Last Update: September 2020
4 minute read
First things first, whenever I mention Peranakan food or Nyonya food, they are actually the same. It’s just two different names for the fusion between Chinese and Malay cuisine and cooking techniques. As a result this passionate love triangle produced some of the best tasting and creative dishes to be found in South East Asia.
Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and in particular George Town on Penang Island are the major foodie towns to find the best Peranakan and Nyonya food.
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History of Peranakan and Nyonya food
From the 15th to the 17th century, Chinese immigrants moved to what is nowadays Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The immigrants brought their cuisine, recipes and cooking techniques, but had to replace some of the original ingredients with local substitutes. At the same time, they also developed a palate for the food of their new home, which stimulated fusion cooking.
Over time the original Malay people really started to appreciate the new cuisine. Nowadays, Peranakan and Nyonya cuisine is part of the cultural heritage and readily available for us all to enjoy.
The word “Peranakan” means “descendant” and is said to come from the Malay/Indonesian word “anak”, meaning “child”. The Chinese immigrants addressed themselves as “Baba Nyonya”, with “Baba” being the Malaysian title for “man” and “Nyonya” for “woman’. In those days, cooking was the woman’s responsibility. Hence, the term “Nyonya cuisine”.
Moreover, the terms Peranakan and Nyonya are not limited to the cuisine alone, but cover all aspects of the new and adapted immigrants.
Famous Peranakan and Nyonya food
Depending on where you eat it, Peranakan cuisine will taste different. First of all, every chef (or Nyonya) has his (or her) own interpretation of a dish. Second, recipes are not registered or written down like with some of the French classical dishes. Furthermore, flavors are very much influenced by the region due to the local palate and the availability of ingredients.
Pongteh is usually made with babi (pork), but the dish is also popular substituted with ayam (chicken). The babi or ayam is braised together with potatoes and sometimes fried cubes of tofu or mushroom in a mix of taucu (fermented soy bean paste), light and dark soy sauce and gula malaka (palm sugar). Spices like cinnamon and star anise can be added for extra flavor. The dish is mildly salty and sweet and served with steamed rice.
Noodle soup is probably the single most eaten dish in South East Asia. Every country and/or region has its own version with Laksa being the Peranakan style. To add to confusion I have to mention that Laksa itself also comes in multiple variations. For the sake of simplicity I’ll only describe the two most distinctive.
Laksa consists of either wheat or rice noodles. Strips of any kind of meat are added, along with prawns, fish, vegetables and whatever. The whole is then covered in a spicy broth. In Northern Malaysia the broth is usually served “asam” (sour). This is in line with Thai influences and the availability of local ingredients (tamarind). However, in the South, under Indonesian influence, they will rather serve you a “laksa lemak” with a lot of coconut milk.
Where to eat Peranakan and Nyonya food
There are hundreds of Peranakan and Nyonya food dishes to try. If you’re lucky there’s a Peranakan restaurant in your town. However, the best place to try is of course in Singapore and/or Malaysia. Eateries are scattered all over the country with the largest concentrations in George Town on Penang Island and in Kuala Lumpur.
It’s a shame that often when good eateries are hyped the quality drops, portions get smaller, prices inflate. To monetize the bigger crowds, customers are rushed and food is pre-prepared only to be served cold. So, my advice is to stay away from the big names. You’re better off at the restaurants from my list below. Thank me later.
Just Nyonya An exception to the rule of “good eateries gone bad” is Just Nyonya. They don’t shy away from the traditional Peranakan dishes like chicken kapitan curry, chicken pongteh and spicy ikan perut. Therefore, Just Nyonya is an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with Peranakan classics.
Tanjung Bunga Very inconspicuous restaurant as seen from the outside, but they serve delicious authentic Nyonya food Penang style. The daughters took over from mom and pop, but they carry on with the traditional recipes. The fact that the restaurant is very popular with the senior crowd of Kuala Lumpur only validates the quality. After all, they know authentic Nyonya food best.
George Town, Penang
Mum’s Nyonya Cuisine This restaurant proves that Mum’s cooking is always best. The beef rendang is fantastic and made me remember that rendang was once elected the most tasty dish in the world. But you have to cook it right, and Mum certainly does. They also serve a great selection of delicious Nyonya desserts, give it a try.
Nyonya Su Pei private dining This is a special one. Nyonya Su Pei and Baba Jerry host Peranakan dinners in their private home. It’s a bit pricey and there is no menu, you have to eat what they serve. In return, they serve you with a copious, high quality dinner accompanied by interesting explanations on Peranakan culture and food. They have limited openings so you need to make a reservation. Phone: +60 164 106 116.
Have you ever tried Peranakan and Nyonya food? What is your favorite Nyonya dish? Let us know in the comments below. My favorite is the laksa lemak, spicy and with lots of curry.