Introduction to Nyonya Food

July 7th, 2009About52 Comments
Photo Credit: Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Penang

Photo Credit: Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Penang

Nyonya food, as the name suggested, is the food of the Baba-Nyonya in Malaysia and Singapore. Known also as the Peranakan or the Straits Chinese (Straits-born Chinese), these groups of people are descendants of the very early Chinese immigrants to the Nanyang or 南洋 in Chinese–which literally means the “south sea” region.

The origins of the Baba and Nyonya could be traced all the way back to the Chinese Admiral explorer Cheng Ho, who sailed across the Indian Ocean more than 400 years ago to Melaka, a busy and prosperous trading port back in the early 15th century.  Nanyang or 南洋 refers to the the Malay peninsula and the islands of Java.

Nyonya cuisine is generally referred to as the result of inter-marriages between the Chinese immigrants and the local Malays, which produced a unique cuisine where local ingredients such as chilies, belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste) lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, etc. are used. To assimilate to the local culture, these early days Chinese immigrants also adopted local Malay traditions–the men were called Babas and the women were called Nyonyas

Some historians argued that the inter-marriage was not necessarily the roots of the Baba-Nyonya culture; they claimed that Nyonya is a precisely a word used to describe a Chinese lady who has adopted Malay dressing and cooking while maintaining Chinese culture. This is actually a true statement; my late grandmother who was a Penang Nyonya certainly didn’t marry a local Malay man. In fact, she married my late grandfather who came all the way from China during the Qing dynasty. I heard stories from my late father that he came complete with Qing dynasty’s costume and the signature “Queue” hairstyle: half shaved head with a long pigtail. However, my late grandmother was always dressed in Nyonya kebaya and sarong, with her hair braided neatly in a bun.

Regardless of the history and origins of Nyonya food, making Nyonya food is no simple affair. The unique and highly flavorful cuisine requires abundant amount of time, patience, and skills. A true Nyonya would spend hours and hours pounding her rempah (spices) with batu giling (a flat slab of stone to grind the spices) to cook up authentic Nyonya dishes such as Perut Ikan (pickled fish stomach with vegetables stew), Salted Fish Pineapple Curry(Gulai Kiam Hu Kut in Hokkien), and other scrumptious Nyonya concoctions.

In recent years, there has been an increased interest and urgency to preserve the unique Nyonya culture and Nyonya cuisine. I started this blog to share my passion in Nyonya food. Most importantly, I would like to document the recipes and food of my childhood. I would also like to educate the world about this slowly but surely disappearing–but exceedingly beautiful–cuisine and culture.

If you are in the United States, especially if you live in the New York metro area, you might have heard about Nyonya food from the famed PENANG Malaysian Cuisine chain and its sister restaurant “NYONYA.” And yes, now you can learn more about exquisite Nyonya food and recipes on this blog.

If you are Singaporeans who loved the series “Little Nyonya,” you have come to the right place. You will be able to delve more into Peranakan culture and learn more about Nyonya cuisine here, too. And if you are my fellow Malaysians–especially if you are from Penang or Melaka and of Nyonya-Baba or Peranakan descent, I hope this blog reignite your love, passion, and bygone memories.

Now for my loyal reader at Rasa Malaysia–my hugely popular Chinese recipes, Malaysian recipes, and Asian recipes site–I hope to win your support and readership here. Please subscribe to the feeds, leave me comments, add Nyonya Food to your blogroll and links, and don’t forget to tell your friends and family about this new site.

Now, let’s discover Nyonya culture and cuisine one post at a time. Thank you!

Other Nyonya resources, websites, and blogs:

  1. Nyonya Pendek Melaka” did a great and comprehensive post about Peranakan historial beginning and culture, please check it out as she highlights some of the differences between Melaka Nyonyas and Penang Nyonyas.


52 comments... read them below or add one

  1. Adeline says:

    I am so happy that you started this website. I will come back and visit often.

  2. I am sure going to add this place to my reader as the two recipes above just look so so yummylicious.
    I am sure you will have a huge fan for this placce too.

  3. Congratulations Bee. Nyonya food is our family’s favorite. I didn’t get a chance to visit the restaurant you suggested when I was in S’pore, but we did visit House of Peranakan, Baba Inn on Frankel Ave. It was the BEST meal we had on our trip. Best of both worlds. Kudos to you for all your hard work to promote this wonderful culture. I’ll let you know when I blog about my trip to Penang and S’pore.

  4. You are a dream come true! A good friend of mine lives in Singapore with her family and her husband is Baba-Nyonya. They tried to explain some of the cultural differences, and what makes this cuisine unique while I was there, but were unable to withstand the onslaught of questions I peppered them with. I vowed to learn more, and now I have this incredible resource at my finger tips. The food in Singapore was incredible and I only touched on learning what makes each cultures unique especially when accounting for the blending of cultures.

    Thank you so much!

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Thank you for your sweet comment. Have you been to Malaysia? If not, you should go there the next time you are in that area. :)

  5. Audrey says:

    I am of no nyonya descent but definitely enjoyed nyonya food. So flavorful and unique. It’s neither chinese nor malay. Glad you opened up this site. Will have more recipes to try! Definitely nice when I miss Malaysian food.
    Was sooo ecstatically happy when I saw the Penang Malaysian restaurant at Philly!! I thought I couldn’t believe my eyes that a Malaysian restaurant made it there. Lol.
    All the best, once again. Know you can make it as good as RM.

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Audrey – You are lucky to have Penang Malaysian restaurant in Philly, I hope you come back here more.

  6. kl_changs says:

    Congrats, Bee!

    My interest was perked when I saw Nyonya Food on Rasa Malaysia. Coming from the same beautiful island as the gorgeous Bee, of course I adore Nyonya Food. Especially Penang Nyonya food : )

    There’s nothing quite like the beautiful, flavourful, complex and yet balanced taste of this sublime cuisine. I could not find anything close to my childhood dishes of Perut Ikan and Otak-otak in KL. Needless to say the search had been futile in Perth. Sigh.

    Bee, if you can find alternatives to daun kadok, I will be so grateful. It’s such an integral part of my favourite dishes.

    I’ve bookmarked your new site…and will spread the word. Thank you for sharing this passion with all of us.

    BTW, “Little Nyonya” is worth watching.

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Nothing can beat our childhood Nyonya food. Perut ikan is so good, you can only get really good ones at home.

  7. sarah says:

    congratulations on the new site!!! it’s beautiful so far, and i SO looking forward to seeing more nonya awesomeness here (and on t-spotting)

  8. Congratulations on the new site, Bee! It looks every bit as lovely and delicious as Rasa Malaysia! I’m not familiar with Nyonya cuisine, but I’m looking forward to learning more about it here. I just know I’m going to love it!

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Susan – yes, not many people are familiar with Nyonya cuisine, and that’s the very reason why I wanted to start this site. :)

  9. Thip says:

    Congratulations! Bee.
    This is such a great idea of you to preserve Nyonya cuisine. Tell the truth, I’ve never heard about it, but I do know about Penang though.

  10. troxel317 says:

    i’ve always wondered what “nyonya” came from. it’s the name of a restaurant in downtown nyc.

    this is great. im looking forward to your beautiful photos1

  11. debbie says:

    Beautiful is not enough to express my sincere feelings….I will email to all my friends overseas.For us who are not living in Penang,we should be very, very proud to have this great website,created for all who wants to learn about our Nonya food and Culture, please keep the Ball Rolling, ..the whole approach, ideas, concept is just wonderful… thank you again for sharing all with us.
    Best regards,

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Debbie – thanks for your support and your promotion of Nyonya Food. I will feature more information, recipes, photos, etc. on this site.

  12. Aleena Wee says:

    I am extremely excited to see more on this website! I am of Peranakan descent too and absolutely miss my late grandmother’s ‘itek tim’ and ‘pong teh bak’.
    I shall be adventurous and attempt to cook more nyonya food which you will be sharing with us! congrats!

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Hi Aleena – thanks for visiting. For Penang Nyonya, we don’t have itek tim and pong teh bak. I would love to learn how to make those dishes.

      • Aleena Wee says:

        Oh in that case, if I can successfully cook the ‘pong teh’, I shall share the recipe with you :)

        • Nyonya Food says:

          Yes, please share the recipe with me. I heard about pong teh many times but never tried it. Thanks in advance. :)

  13. Pat Davison says:

    Congrats on yet another step to elevate our colorful and interesting culture of Malaysia and Singapore to the international arena of food. I would imagine this site is everything Nyonya, thus my question – I would like to learn how to make their beautiful intricate kebaya tops – do you know of any sites that have that online or maybe you know how?

    thanks, I would definitely try out all your dishes.


  14. Victor says:

    What a fantastic site to promote and preserve the Peranakan culinary cuisines, culture, arts, crafts and architecture to the world. Congratulations!

  15. Tricia says:

    Congratulations Bee! Great job! Can’t wait to see all the goodies and info’s you will featuring!

  16. Ann says:

    Congratulations! I will definitely visit often.
    I’m from Peranakan descent myself and still living in Penang. Unfortunately, I did not manage to learn any Peranakan recipes from my grandmother before she passed away. I really miss dishes such as jiu hu char, curry kapitan, kiam chai ark, roti babi etc etc..YUM.

    It would be great to get authentic versions of these dishes somewhere in Penang…does anyone know where I can go to eat these please? :)

    It would be great to get recipes for dishes such as these too!

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Ann – unfortunately, the best Nyonya food is found at home. Does your family know how to cook Nyonya food. There are some Nyonya restaurants in Penang but I am not too impressed.

  17. Ce'nedra says:

    A huge congrats! I think it’s truly beautiful and admirable that you’re pursuing your life’s passion by introducing us newbies to what already seems like a stunningly complex cuisine.

  18. Anne Parry says:

    Sometimes we buy supermarket cooking sauces as a standy-by for a quick meal. One of our favourites is Sainsbury’s (UK) Nonya lime. I don’t know how authentic it is but it’s wonderful with prawns and it piqued our curiosity about Nonya recipes. I’m so glad to have found your blog.
    Best wishes, Anne

  19. Selina says:

    I also love nyonya food very much, especially the nyonya dumpling. Do you know any nyonya class in Melaka? I am looking some one who can share or teach to cook nyonya food.

  20. eryn says:

    just wondering,
    Is it true that peranakans do not drink tea as their tea time but drink milo?

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Well, in my family, we hardly drink tea, but we do love milo, and yes, whenever we were hungry, mother would make milo drink.

  21. Irene Swanberg says:

    Glad to have stumbled upon your website! I am a fellow Penangite living in Seattle, Wa. I heard about the Penang restaurant in NYC and stopped by for dinner last year while I was there. Pretty good. When I lived NYC, the only great Penang restaurant was out in Flushing Meadows, Queens! We have a good Malaysian Restaurant here in the Seattle area too. Sometimes when you have been away from “home” for so long (almost 30 years), any closely related Malaysian restaurant taste “good”. It’s only when you return to Penang and start eating the real Penang food that you realized how much different it tastes! Thanks for this great website and great memories the website is stoking!

    • Nyonya Food says:

      Irene – I agree. When you go back to Penang and get the real taste, then you realize how bad the Malaysian food in the US is.

      • jeannee says:

        So true. I live in NY and I don’t go to Penang restaurants here because the tasted has been watered down to cater the Canto-HK-Fujianese that cannot eat spicy food.

  22. Sharon Loh says:

    I’ve eaten the Ayam Buah Keluak and have always wanted to cook the Ayam Buah Keluak dish but not sure where to get this Buah Keluak ingredients. Getting this ingredient is not easy here in Selangor.

    • Nyonya Food says:

      I have never tried ayam buah keluak because it’s more a Melaka Nyonya dish. It’s not common in Penang Nyonya food.

  23. Chia says:

    I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed! Quite dangerous though, coz it’ll only make me hungry and homesick! I never realized that all my mum’s dishes were Nyonya dishes, I always just assumed they were common Malaysian Chinese dishes… I miss otak otak and good sambal belacan!

  24. gto says:

    hey, i was wondering if anyone knows where to get nyonya dumplings in the US, in particular ard NYC or Chicago

  25. Nate says:

    Glad you started this. I spent a year traveling throughout Southeast Asia and some of the best food I ate on that trip was the Nonya food in Melaka. On that trip I also made efforts to seek out the Chinese population wherever possible in hopes to learn about their life in their new home. In Melaka the most interesting place was the “chinese” cemetary. Instead of the Gregorian calender system we use now, the headstones had dates that denote the “dynasty” (and then lunar calender) from which the deceased lived (and died).

    I had high hopes for Penang and timed my visit for Chinese New year. But that was a mistake as most all ethnically Chinese owned business closed for the week.

    Thanks for sparking some great memories.


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