What is Nyonya cooking?

Learn to cook Nyonya Food at Tropical Spice Gardentoday.

The Nyonya’s of Penang are indeed an ‘endangered’ breed. So I had the pleasure of having Pearly Kee, a Nyonya descendant and passionate Nyonya cook, to stroll down memory lane as she regaled me with stories of what being Nyonya means to her. Ever ready with a hearty chuckle, Pearly described herself as ‘one of the last Mohicans’ as we plunged into her personal recollection of tales from her Nyonya kitchen as a child.

A typical 19th Century Nyonya kitchen - pic courtesy of  Pearly Kee

Before we started on the intricacies of Nyonya cooking, I thought I should first uncover who really are the Nyonya…

KatChua: So Pearly, Who are the Nyonya?

PearlyKee: Actually we are Chinese who came over here some 200 years ago in 18 th Cent. to set up a home. The first descendants were running away from the opium war in 1850 to find work and find a new life.

You must remember that these immigrants were coming on small boats, much like the way we hear of illegal immigrants today arriving across the shores. And they would be arriving with nothing. They would have heard that there were opportunities abound here and so came.

And of course when they arrived they needed to adapt to the living culture here. The Chinese are renowned for their good cooking and so in their learning to use the local spices like chillies and lemongrass they produced their own blend of cooking.

The Chinese people eat to ensure healthy bodies – yin and yang. So every dish they created was fundamentally done to enhance the value of the spices and food

KatChua: Can you tell me how far back your family stretches?

PearlyKee:  My great grand father 4 times removed, Kee Lai Huat is the
founder of Sungai Bakap and Valdor. http://www.my-island-penang.com/Kee-Lai-Huat-Vision.html

And his brother in law is more famous. Khaw Boo Aun was involved in the Larut War, a fierce leader of the Ghee Hin triad society. Their sugar plantation was so huge that even a bird flying have to stop many times to get out of his estate. (30 hectares). You might see photos of http://www.my-island-penang.com/Khaw-Boo-Aun.html in Penang Teochiews Ancestral Hall in Chulia Street, as he is one of the generous founders.

So that makes me 5th generation of the Kee descendants in Penang but 25th in China. We are now in the 8th generations outside China.

I still go back to our Kee Kongsi [clanhouse] for ancestral worship, Cheng Beng, hungry ghost festival, solistic month.

KatChua: So Nyonyas are Chinese predominantly?

PearlyKee: Yes, Straits Chinese. That is, Straits Settlements Chinese

We are the only Chinese who still practice the old age practices of 18th / 19th Century practices such as ancestral worship, filial piety, visiting the temple for special occasions, following of Confuscious teaching  which teach us to honour God, parents and teachers. So we keep this very close to us. Even in China, you wouldn’t find these practices upheld today.

KatChua: Why are they called Baba & Nyonyas?

PearlyKee:It is erroneous to make generalizations and say that the Baba Nyonyas inter married into the Malay culture and hence created our unique culture.We adapted a lot of local culture of the time which in itself was such a rich cultural melting pot and yes the Malay culture was certainly one of it but it would be inaccurate to say we intermarried with the Malays only. Until today we still practice ancestral worship and many of our dishes include pork so with our culture being so tightly preserved, it would have been hard for our forefathers to inter marry with cultures that couldn’t embrace these ways.

Initially there were no inter marriages but certainly down the generations there were inter marriages into all races.

Especially so in Penang, the Baba & Nyonya’s influence is more from Siam, Phuket

KatChua: Can you interchange the terms Baba Nyonya/ Straits Chinese  and Peranakan?

PearlyKee: I would loosely say yes. They are all co-related

An elderly Nyonya preparing a hair bun or sanggul.  Basket of red eggs on right is in celebration of 'muah guek' to celebrate a  babys first month of life - Pic courtesy of Pearly Kee

KatChua: What are the differences between Penang and Malaccan Nyonyas?

PearlyKee: Loosely again, the Malaccan nyonyas influence is mainly from Indonesia whereas the Penang Nyonyas influence were more so from Siam. Also in the language, Penang Nyonyas spoke Hokkien which adopted a few Malay terms whereas the Malaccan Nyonyas mostly spoke Malay with a few adopted Hokkien words

For example Babi ponteh [used in Malacca] and Hong bak [used in Penang] is actually the same dish.

[Eds note: this dish is a non-spicy pork stew and Pearly is currently teaching a duck variation at our cooking classes at Tropical Spice Garden]

KatChua : Can you describe the essence of being Nyonya in 3 words/ phrases?

PearlyKee: Filial

Importance of food

Proud people

KatChua: What makes Nyonya food special

PearlyKee: It is the combining of all the local herbs and spices that make it very special. Also each Nyonya family have their own secret, hand-me-down recipes that are so unique. They are very refined food. For example,  you can eat Bangkwang Char (Stir Fried Yambean) in any Kopi Tiam selling economy rice. Jiew Hu Char is the refined version of Stir Fried Yambean.  Nyonyas refined it by adding dried cuttle fish strips. The taste is oceans  apart.

So in short Nyonya food is refined food  with a good balance with sweet, sour, salty and spicy. Spicyness we got it
from the Siamese

For a Nyonya there must always be a sweet at the end so that when you leave there will be sweet memories and good feelings of the meal.

KatChua: Is cooking Nyonya food difficult to do abroad due to the difficulty in accessing the fresh herbs and spices?

PearlyKee: No because there are are Chinatowns and Chinese and Vietnamese supermarkets which supply all our South East Asian herbs and spices like cekur [sand ginger]

You’ll be surprised even sand ginger is available in Hong Kong

Pearly laying a marble table with Nyonya food - pic courtesy of Pearly Kee

KatChua: Can Nyonyas be found in any other part of the world?

PearlyKee: Penang, Malacca and Singapore.

KatChua: What are the distinguishing features of a modern Nyonya? Can you tell apart a Nyonya descendant from a local Chinese Penangite?

PearlyKee: It’s very hard to tell as the Nyonyas are very much assimilated into local Chinese culture.

But if you go to the Burmese temple in Burma Lane in Pulau Tikus to look for my cousin she is always wearing her sarong with a light cotton blouse. This is one sure way of telling apart a Nyonya – the sarong!

Mr. Lim also exclaims how many people these days claim to be Nyonyas but yet they don’t even know how to cook authentic [chneah tor] Nyonya food!

KatChua: I have heard you mention Mr. Lim so many times. Who is he actually?

PearlyKee: Dato’ Lim Bian Yam is a true Baba of the 4th generation. His great grandfather was Lim Hua Chiam. [Whispers: He was the headman of the LIM clans. Powerful and fierce]

KatChua: Who is he to you?

PearlyKee: My cooking master way back in the eighties. He ran his school in Air Itam, Hykett Estate. Guess how many students he had in his class?  MINIMUM 60 – 70 students per session! He was a great story teller!

KatChua: What made his classes so popular?

PearlyKee: He is witty and very talented in cooking and made each class so fun and enjoyable and he is a true Baba in every sense of the word. Even when we returned at night, we were still dreaming about all his jokes! He is also good with flower arrangements and is the President of the Penang Floral Arts Society [flips open a book which Dato' Lim wrote on flower arrangement]

KatChua: Is this where you learned your cooking skills?

PearlyKee: I learnt how to cook from growing up in a Nyonya kitchen. Mr Lim refined my cooking with him. For example, I was able to have a better palate for tasting – its an acquired taste to eat Nyonya food

KatChua: What was it like growing up in a Nyonya kitchen?

PearlyKee: I grew up using the grinding stones to make laksa noodles and bedak sejuk [rice face powder] for sale and for home consumption. They are certainly bitter sweet memories as using the grinding stones was tough. Grinding chilies and rempah [spice pastes] would sting your hands and it would be painful.

I didn’t like it. I used to cry when my hands were so painful. Only when I started using blenders to create the same original flavours did I begin to enjoy the cooking process!

Pearly demonstrating cooking Nyonya food surrounded by vintage, Nyonya enamelware - pic courtesy of Pearly Kee

KatChua: So this IS where you learnt how to cook.

PearlyKee: I learnt how to cook by myself. My aunts never gave me recipes or exact measurements they just told me what they needed to be added to the dishes by handfuls or pinches

KatChua: What are some of the common ingredients found in Nyonya food?

PearlyKee: Coconut cream, gula melaka [natural palm sugar], lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, banana leaf, banana, sago, dried chillies, tamarind, cekur [sand ginger], pandan, tapioca, yam, sweet potato, ang cho [red dates], mata kucing [longans]

[at this point, Pearly breaks into song of the jingles they sang as children for all the wonderful foods they used to eat with a lot of giggling]

KatChua: What were some of your own family traditionas/ rituals passed down to you that you still practice?

PearlyKee: Tea ceremony [performed during wedding to introduce the young nuptials to their respective new families]

Muah guek [full moon party in celebration of a new born baby's first month of life]

Giving ang pows [red packets of money given from the married elders to unwed younger ones during Chinese New Year]

Cheng beng [Chinese Old Souls Day]

Going to the cemetries of our ancestors to paint the gold guild on the departed names, cooking nyonya food – we have the best taste!

I still go back to our Kee Kongsi [clanhouse] for ancestral worship, hungry ghost festival, solistic month

KatChua: Is there a present day Nyonya culture?

PearlyKee: There are very few true Nyonyas left.

But there is somewhat of a revival happening now. Even my cousin is still sewing the Nyonya sarong kebaya [traditional dress] and going to Australia for exhibitioms

But either way,I live for what I have – I have no attachment. Im just happy and proud to have been born into a Nyonya family.

Even the horrible, laborious skills – I treasure them even though it felt like a punishment then.

If not for those days, I would not have the tastebuds and feel for cooking that I have now

3 Nyonya ladies in full sarong kebaya, traditional Nyonya dress, pounding a unique cilli paste called 'sambal belacan' made with fermented shrimp paste
Are you interested to learn from the best and passionate cook? Authentic Nyonya food are well kept secrets and Pearly Kee is now sharing her hand-me-down recipes with you in our new cooking school.

Learn to cook Nyonya Food at Tropical Spice Garden today.

And you need not wait till April 23rd to register, book today as we have classes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. As what Terry and Dorothy says, it is quite an experience cooking and eating outdoors. So there you are, have lunch in our new pavilion.

Stroll down memory lane with Pearly on her website http://www.my-island-penang.com as she delves deeper into Nyonya culture and Penang – her 2 absolute passions!


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