Peranakan/Nyonya Dinner 1

_6004614.jpgIn the last few blogs, I posted about traditional Chinese dinners and banquets, meals that exude a level of refinement and a level of cooking that is indicative of top-quality Far Eastern cuisine.  However, in this blog, I will be writing about a Peranakan or Nyonya meal that my family members and I enjoyed during our brief reunion in Malaysia, while on a side trip to the beautiful northern island of Penang.

Penang was part of the Straits Settlement, a trio of port-cities that were run by the British for a couple centuries beginning in the late 18th century.  One of the settlements is the port of Malacca, which my father hails from.  In all three ports, Singapore being the last, Chinese immigrants moved to this part of Southeast Asia for commercial opportunities beginning in the early 15th.  Before then, these men were transient and returned to China, but in time, Chinese traders decided to set up homes in the tropics and some married the local womenfolk, producing the germinal stage for the Peranakan or Baba/Nyonya culture.  At a certain point in history, China issued edicts that prohibited the movement of traders between the two countries, thus forcing them to claim these Southeast Asian ports as their home.  In my estimation, the Peranakan culture is probably the first hybrid cultures in the world, before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas and before the existence of the Mestizo culture.  In this posting, I will be describing dishes from my subculture, eaten at Ivy’s Place, located in Georgetown, Penang, while pointing out its differences to pure Chinese cuisine, and the various influences to the cuisine derived from a new Southeast Asian environment.

Loh Bak/Nyonya Meat Rolls

1) Lo Bak: Very few dishes in the cuisine qualify as appetizers but only one in particular can claim such reputation, Kueh Pie Tee (see blog).  However, Lo Bak is close to being called one since it is a light bite.  Soybean skin have been stuffed with a minced pork mixture, mixed with crunchy water chestnuts, and seasoned with aromatic 5-spice powder (cinnamon, coriander seed, star-anise, bay leaf, and allspice).  The side of sour chili sauce. a non-Chinese condiment, is the perfect accompaniment to these fragrant meaty bites.  This dish brought back memories of enjoying these tasty morsels in local coffee shops for breakfast or lunch.

Otak-Otak/Steamed Fish Cake2) Otak-Otak: This quintessential Nyonya dish is found in all Peranakan communities.  Minced Spanish Mackerel is mixed with rich coconut milk, aromatic root herbs like galangal, turmeric root, and lemongrass, and made fragrant with Kaffir lime leaves and turmeric leaves.  This mixture is spooned into fresh banana leaves and steamed until slightly firm.  Here we see the use of purely Southeast Asian ingredients and seasonings.  This concoction was a favorite of ours made by my paternal grandmother, and eating it was definitely a trip down gastronomic memory lane.  However, the kitchen ran out of these parcels and all we got was a small but delicious taste – what a pity.




Itek Tim/Sour Duck Soup3) Itek Tim:  This is one of the few clear soups found in a cuisine which tends to have heavier sauces instead.  Pieces of duck and Chinese Pickled Mustard Green have been boiled together to produce a slightly sour soup enriched by the strong-flavored poultry.  I remember this dish being served on auspicious days like marriages and Lunar New Year.  Unfortunately, this version was not as good as grandma’s (we compare dishes to the home version like Italians do) who used Tamarind slices to add more of a sour punch, a few chilis for some heat (Southeast Asian sensibility here), and a shot of brandy to counteract any strong fowl flavor (excuse the pun).  No doubt, the latter version was a hit in our household. Note:  Soups are not considered a separate course, thus it is savored continuously throughout the meal.



Inchi Kabin/Nyonya Fried Chicken

4) Inchi Kabin:  The peculiar name of this dish is perhaps derived when the cook in the ships would call the sailor or Captain (Encik/Inchi) from the cabin (Kabin) down for the meal when the chicken was ready.  It is basically a twice-fried chicken seasoned with mild aromatics and matched with a sauce that includes Worcestershire sauce.  Its mild nature and the use of the English seasoning are telltale signs that this dish is an adaptation for the Western palate, most likely British since they ran Penang island for a long period of time.

Ayam Kapitan/Nyonya Braised Chicken

5) Ayam Kapitan: This aromatic chicken stew is much milder than the local chicken curries, but not short in flavor.  The interesting name (Kapitan meaning Captain) and its mild flavor again points to locals modifying the nature of typical dishes to suit the taste needs of  Westerners that employed them in their households.  Many Peranakan men and women worked for the British in their offices or as part of the house staff.  This is more of a Penang Nyonya dish, thus a bit of a novelty for my family during the meal.

Sengkuang Goreng/Stif-fried Jicama

6) Sengkuang Goreng:  Here we have Jicama stir-fried with dried shrimps and Chinese mushrooms, seasoned with some light soy and darkened with some dark soy.  Jicama is indigenous to Mexico and it was brought to Southeast Asia by the Spanish conquistadores  when they arrived in the Philippine islands.  This northern dish was new for me, and I enjoyed savoring it as a wrap with lettuce leaves.

Asam Ikan/Hot and Sour Fish Stew

7) Asam Ikan:  It would be amiss to savor Peranakan cuisine without ordering this quintessential dish.  Fish steaks have been poached in a soup made aromatic from lemongrass and galangal, spicy from some chili, and sour from tamarind.  The topping of fresh mint and torch ginger flower (Bunga Kantan) adds a level of herbaceousness that makes this fish stew completely irresistible.  The pieces of fresh tomato added to the soup’s sour quality, and the al dente okra added some textural contrast.  This stew brought back memories of home dinners when it was served weekly during the 8 to 10 dish dinners that we grew up on.

Asam Udang/Tamarind Shrimp

8) Asam Udang:  Whole prawns have been marinated in tamarind paste and some sugar, providing a slightly sweet and sour element to the mild sweet shrimp meat.  Although I am used to the stewed version that we grew up on, I enjoyed this grilled version that made the shells crispy and completely edible.  Similar treatment to pork belly was also a favorite in our family meals while growing up.

Bubur Pulut Hitam/Purple Rice Pudding & Coconut Milk9) Bubur Pulut Hitam:  This rice pudding is made with purple glutinous rice cooked with Pandan leaf (“Asian Vanilla”) and topped with a tropical touch of salty coconut cream.  This was always a favorite of my family, and it was eaten both hot or cold at anytime of the day or night.  A great end to this meal.

The dishes in this meal represent the essence of the Peranakan culture pointing to the assimilation of Southeast Asian ingredients and seasonings with a Chinese taste palate.  This is evident from the use of coconut milk, tropical root aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric,  the use of spicy chili peppers and sour tamarind, the use of herbs like mint, pandan leaf and torch ginger flower, the affinity for Jicama/Sengkuang (although originally from Mexico), and the balance of flavors mixing the sour, spicy, sweet, and salty.  Yes, this food is indeed very complex in its flavor profile and equally time-consuming in cooking and realizing the final product; I know this too well since I used to watch both my grandmothers prepare the all-important large dinners starting in the wee hours of the morning.  But this meal sitting was very rewarding on many levels, and we must have attacked the dishes like wandering gastronomes returning to something familiar and extremely soul-stirring.  Despite all the culinary wanderlust within, this meal was the much needed homecoming for me and my family members, food wise and location.  We just cannot get enough of this wonderful yet little-known cuisine.  Hopefully, you will get to try some of its dishes, and then you will understand.

Watch a brief video on Peranakan Culture.

Malaysian Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner1

Fresh Fish at the Morning MarketMan cannot live on Noodles and Rice Dishes alone (see last blog), at least not for most Malaysians. Malaysia sits on a geographically strategic location in which historically it has received influences from different parts of the world due to trade from all directions and also stemming from being part of various empires, notably the South Indian Cholan and the Indonesian Srijavan empires, as well as its position as a Chinese vassal state for many centuries. Blessed with humid tropical climate in which literally anything will grow just by placing it in the soil, Malaysia is abundant with vegetables, fruits and herbs/spices that are incorporated into the cooking of an equally abundance of seafood, poultry and meat. Needless to say, Malaysian food is full-flavored, unique, and rather exotic even to some fellow Malaysians themselves. Here are the different breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes that I managed to delight in during my recent visit to this part of the world.

Roti Chanai/Indian Pastry 1) Roti Chanai – This South Indian dish is a breakfast staple not only for the Indian community but for most Malaysians. Layers of finely stretched dough have been separated by clarified butter or margarine, much like an Asian version of Puff Pastry. After spending time on the flat griddle, it is usually served with some cooked dahl lentils and a light vegetable or fish curry. This dish brings back memories of stopping by roadside shacks and having this along with some hot pulled tea. A spicy start to the morning.

Ayam Buah Keluak/Peranakan Chicken Stew2) Ayam Buah Keluak – This dish is quite exotic even for some of my relatives as it hails from the Melaka Peranakan culture that traces its roots to Chinese migration to the area beginning in the 15th century. It is a stew that pairs chicken with the Keluak seed that grows in the island of Java. The seed is toxic in the raw form, but it produces a dark chocolate-like flesh after being cooked for some time. It can also be cooked with pork ribs, which my family prefers, or a firm flesh fish. I relish eating it when I am visiting my family since I do not get it anywhere else. This is soul food for me, despite its odd sounding description.

Asam Ikan/Spicy Sour Fish Stew

3) Asam Ikan – Again, like the above, this dish has its roots in the Peranakan culture, a subculture minority group that my family belongs to. It is fish that has been quickly simmered in a spicy and sour gravy made with tamarind along with a myriad of fragrant herbs and spices. The use of okra (Malaysia – “lady’s fingers”) is customary as well as eggplant at times. This reminds me of our weekly serving of this dish as I was growing up with my grandmothers, and the sipping of the sauce which we could not get enough of. Spicy and Sour flavors dominate many Peranakan dishes, as in this one.


4) Pongteh – A classic Peranakan dish. Pieces of Belly Pork are paired with potato and simmered in a rich fermented soybean paste sauce that is made fragrant with tons of shallots and garlic. This dish takes on many variations according to the cook – my paternal grandmother used to add bamboo shoots, and my maternal grandmother Chinese mushrooms. This was the must-cook dish that we were served by my auntie when we used to go down to visit her in my father’s village in Melaka. The dish brings back lots of memories and nostalgia when it is in my presence.

Yau Chow Kwai/Deep Fried Dough

5) Yau Chow Kwai/Deep-Fried Dough – This breakfast dish literally translates as “Deep-fried Devils” since it resembles someone squirming in pain as the dough puffs and grows in the hot oil during the frying. This is a typical Chinese breakfast staple that is usually bought at the morning markets in the various neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur, much like a slightly salty churro. The crispy exterior and soft inside make it the perfect vehicle for dunking into some strong chicory-brewed coffee. Another favorite way of eating it is by slathering some coconut jam (Kaya) on it. Or it is just perfect as it is.

Sambal Ikan/Fish with Chili Paste 6)Sambal Ikan – Again, this fish dish hails from the Peranakan culture, which shares a close affinity with the Malay group. Here we see a Malay style dish in which fish, in this case fresh mackerel, are fried with a spicy concoction of dried chilies, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, and candlenuts to produce quite a fragrant and fiery dish. The use of tamarind in the paste adds the sourness to elevate the dish beyond piquancy. I can recall my grandmother eating this with her hand, the traditional way, as she pried the rather firm flesh away from the whole fish.

Woo Tau Koh/Steamed Taro Cake

7) Woo Tau Koh/Steamed Taro Cake – Another Chinese (Hokkien) breakfast staple. It is basically taro root (“yam” in Malaysia) that has been steamed with a flour mixture to produce a smooth potato-like savory cake. The seasonings are fried dried shrimp and shallots, with a topping of sweet hoisin and spicy chili sauces. Like most breakfast, this can be bought at the neighborhood morning market, which my mother would do on her frequent trips during the week.

Chinese Crispy Fried Chicken8) Chinese Crispy Fried Chicken – this sumptuous poultry dish is the result of a whole chicken that has been evenly wok-fried to produce a crispy skin while keeping the meat moist and succulent. It is customarily served with both a white pepper/salt combination and a sweet plum sauce. The clouds of prawn crackers around it mimic the same crispness of the chicken skin. This is definitely restaurant fare and I thoroughly enjoyed it with my uncle’s and cousin’s families.


Steamed Fish



9) Steamed Fish – Seafood plays a prominent role in Southeast Asian diet, especially the fresh kind. Matter of fact, no one buys any of the frozen kind, maybe the odd foreigner living there. One of my joys of going back to Malaysia is to go to the open markets and look at the abundance of seafood that come from the local waters. The Chinese prefer to have their fish simply steamed with a few aromatics like ginger and green onions, along with a light sauce made of soy sauce, sesame oil, and some rice wine – this was the case with this dish when I sampled it.



Chili Crab10) Chili Crab – this is the classic way of cooking this crustacean that has become a signature dish of the region. When I visited a seafood restaurant with my uncle and cousin, there were large tanks of seafood being displayed from which the live creatures were scooped up and whisked off to the kitchen. Everything served in that restaurant was alive just a few minutes before. The crabs here are cooked in a slightly spicy and sweet sauce that is enriched by the use of egg. Upon service, it is customary to lick off the delectable sauce from the shells before breaking them open to get to the sweet flesh. A side order of bread is provided to mop up every drop of that wonderful sauce.

Poh Piah/Fresh Spring Rolls

11) Poh Piah/Fresh Spring Rolls – My maternal grandmother used to make this labor-intensive dish for our Saturday lunches. On this trip, my auntie was gracious enough to cater to my request for this dish that traces its roots to the immigrants from the Fujian region of China. It is basically a fresh spring roll that is not deep-fried like the version most people know. The skin is a very thin sheet of dough that is completely cooked, and it is stuffed with cooked jicama along with some Chinese sausage and pieces of cooked shrimp, and the occasional crabmeat. The sweet sauce and chili paste on the other end of the crepe acts as the glue to seal the roll. I remember as kids, we would hold a competition to see how many we could roll without breakage and how many we could scoff our faces with. Unfortunately, I’m not able to consume as many, but not without the same amount of joy of yesteryear.

Hai Chou/Pork and Seafood Balls12) Hai Chou/Fried Pork, Fish and Shrimp Balls – During this last trip, I wanted to document some recipes that my maternal grandmother used to cook for us with the help of my auntie. One of the dishes was this surf and turf dish. It is basically meatballs consisting of minced pork, minced fish, and diced shrimp that have been rolled up into large sheets of tofu skin, steamed, and deep-fried. The use of cilantro, carrots, green onions, and water chestnuts adds crunch and fresh fragrance to the dish. It is customary to serve them with a sour chili sauce that cuts through the rich-tasting morsels. Eating this dish immediately erased its absence of 25 years from my diet since my grandmother last prepared it.


Leong Yee/Stuffed Fish13) Leong Yee/Stuffed Fish – Another dish that was on my list of documenting my grandmother’s recipes was this fish dish. A delicate process has to be taken to remove the spine without tearing the fillets while keeping them intact on the fish. The fillets are scrapped of the flesh, minced with some pork, mixed with aromatics, then stuffed back into the fish cavity, and fried until fully cooked. The whole fish is simmered in a soybean paste, garlic and ginger sauce until it is tender and has absorbed its savory flavors. Like the above offering, tasting this took me back 25 years when I last had this dish when grandma was still alive. Lots of memories, indeed.

A second installment on the rest of the dishes will follow soon. Hopefully, this blog has whet your appetite for more Malaysian delicacies and the myriad of wonderful dishes.