It took me 4 hours to prepare and cook tonight’s dinner. A long process but worth it. Nyonya cooking is traditional to Penang, Melaka and Singapore dating back to the Ming Dynasty. During that time, China expanded their economy and global trade stimulated by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch in the 16th century. The Straits of Malacca was a busy straits between the West and the East, trading anything from spices to textile, food crops, animals, plants, coffee beans, precious metals such as silver and many other items. The 3 ports – Penang, Malacca and Sinpaore, were very important and strategic to the spice trade.
The Malaysian history chronicle a diplomatic relationship with China during the spice trade that the Chinese Emperor betrothed his own daughter, Princess Hang Li Po to the Sultan of Malacca. Accompanying the princess was her entourage of about 500 who formed the first permanent Chinese settlement in Malacca. The Chinese assimilated into the Malay culture and soon wedded the local Malays. The interwoven marriage is known as Peranakan, or Straits Chinese. The Straits Chinese eventually spread to Penang and Singapore. However, there has been other account that the Chinese settlers in Penang came from an existing community in Kedah (a northern state) with their leader, called a “Kapitan Cina”, being Koh Lay Huan, a Baba himself. “Baba” is a term given for the man who is a descendant of the Peranakan, whereas a “Nyonya” refers to the lady. The arrival of “Kapitan Cina” and other Chinese settlers to Penang was a result of the British who opened up the Penang port as a free port.
This unique culture is affectionately known as “Nyonya” or “Peranakan”. The community is small. There is a renewed interest in the culture in Penang. It is colourful and rich in heritage – food, clothing, artwork, building architecture and language. The food is Chinese style cooking infused with Malay and Indian spices. Lemongrass, turmeric, chilies, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind, dried shrimps, shrimp paste “belachan” are common ingredients used in Nyonya cooking. “Sambal” or chili paste is a must in Nyonya food.
Belachan comes in block and is available at most Asian supermarket. It needs to be toasted and then grounded before adding to the chili paste, or dishes.
In Nyonya cooking, everything is done from scratch – from the preparation of ingredients to toasting the belachan and pounding the spices using mortar and pestle. The reason that this style of cooking is slowly dying in Penang is that it takes a lot of time to prepare Nyonya food. Time has changed. The percentage of women has a full time job, rather than working as a traditional housewife. No one has the time to go through the process of making spices from scratch when it is so convenient to buy the spices at the wet market, or using a blender, or eat at a restaurant. Cooking after work is becoming a chores. Weekend becomes a family activity or social activity with friends. Women are spending less time in the kitchen.
It took me most of the afternoon to cook today. I started with the preparation of making my belachan. Sliced the block of belachan into 1 cm thick. Then pan fried until the belachan slices were nicely toasted. I did this at the back of my house. Beware. Never toast the belachan inside the house unless you want your kitchen and the rest of your house to smell like stale carcasses for several days! Yes, belachan stinks. Not everyone can tolerate the smell. I always toast the belachan in the colder weather. Why? To avoid hundreds of flies. The smell somehow can attract all the flies from nowhere. That is the power of belachan scent. But, it sure tastes good in combination with other spice ingredients and chilies. It is the essence of Nyonya cuisine.
This is how my toasted belachan looks like after I have slightly grind using a mortar and pestle. Looks like brown sands.
The next thing I did was making my “sambal belachan”. It is very easy. There are several versions, using different ingredients. But, a must is chili and belachan, of course. And, really that is all you need. For my version, which is a typical one, I used 6 fresh red chilies, 1 clove garlic, 2 teaspoons belachan and a sprinkle of sea salt. I have some kumquat fruits on my kumquat tree. I squeezed some fresh kumquat juice at the end of the process.
Another version of sambal I made this afternoon to accompany my nyonya chicken curry is a traditional “Sambal Heh Bee” – made with dried shrimps.
I used 1 lemongrass, 4 fresh red chilies, 6 shallots, 2 garlic cloves. Pounded the ingredients using mortar and pestle, then wok fry until fragrant before adding in pre-washed dried shrimps with a bit of sugar.
Finally, I made my nyonya chicken curry.
1 free range whole chicken
1 red onion
2 cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger
4 kaffir lime leaves
4 fresh red chilies
1 thumb size tamarind pulp
Cut chicken into sections (legs, breast, thighs, wings)
Pound the ingredients using mortar and pestle – lemongrass, garlic, chilies, onion, ginger, kaffir lime leaves
Heat a cup of cooking oil in a pan
Toss in the spices. Fry until fragrant
Add chicken. Fry and mix through evenly
Add tamarind juice. Enough to cook the chicken
Add some vegetables (optional). I used potatoes and zuchinni
Add seasoning – salt and sugar to taste