Chronicling Nyonya Cuisine
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.”
“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.
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.”