Penang, Day 3: Nyonya Baba Cuisine

8 Sep

Another thing that Penang is famous for is Nonya (Nyonya/Baba-Nonya) cooking. I had never heard of Nonya until I visited Singapore six years ago on my honeymoon, although it’s well-known in Southeast Asian circles. (There’s even a brand of cooking sauces called Mak Nyonya, in case you don’t have any Nyonyas nearby to cook for you.) Baba-Nyonya literally means something like “grandpa and grandma” and refers to people of the Peranakan culture, a fascinating blending of Straits Chinese and Malay that arose when Chinese (mostly Hokkien) started settling the areas along the Straits of Malacca — including Penang, Malacca/Melaka, Singapore, etc. — in the 15th and 16th centuries and began to trade and intermarry with the Malays. Peranankan culture is notable for its love of ornamentation, from richly carved furniture to porcelain to intricate beadwork (even their tupperware is fabulous), its elaborate rituals (weddings were supposed 30 days, with a different outfit mandated for each week — take that, Indians!), and of course, its food.

As impressive as the furniture is, it doesn’t really fit my decor (which could be charitably described as Ikea casual), and I don’t have many occasions to rock an elaborately embroidered kebaya. But I’m always up for a good meal. (And a lot of people agree with me. “Nyonya food” came up with about 240,000 results.) Oddly, for being such a bastion of Nyonya culture, Penang does not have very many restaurants that specialize in Nyonya cooking; only two were listed in the Lonely Planet.

The entrance to Nyonya Baba Cuisine. (No, that's not what the Chinese characters read.)

We went to Nyonya Baba Cuisine (without getting lost, a minor miracle in Malaysia), which we found out is kinda famous. Not only has it been featured in Lonely Planet for, like, seven years straight, it was also the official food consultant for a Singaporean drama called “The Little Nyonya.” And Anthony Bourdain went there! So that makes two things that we have in common. Nyonya food seems to have a lot of nostalgic connotations for Malaysians and Singaporeans, and fittingly, Nyonya Baba Cuisine is truly family-run; the current owner, Khoo Siew Eng, took over the restaurant from her aunt, and she and her husband were doing the bulk of the cooking (and table-waiting) the night we were there. Even the recipes are inherited from their grandmothers.

As is so often the case eating out in Malaysia, I found myself wishing I was hungrier, or that we had more people eating with us, so we could order more of the intriguing items on the long menu. Alas, it was just Tom and myself, our vacation buddies having gone to eat at a restaurant shaped like a ship. (It’s called “The Ship.” They have kids, okay?) We were still able to get a decent sample.

Otak-otak is a famous Nyonya dish. It’s a fish mousse that’s either steamed (as above, a Penang thing, apparently) or grilled in banana leaves. The fish meat is blended with a top-secret mixture of herbs and spices; I noted the strong presence of kaffir lime and lemongrass, which left a fresh aftertaste. I think there was also chili. My favorite dish of the meal.

Shrimp with chili paste, or sambal undang. The menu called it “curried prawns,” but that’s not really accurate. Sambals, like moles and barbecue sauce, are best homemade, and usually tweaked to match the dish that’s being prepared, but most often have some combination of chili, garlic, and common SE Asian spices like ginger and lemongrass. I guess it’s a little bit like Thai curries, but not so soupy. This was Tom’s favorite.

Nyonyas did not assimilate the Muslim part of Malay culture, so pork is a major ingredient in Nyonya cooking. The above is a spring roll, stuffed with a tasty minced pork mixture, and a pork roll, which as far as I could tell was a different pork mince wrapped in a pork loin, and fried. No one ever said Nyonya was healthy.

For the sake of balance, we ordered some vegetables. We were going to order the salad, then found out that it was a salad of mostly shrimp and seafood. Instead we got Ju Hu Char (described as “Nyonya vegetables,”) a mixture of jicama, carrot, and green onion, cooked with dried cuttlefish. (The owner enthusiastically explained, “You taste that fishy taste? It’s dried squid!”) “Fishy” isn’t a pejorative here as it is in the west, at least when it comes to food. I would describe it more as a briny aroma. It was my first time having jicama cooked. I was surprised that it tasted a lot like a dish that my (Japanese) grandma makes with dried daikon. Tom agreed that it tasted very Japanese.

If you get a chance to taste Nyonya cooking — there are restaurants popping up in places with Malaysian communities, like New York, London, and Australia — I highly recommend it. Everything I tried was a completely new (and delicious) experience, yet there was a real homeyness to the meal. Like the world’s most exotic comfort food. Which I guess describes the best of Malaysian cooking.

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4 Responses to “Penang, Day 3: Nyonya Baba Cuisine”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Road Trip: Malacca « Straight Out of Kampung - October 16, 2010

    […] and charm (and is a UNESCO World Heritage city). Also like Penang, Malacca is known for Nyonya cooking, as well as a distinctive Portuguese fusion cuisine. But we didn’t try any of those, because […]

  2. Penang’s Best Char Kway Teow « Straight Out of Kampung - February 28, 2011

    […] and I was bemoaning to a fellow guest about how I hadn’t had a chance to eat any Penang specialties on this trip. Being Malaysian, she told me where I could find the best char kway teow on the island […]

  3. Cambodia, Part 2: Real Food « Straight Out of Kampung - July 30, 2011

    […] in banana leaf cups, but for ease, our version was cooked in a pan. The flavor is similar to otak-otak, the Nyonya steamed fish cake, but a lot less […]

  4. Nasi Lemak: The Food and The Film « Straight Out of Kampung - January 30, 2012

    […] curries of the Indian community, to the rice of the Malay villages, to the sambal of the Chinese Nyonyas, demonstrating how all the cultural traditions have come together to create this satu Malaysia […]

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