if desired)
Lime juice, as needed
Palm sugar/Gula Melaka, as needed
Salt, to taste

For Dried Shrimp Sambal
1 big red onion, chopped
2 tbsp dried shrimps, soaked and rinsed
2 tbsp dried chilli paste (or per taste)
1/2 tsp belacan/shrimp powder
2 1/2 tbsp oil

Heat oil in a pan.
Add chopped onion and sauté until fragrant.
Add soaked and rinsed dried shrimps/prawns. 
Fry lightly.
Stir in dried chilli paste and belacan/shrimp powder. 
Also, add palm sugar/Gula Melaka.
Pour in lime juice and a small amount of water if you prefer more gravy.
Season with salt and stir well.
Place the cooked okra/bendi on a serving plate or tray.
Spoon the dried shrimp/prawn sambal over the okra/bendi.

If you prefer visual instructions, watch the attached video.

Buah Keluak 
Buah keluak is a distinctive ingredient widely used in Nyonya cuisine, notably in dishes like Ayam Buah Keluak. Derived from the seeds of the Pangium edule tree indigenous to Southeast Asia, these seeds are initially toxic and require an extensive fermentation process to render them safe for consumption. Buah keluak holds a revered status in Nyonya cuisine for its unique taste, albeit one that may require an acquired palate to fully appreciate.

Despite purchasing processed seeds during my trip to Malacca, they still necessitate meticulous cleaning. Apart from the traditional Chicken Buah Keluak, I also prepared a Fish/Ikan Buah Keluak variation, though my husband wasn't fond of its flavor.

To prepare Buah Keluak, soak the seeds overnight; a single night or a whole day will suffice. While soaking, diligently scrub the seeds multiple times to ensure any debris clinging to them is thoroughly removed. Before using in any dish, crack the seeds open following this preparation method.

Ikan Buah Keluak
4 to 5 medium-sized pieces of Tenggiri/Indian Mackerel, rinsed
Assam/tamarind juice, as needed
A small piece of palm sugar
1/4 cup oil
Salt, to taste

For the Rempah/Curry Paste 
1 lemongrass stalk
1-inch lengkuas/galangal
1/2-inch roasted belacan
1/2-inch fresh kunyit/turmeric
4 shallots
5 garlic cloves
1/2-inch ginger
2 red chilies
1 tbsp fish curry powder
Blend into a thick paste with some water

Heat oil in a pan.
Fry the curry paste until aromatic and the oil separates.
Add the fish and keluak, gently stirring into the paste.
Pour in enough water for gravy, adding more for extra thickness.
Simmer gently.
Season with assam/tamarind juice, palm sugar, and salt.
Stir and continue to simmer until the fish is cooked through and the curry thickens.
Dish out.

Chicken/ Curry/Kari Ayam Buah Keluak
400g chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
6 shallots, crushed or smashed
2 sprigs curry leaves
Some asam/tamarind juice
1/4 cup oil
Salt, to taste

For the Curry Paste
1 1/2 tbsp plain chilli powder (or as needed)
1/4 tsp garam masala/mixed spice powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp fennel powder
1 1/2 tsp coriander powder
Water, to make a thick paste

Mix the chicken with ginger paste and garlic paste, then set aside.
Heat oil in a pan.
Sauté the crushed shallots until fragrant.
Add the curry paste and fry until aromatic and the oil separates.
Add the chicken and keluak with water.
Gently stir and cook until the chicken is tender. 
(Note: Add more water for a thicker gravy.)
Add curry leaves, pour in tamarind juice, and season with salt.
Stir, simmer, and remove from heat.

Easiest Nyonya Vegetable Acar


1/2 cucumber, sliced into 1-inch long strips with skin on

1/2 carrot, skin removed and sliced into 1-inch long strips

1 red and 1 green chilli, skin removed and sliced into 1-inch long strips

1/2 inch ginger, skin removed and thinly sliced

7 shallots, skin removed

7 garlic cloves, skin removed

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp turmeric powder

1 1/2 tbsp roasted sesame seeds

1/2 cup vinegar

Sugar, as needed

Salt, to taste

3 tbsp oil



Heat oil in a pan. Sauté ginger, shallots, garlic, and cumin seeds until fragrant.

Add vinegar, turmeric powder, sugar, and salt. Stir and let it simmer.

Add cucumber, carrot, and chilli strips. Stir and cover with a lid.

After 10 minutes, remove the lid.

Let it sit for 30 minutes.

Before serving, stir in roasted sesame seeds.

We have more Nyonya recipes lined up for each of you. Be sure to revisit this space from time to time for the latest recipes. 

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