Nyonya food draws its complex and rich flavours from the combination of staple ingredients in typical Chinese kitchens like fermented beans and soy sauce with explosive Southeast Asian staples like lemongrass, galangal, turmeric and coriander. These traditional recipes are perfected over the centuries but until this day, there are no exact measurements to any Nyonya dish you could pinpoint.
There are many distinctions when it comes to this cuisine; one being geography and the other heritage. The Peranakans from the south (Melaka, Singapore and Indonesia) have Javanese influences in their cooking – resulting in very creamy, sweet and savoury flavours. In the north, Siamese influences infuse Nyonya cooking in Penang and Kedah with strong punchy flavours that are both spicy and tangy.
Nyonyas cook with their instincts and an ‘agak-agak’ concept where everything is somewhat estimated. It takes a lot of precision, patience and experience to be able to cook a dish that is balance and has all the right flavours in a Peranakan dish. From the use of tamarind to belachan, chilli and gula Melaka, Peranakan food has to have a good mix of zing, umami, sourness, saltiness and sweetness.
Some Peranakan dishes feature unique ingredients like buah keluak, a black nut from the Kepayang tree that is cooked in a spicy rempah with chicken or pork ribs. Other all-time favourites comprise Nyonya laksa, ayam pong teh (fermented bean chicken stew), ikan gerang asam (fish in tangy piquant broth) as well as itik tim (duck soup with salted vegetables).
Peranakans are very protective of their food as well. You may find many being harsh food critics simply because of their overly developed (and spoilt) taste buds from all the delicious matriarchal cooking at home. However, this cuisine is a dying one. Before Peranakan cuisine is wiped off completely from the food scene in Kuala Lumpur, here are five places in the city where you can still find delicious and authentic Nyonya food.
Aunty Lee started in Melaka since 1997 and over the years has built a great following of gourmands from Johor, Kuala Lumpur and even Singapore. After two decades, Melaka-born Chef Anthony (who has taken over since the passing of the original Aunty Lee in 2016) has finally decided to open in KL; outside of the historic city for the first time. On the menu is the ubiquitous Ikan Cili Garam (salted chili paste on deep-fried fish) that has been on Aunty Lee’s menu for over 20 years. One must also try the Udang Masak Lemak (prawns in pineapple and coconut gravy as well as the Cincalok Omelette (fried egg with fermented krills).
Restaurant Aunty Lee, E-G-10, Plaza Arkadia, Desa Parkcity, 52200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603 6411 2812
76 year-old Baba John is the resident cook in one of the most authentic Nyonya restaurants in town. Diners will be delighted to enjoy delicious home-style cooking like ayam pong teh, ikan gerang asam, okra with sambal belachan and pie tee. Baba John also recommends the Nyonya Laksa, which he’d proudly say is the best in town — a family recipe that he has perfected over the years. The Nyonya laksa is thick and creamy, with piquant flavours of chilli and turmeric, perfumed with daun kesom (Vietnamese mint).
Limapulo: Baba Can Cook, 50, Jalan Doraisamy, Chow Kit, 50300 Kuala Lumpur, +603-2698 3268
Shelley Yu’s joined the Bangsar restaurant scene in 2016, offering a modern touch to traditional Nyonya food with a menu of artisanal cocktails. The interiors are curated with vibrant Peranakan influences especially the bright and colourful flowers and glossy tiles on the walls and bar counter. Indulge in their signature prawn Pie Tee, Ikan Goreng Chili, Nyonya Curry and their Sotong Sambal Petai — best eaten with white rice and come with a choice of classic condiments like sambal belachan and cencalok. Wash it down with their homemade Sago Gula Melaka that’s topped with strips of fresh mango.
Shelley Yu’s, 49 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, +603-2201 4139
Located inside Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market, Precious Old China is the go-to place for a hearty serving of Nyonya food. The restaurant boasts a serious collection of antique furniture and decor with intricate vases, marble tables, Chinese apothecary cabinets as well as a 1925 portrait of Dr. Sun Yat Sen lining the restaurant. The menu is extensively curated for a full-fledge dinner course or even for an afternoon snack. If you’re up for something light, go for the Nyonya laksa or mee Siam (bubur cha cha if you fancy something sweet). Otherwise, family dinners will be perfect with classic Peranakan dishes such as lemak nenas prawn, belachan pucuk paku, ayam pong teh, itik tim, ayam buah keluak and bitter gourd masak lemak.
Precious Old China, Lot 2, Mezzanine Floor, Central Market,, Jalan Hang Kasturi, 50050 Kuala Lumpur, +603-2273 7372
Little Heritage House is where you can find a proper tok panjang (a long rectangular dining table synonymous to traditional Peranakan families). The restaurant’s decor gives you a good reference of Peranakan culture with wooden carvings and antique furniture that are truly rare in today’s modern context. Come empty stomach because there are a lot to try from the menu that is more Penang-inspired. First timers should try the Kiam Chye Arc (duck soup), perut ikan (fish maw in curried sauce), kari kapitan (chicken curry), steamed otak otak and the lor bak (meat roll). Order a bowl (or two) of their signature cendol for a refreshing end to your meal.
Little Heritage House, 23, Jalan 17/56, Seksyen 17, 46400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, +603 7932 1810