Monday, December 9, 2013

Top Nyonya Dishes to Try

 uurrgghh.. a total lack of planning.. I thought I have more pictures than this. It seems that I only have a not so nice picture of one dish.. I'd add them as I go along when I eat them but click on the links if you want to see how they look like! Bon App├ętit! ** latest updated: managed to add new photo's from making mum cook!

Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine is something that visitors to Malaysia & Singapore (also Indonesia but I am less familiar with the variety) must try. They comprises of many speciality dishes that you just cannot find anywhere else in the world except these few specific regions. Over the different regions these dishes then vary from each other- Cooking in Penang for example would have differences to Singapore. Even within the same region the dishes will be different as every family will have their own recipe. Hence, the look and taste of these dishes may be some what different from what you see from my pictures.

If done right, real nyonya cooking have these 2 similar traits:

1. It is laborious (time consuming to prepare)
2. It is an explosion of flavours (ingredients are never few or simple)

Early Chinese settlers came in the late 15th and 16th-century to what was major ports in this part of the world- Melaka, Singapore, Penang, Java and married local spouses of local origin. A good spot to learn about the uniqueness of the Peranakan culture is the Peranakan Museum in Singapore

I find the museum well organised and pretty comprehensive. But otherwise - live it.. you can still find its legacy best kept (for me personally) in Melaka. Here is a good wiki entry to explain the Peranakan/ Nyonya Cuisine and as to not reinvent the wheel, I will not write more.

However I must add that the life of the Nyoya (women of the Peranakan communities) are pretty hard. They are stay at home housewives and life is pretty competitive to gain favour with the in-laws (monster-in-laws is a global timeless theme),  husband and the society in general. Women should be stellar cooks, great at needle work as well as all kinds of housework. If you want to marry well, you must first have all these prerequisite of a 'fine lady' (or these days a good house maid). No kidding. Because of this, the nyonya left with them a legacy of fine recipes and impressive needlework. Most of the tradition of needlework are unfortunately gone. There is the nyonya kebaya which endured perhaps thanks to Indonesia but the real hand embroidery work are hardly seen in normal daily life. 

Luckily, Malaysians and Singaporeans remain gluttons. Recipe thrived over the years and there are a number of great Nyonya restaurants around. As most traditional Nyonya dishes are incredibly time consuming to make, most people opted for modified recipes at home or just crawling to the nearest restaurant to get a fix.

The ladies on my grandmother's side comes from a lineage of Nyonya women. My mum has recipes were pass down from my grandma and aunts and friends and my mum is a pretty good cook. So, I will be a bit biased as I will be recommending what I feel are the top 3 must try distinct Nyonya dishes predominantly based on Mummy's cooking. Before you ask, nope. I don't. Plus a short list of other stuff to try which you can also get at other restaurants and street food stalls in Malaysia/Singapore as well as the nyonya version at nyonya restaurants.

Very often people in this region are passionate about their food and would argue who has the best version or where it originated from in the first place. See an example. So it may not be the best topic to discussed with locals. Good food is good food and everyone has their own taste - just try it and find your own favourite version.

1. Kueh Pie Tee

Mum's Kueh Pie Tee
Sometimes called Kueh Pati or Top Hats is a super appetizer/snack. Kueh Pie Tee is a thin and crispy pastry 'shell' filled with  thinly sliced vegetables and prawns. The shells are made of flour and the fillings are similar to popiah - a fujian version of spring rolls but that's another story, there is also the nyonya popiah but it isn't that distinctly different from the Chinese popiah which is why it is not on this list.

Anyways, Mummy's lazy to make the cups these days and they don't taste as good when store bought, so I have been missing it for some time. I will try to give her some pressure and maybe update this post with some pictures. I found this cute youtube video on how you can make the cups.. lots of work for a bite size snack. There are plenty recipes online too. Here's 1. Here's 2. But this is a 'mainstream' favourite.. I don't know anyone that doesn't like it yet.

The dish is usually an appetizer and is garnished with Monya chilli sauce (but of course) and Chinese parsley or some spring onions.. But as I may already be over emphasising everyone has their own recipe and the commonality would be the crispy cup-like shell and the main filling is sliced vegetables.

// update 15.12.13 : Managed to get mum to prepare them! So pictures are duly added. ;)

2. Acar

Acar is basically picked vegetables. Trust the Nyonyas to make it complicated. Much like the family turkey, every family has their own receipe- hence every restaurant will be different. Some spicier, some more sour and ingredients will vary. Acar Nyonya or Acar Awak is the Nyonya version which contains special local spices/sauces which count for the 'secret recipe' part. There are plenty of recipes (1,2) out there and again this is an acquired taste- everyone says their mum or grandma makes it the best.

Acar however is commonly served as a side dish to be eaten with something else. Usually it is the normal plain rice or nasi lemak, nasi kyunit etc. My favourite way of eating it is with the keropok (seafood crackers).

//I thought I have pictures for this, but I must have deleted it... and I have finished our Acar.. *sob*

3. Ayam buah keluak

Mum's Ayam Buah Keluak with rice
The first 2 dishes pale in comparison when it comes to the amount of work needed for this dish. Most people have plenty of short cuts such as buying pre-prepared buah keluak etc. But still this dish is difficult to come by due to the scarcity of its main ingredient the buah kelauk, the hard work needed and it is a bit of an acquired taste. It doesn't look enchanting like the first 2 and the taste is a tad odd.. You'd like it or you'd not.. if you do, you most probably are willing search and to pay top money for it. Like this person or try cooking it like this one.

The dish is made with chicken pieces (ayam in Malay) combined with “keluak” nuts (Pangium edule). Mum removes the fillings of the nuts and combine it with minced pork and stuff it back - but not everyone does it the same way and again cooking method will vary. Again be-warned that the taste may be odd for first timers. The dish is best eaten with plain fragrant rice as it is pretty strong and you don't need much else.

Other  dishes to try:

Nasi Lemak 

I am in love with Nasi Lemak, I like Nasi Kunyit too but again there is such a fine line of it being Malay/Indonesia food as it is to being the nyonya version.  But if you are in a nyonya restaurant, this should not put you off from trying. I always order nasi lemak. How much I like the restaurant will depend largely on its nasi lemak.

In any case Nasi Lemak is the perennial favourite Malaysian dish. You'd find it everywhere.. eaten breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper. You will find that the Malays, Chinese, Indians and Nyonyas all have their won Nasi Lemak.

Otak Otak

The Otak otak is risky... everyone makes it a bit differently again (there is so many versions!!!) and a good fresh fish makes a good otak otak obviously.. so if someone recommends it to you, by all means try - other wise try your luck because you might end up with a substandard dish because substandard ingredients were used . I prefer the grilled to steam version though.. Love the flavour that grilling the leaves leave to the otak otak. I detest those cooked in aluminium foil.. sigh.. it spoils it for me :(

Curry fish head

Mum's Curry Fish Head, cooked with curry and coconut milk

Nothing too surprising for Asians who love to eat the head of the fish- this is another regular favourite. For others it is something interesting to try - I kid you not, there is soft tender meat surrounding the head.

Cooked in curry you'd find the Malay version, Chinese version, Indian version, Nyonya version - in fact it is listed as 25 things you must eat before you die.... I wouldn't go that far though.. but it is not hard to find, so why not give it a try. Mum sometimes cook it without coconut milk, this time it was the creamy version with coconut milk cooked with aubergine and garnished with steamed ladies fingers. 

Salted Vegetable Duck Soup (Itik Tim)

So many versions again.. some are thick, some are light and everything in between.. key ingredients duck and salted vegetables. This dish is even sometimes a bit spicy.. really depending on the receipe.

Chap Chai

Mum's dish with pork meatballs

'chap chye' just literally mean mixed vegetables. So basically this is a vegetable stewed. The common ingredients is the use of fermented soy bean paste. Mum's family family recipe calls for pork meat balls which she claims is the most crucial ingredient in a vegetable dish *shrug*. Here's a nice post/recipe about making your own.

Nyonya Desserts (Nyonya Kuih)

Nyonya desserts are usually colourful cakes(kuih) which are sweet. I am not too big of a fan of sweet sticky cakes but some people swear by it. The Nyonya version is very similar to the javanese kueh though.

So enough for today.. I'd update the post if I think of anything new and definitely try and take some pictures for it! If you have a recommendation or 2 - please share ;)

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