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.