Ong Jin Teong painstakingly records – and sustains – the exquisite art of Nyonya cooking.
Inspired by the multicultural influences that have for centuries shaped Peranakan cuisine, Dr Ong Jin Teong decided to undertake an in-depth exploration of Nyonya food and its many gastronomic wonders. Born and bred in a Penang Nyonya family, Ong credits his late mother Khoo Chiew Kin for starting him on his culinary quest. A soughtafter authority on the subject today, Ong is also the author of Penang Heritage Food: Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook.
I met Ong during the September launch of his second book, a compilation of heirloom recipes titled Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes, to discuss how Penang Peranakan cuisine varies from its Malaccan and Singaporean counterparts. Both Penang and Singapore Peranakan food is strongly influenced by its Malay and Hokkien origins.
“Penang Nyonya food is also influenced by the Thais, northern Malays and the Hainanese, while Singapore Peranakan food has Indonesian influences. This explains why you cannot find perut ikan or kerabu in Singapore Peranakan cuisine and why mee soto, sayur lodeh, gado-gado and rendang don’t feature much in Penang Nyonya cuisine,” explains Ong, who is a retired professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in the College of Engineering. “There is even a suggestion that the Malacca Nyonyas use a lot of tomatoes in their cooking because of Portuguese influences.”
Singaporean Peranakan food tends to be sweeter as well. “My impression is that tau cheo (fermented bean paste) is used a lot. For example, it is commonly used in the Nyonya chap chye and the fillings for poh piah and kuih pai tee but not so in Penang. Some Penang recipes for chap chye use tau ju (soy sauce) instead.”
According to Ong, the use of bunga telang (butterfly pea flower) to tinge glutinous rice with a blue hue is also limited to only a few dishes in Penang. “Pulut taitai and pulut inti are probably the only two that I know of. This is because blue colouring is regarded as inauspicious in both Peranakan and Chinese cultures due to its close association with the colour of mourning (black) after a loved one’s passing. Families must clad themselves in black attire for a certain amount of days before switching to blue.“I suppose the only reason why the Nyonyas still serve pulut taitai is because the gold from the kaya overrides the inauspiciousness of the pulut’s blue. Likewise with pulut inti, which has a somewhat yellowish filling too.”
Ong (left) posing with his latest cookbook: Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes.
Long Hours in the Kitchen
Peranakan cuisine is famous for lengthy preparations that can sometimes take days. In the old days, Baba Nyonyas subscribed to indefinite measures when cooking. “It was all done by rough estimation or agak agak in both Baba Malay and Malay – by taste, feel and experience”. Ong admits, “I also cook like that if I am not recording a recipe. A handful or a fistful of ingredient is mek in Penang Hokkien, and since a Baba’s mek would be bigger than a Nyonya’s, it adds more uncertainties to Nyonya cooking.
“Additionally, many early recipes – including some of my mother’s – use the cost of ingredients instead as a measure: 10 sen of dried chillies, 15 sen of shallots or five sen of belacan. It would be interesting to use these recipes according to the original costs but scaled up to take inflation into account. We would certainly end up with a different retro dish since inflation is so different for each of the various ingredients.”
The accumulation of these factors has perhaps resulted in the near disappearance of several classic Nyonya delicacies, such as sesargon. Ong recalls “It is the one Nyonya heritage titbit that I ate when I was young. ‘Titbit’ is quite the right description because you could say sesargon is a very posh version of sugared desiccated coconut, although it is very time consuming to prepare – many hours of slow frying!”
Sesargon is made up of a trifecta of main ingredients: grated coconut, ground rice and egg which are “mixed together and fried over low heat in a traditional brass pan with pandan leaves to give it the flavour. Sugar is the last ingredient to be added”. The sesargon is then packed into dainty little cones shaped from thin greaseproof tracing paper. “The proper way to eat sesargon from a paper cone is to tear off the bottom, tilt your head backward and tap the cone to let the sesargon flow into your mouth a little at a time.” However, Ong warns: “A word of caution is needed here: make sure it doesn’t get into your air passage.”
In the old days, Baba Nyonyas subscribed to indefinite measures when cooking. It was all done by rough estimation or agak agak in both Baba Malay and Malay – by taste, feel and experience.
Another classic that is virtually unknown these days is cheak bee soh (vegetable puff pastries). Once a staple at weddings of rich families in Penang, cheak bee soh is a crescent-shaped curry puff lookalike. “Two different types of rice flours – cheak bee (rice used for everyday meals) and choo bee (glutinous rice) – are used to make the cheak bee soh pastry. The dough and the filling most probably have Hokkien origins, like poh piah and jiu hu char. These were originally all based on bamboo shoots. According to Jee Chim (Ong’s second aunt and mentor), we can add crab meat and roe to give the cheak bee soh filling a dark orange colour and richer taste. In the 1960s, while the Nonya kuihs like kuih bengka ubi kayu, kuih lapis and chai tow kuih cost five sen each and curry puffs cost 10 sen each, cheak bee soh cost 20 sen.”
Ong treated his guests to a cooking class during his book launch
Left - The ondeh-ondeh was made from scratch using sweet potatoes. Right - Sesargon is still commercially available in Malacca and in some of the southern Thai towns like Phuket and Hatyai where there is a sizeable population of Babas.
Not all classics are lost. The Nyonya chang or pua kiam tnee chang (“half salty and sweet dumpling” in Penang Hokkien) is still thriving, often made and presented during celebrations and ceremonies. Both Penang and Singapore Nyonya chang feature tung kwa (candied winter melon). “In Singapore the Nyonya chang is traditionally wrapped in large pandan leaves; bamboo leaves are used in Penang.” However, the differences do not end there: “In addition to the pepper and coriander used in Singapore, pua kiam tnee chang includes cekur (kencur) roots and pounded groundnuts but does not include mushrooms. The Penang Nyonya chang is often steamed with coconut milk.“Also, the Nyonya chang found in Singapore and Malacca is partially coloured blue. It’s rare though to find a blue-tinged Nyonya chang in Penang. Still, if there are any, chances are the Penang Peranakans have relatives living in Malacca.”
With the release of Nonya Heritage Kitchen, Ong is hopeful that some of the more traditional Peranakan dishes will soon be making a comeback. “If anything, it will raise the awareness of Nyonya cuisine among the younger generation in Malaysia.”
Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.