In nyonya households, mealtimes were of
grand affairs, with cuisine that delighted the palate with varying
tastes, flavors and textures. While tea-time meant more of
melt-in-the-mouth treats. Food was cooked with an exacting skill.
Northern nyonya cooking is heavily influenced by Thai cuisine because
of Thailandís close proximity. The cooking mostly use of chilies, lime
juice and tamarind pulp. The unmistakable sour, searing, hot sensation
is evidence of this. Generally, northern nyonya cooking is hot, spicy
and lemak (rich). A lot of pungent roots (lengkuas, serai, turmeric,
halia), aromatic leaves (daun pandan, daun kaduk, daun pudina, daun
kesum) and other ingredients like shrimp paste (belacan), dried prawns
(heh bee), fresh and dried chilies, limes and tamarind paste are used
in its cooking.
The richness of the dishes comes from the generous use of coconut milk
(santan) and spices. To counteract the cloy feeling there are sour
dishes which make use of tamarind paste or lime juice. This gives a
good balance of tastes in meals. Though most homes cook similar dishes,
they are prepared with great variations to suit individual family
tastes. This accounts for why one family's acars (pickles) are more
crunchy and spicy than another's or why gulais (curries) are not as
fiery hot or tangy as the others.
However, preparation was always meticulous and results delicious,
Whether it was a kuih, sambal, gulai or acar, a nyonya kitchen always
turned out impeccable, perfect concoctions. Today, a lot of these foods
are rarely prepared, let alone served at family meals. Our modern,
hurried pace of life and lack of willing hands have led to the
commercially prepared variety of nyonya food.
Most of the recipes have been in the family for generations and
generations. It is the result of collection of daily nyonya staples of
generations. A lot of these recipes are family secrets; tried, tested
and retested till near-perfect. Two of such special dishes are
Salt-fish Acar and Limau Acar. They have undergone 30 years of
experimentation and adaptation who lifted the recipes from the family's
old cookery files. Also included are quite a few less well-known
recipes. These are no longer prepared regularly either because the
recipes have become obscure or the ingredients are no longer readily
available, Heh Kian Taugeh and Salt-fish Branda are cases in point.
Some of the recipes that are not strictly nyonya in origin but are
regular food in nyonya households. Mee Rebus is one of these.
The recipes in this collection show up the differences between northern
(Penang) and southern (Malacca and Singapore) nyonya cooking. Aside
from the wide variety of sambals and acars that dominate northern
nyonya cooking, there are also certain dishes peculiar to, and
synonymous with, this cuisine, Among them are Purut Ikan (a delicacy
made from fish stomach), Bosomboh (a crispy salad tossed in a thick
gravy sauce), Egg Branda, Penang Rojak and Prawn Congee to name a few.
Traditional northern nyonya cooking was difficult to master in the past
because standard measurements were seldom used in the kitchen.
Everything was done through estimation method, where a pinch of this or
a toss of that, a handful of this and a thumbful of that were the only
cooking measurements at hand. Thankfully, we do not have to resort to
this instinctive method of cooking today, but we do have to convert
from imperial to metric.
The round bottomed kuali or iron wok is the most useful utensil when
cooking in a nyonya kitchen. This large, wide-mouthed, deep pan is
ideal because it can accommodate all kinds of cooking, whether it be
deep-frying, stir-frying, steaming or stewing.
A thinner version of the kuali is recommended for frying rice, kuih
teow, mee and vegetables. This is what gives that special taste found
in foods prepared by hawkers, The secret lies in heat coming faster
through the thinner kuali and thus the ingredients do not hove the
tendency to stick to the sides (as it does in the thicker, regular
kuali), The taste and the finish of the dish therefore, comes out
While gulais (curries) are usually cooked in an Indian cloy pot, those
with a steady hand can use the regular kuali for the same purpose
without sacrificing taste, For soups, the traditional nyonya cook used
a gnah phoh (enamel pot) for both boiling and simmering.
For pounding and grinding of spices and roots, the traditional way was
to use the batu lesong (mortar and pestle) and the batu giling
(grinding stone and roller).
The batu lesong is used for pounding sambal belacan, dried prawns,
groundnuts, onions, chilies, dried chilies and serai, The batu giling
is used when the rempah includes spices like ketumbar (coriander),
jintan putih (fennel seeds) and jintan manis (cumin seeds), Grinding
this way is easier and quicker than pounding with pestle and mortar and
you also get a finer paste. In the modern kitchen, the blender or
grinder is, of course, the handiest way to prepare sambals or spices.
The cooks of the old school, however, swear that taste is sacrificed
Another indispensible utensil in a nyonya kitchen is the parut. Used
for grating coconut, tapioca, fresh ginger, carrot, potato and the
like, it is usually a metal sheet perforated with holes of various
sizes. To parut, therefore, means to grate or shred.
An Indian claypot or belanga is ideal for frying a rempah. A kuali can
be used to good effect as well, provided heat is well controlled and
low, If care is not taken, the rempah will either dry out, get stuck to
the bottom of the pan or get burnt.
Oil for frying should always be hot before any ingredients are added,
It is always important that rempah is well stirred, fragrant and
bubbling in enough oil before other ingredients ore added. If It shows
a tendency to dry up, add a little extra oil or coconut milk and stir
well. In nyonya cooking, the way a rempah is fried is what counts most
as it contributes directly to a well cooked dish,
The nyonya hold their own cooking terms such as tumis, kembang and
Tumis: To fry till fragrant.
Kembang: To expand in volume or size.
Wajek-wajek: To cut or slice at a slant Popularly employed in cutting
Rempah: Mixture of ground or pounded ingredients,
To the nyonya of old, cooking was an accomplishment, an art to be proud
of. It was with pride that she applied her skills in the never-ending
daily task of preparing food. Her efforts were not in vain, for
northern nyonya cuisine can boast of dishes exclusive to it.
As always, it was the nyonya cook's innovative experimentation that
cooked up winners like Bosomboh, Penang Rojak, Nyonya Chang, Lobak,
Stuffed Taukua, Purut Ikan and Egg Branda.
In their own right, these dishes have become very special, for they are
so versatile that they can be eaten as an appetizer, a snack, a side
dish or even as a meal by themselves. The nyonya have their own terms
for such dishes; chia thit tho, literally meaning eating for the sheer
enjoyment or pleasure derived from it, whatever the time of day,
whatever the occasion or time of year.