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Nyonya Food PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator III   
Thursday, 19 February 2009 01:13



Nasi Ulam

   Nyonya, or Peranakan (descendant), heritage is something which is quite unique. The word “nyonya” is a respectful Indonesian/Malay term for a lady, and “baba” refers to the male. Born of Chinese (typically Hokkien) immigrants who settled in various parts of South East Asia centuries ago, this group assimilated into local societies by adopting their practices, cuisines and even language, eventually evolving into a separate distinct culture of its own. In Malaysia, they congregated in what became known as the British Straits Settlements: Singapore, Melaka and Penang, and are sometimes referred to as the Straits Chinese.

   As Penang is so close to the northern border, nyonya food eaten here has distinct Thai influences. Much use is made of strong flavours like chillies, coconut, tamarind, herbs and spices, including the “aromatic” ubiquitous belacan (pronounced belachan), a fermented prawn paste. Apart from noodle dishes, most are eaten with plain boiled rice to do justice to the delicious flavours. 

Gulai Assam Tumis (Fish in a Spicy Sour Curry)

   This is a popular gulai (curry) made with a rempah (paste) of finely-minced onions, garlic, lemon grass, belacan and chilli which is then fried in oil (tumis) until fragrant. A light solution of tamarind and water is mixed in, then fish, the most popular being mackerel, stingray, or black pomfret. Vegetables like Ladies’ Fingers, tomatoes and brinjal (aubergine) can also be included. A local herb with small aromatic leaves called Daun Kesom, also known as Vietnamese Coriander, adds a gorgeous fragrance, and it is usually served adorned with fresh mint.

Locals love it and so will you especially if you like sour-based curries like Tom Yam.

Kari Kapitan (Captain’s Curry)

   The name apparently came about because of a European captain’s love of curries for his tiffin (lunch). Every day his amah (maid) used to ask him, “Curry, Kapitan?” There are many versions of this, but two main schools of thought: one advocates the use of coconut milk in it, the other doesn’t. The rempah (paste) is basically chillies, onions, garlic, lemongrass, lengkuas (galangal) and buah keras (candlenut). Usually made with chicken, it’s a delicious curry, perfect for those who don’t like it too hot or spicy.

This differs from the spicier more commonly-found Chicken Curry which is usually made with curry powder and coconut milk.

Purut Ikan (Spicy Sour Vegetable Curry)

   Literally translated to “Fish Stomach” because it is traditionally made with pickled fish intestines, Purut Ikan is a true conglomeration of local vegetables: finely julienned brinjals, pineapple, long beans, cabbage and at least ten different herbs cooked in a spicy tamarind-based soup. The small amount of pickled intestines add a fishy taste, but this is beautifully counteracted by the myriad of flavours that the mix of unusual herbs imparts. Some versions have added santan (coconut milk). It may be an acquired taste for some, but do try it as it might grow on you!

Otak Otak (Spicy Fish Packets)

   Like the previous dish, the name might be slightly off-putting as it means “brains” and indeed the dish did use fish brain but nowadays the primary ingredients are prawns and fish meat.

   Sliced fish is mixed into a fairly stiff spicy rempah, santan (coconut milk) and egg mixture, piled onto banana leaves which are then folded up to form a “packet”. This is steamed till cooked, setting into a soft curry custard which is delicious cold or hot. One of the most important ingredients is the aromatic leaf of the Daun Kaduk, a leafy climber which grows wild locally.

Jiu Hoo Char (Fried Yam Bean with dried Octopus)

   A Hokkien delicacy of fried julienned bangkuang (yam bean) and dried octopus strips, this is a local salad usually eaten at feast time, particularly Chinese New Year. A tablespoon is wrapped in a fresh lettuce leaf, topped with a dollop of the ubiquitous sambal belacan then popped into the mouth whole. It’s sweet, savoury, spicy and fishy at the same time.

Tau Eu Bak (Chicken or Pork Stewed in Soya Sauce)

   This is similar to Adobo, and there are various versions of it. Generally cooked with pork, garlic, a pinch of sugar and five-spice powder and two types of soya sauce (light and dark), it’s one of the mainstays of nyonya home cooking as the resulting gravy thickens into a scrumptious almost gel-like sauce which goes beautifully with white rice. Often tau kua (firm bean curd), Chinese mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs are added. Tu Ka Chor is a sweet variation which includes black vinegar. It’s absolutely delish with a dollop of sambal belacan.


Although sambal is a generic word for chilli paste, there are various versions. Sambal belacan, made from belacan and fresh chillies, is used as a condiment, whilst sambal prawns as part of a main meal with rice.

Helen Ong is a self-confessed foodie who loves to hunt down the best of Penang. She is the author of the book Great Dining in Penang.
Check out her blog on


Last Updated on Thursday, 12 March 2009 13:44

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