Nyonya Dishes: Old, New or “Con”-Fusion?

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FINE DINING RESTAURANTS and heritage hotels are the main exponents of new fusion Nyonya food in Penang. In this article, I shall give my personal comments on some of these dishes and leave it to Penang Monthly readers to decide which, to them, are considered Nyonya. The prices are obviously different, but this is not a factor in my consideration. Quite often the presentation of the more highly-priced dishes is better, but there is often little or no innovation made to them. The other factor is the adoption of modern cooking techniques from other cuisines, e.g. sous vide in preparing their food.

Innovations and modifications made to Nyonya dishes are necessary if the cuisine is to survive; however, only those that are accepted by the community will thrive. Be that as it may, such changes would do better if they respect and maintain clear links to Nyonya traditions. Modifications can be grouped under the following: Western/foreign influences, labour-saving dishes and Nyonya derivative food.

Western/Foreign Influences

A new albeit now common fusion Nyonya food is the dry laksa; the dish is served in some local fusion Italian restaurants in Singapore. Something similar appeared in author Sylvia Tan’s cookbooks. Pesto is Italian, but one has to wonder if replacing the usual pesto herbs with those used in laksa is acceptable to the traditional Nyonyas.

Labour-saving Dishes

One of the many modifications made to Nyonya dishes in recent years is the gradual replacement of bamboo shoots with bang kwang or yam beans. The main reason for this is because a lot of work is needed to process the bamboo shoots before cooking, and bang kwang is more readily available. Ever wondered what happened to the bamboo shoots in today’s soon kuih (bamboo shoot dumpling)? For those who are not familiar with Penang Hokkien, soon is bamboo shoot; yet, most of the soon kuih I have come across do not have bamboo shoots in them.

Soon kuih. Photo: Shiokman Recipes.

It is also a main ingredient in popiah filling, though bamboo shoots are hardly used by hawkers now. But some families in Penang – and more commonly in Singapore – still use it with bang kwang for homemade popiah. On a recent visit to Semarang, Indonesia, I found the popiah filling to be wholly made up of bamboo shoots. Worryingly, the same phasing out of the ingredient has also occurred with ju hu char, which could be a derivative of the popiah filling.

Other labour-saving procedures include Sylvia Tan’s Nasi Ulam which uses a food processor to chop up the herbs. But which is preferable, food processor-chopped or coarsely sliced herbs? In this day and age, finely slicing ulam herbs is becoming a rare skill. The old Nyonyas frowned on the use of brass graters for shredding bang kwang for popiah because shredded bang kwang is often irregular and mushy. However, a good mandoline makes life much easier; my cousin Sandy, who uses traditional tools in her food preparation, now uses the mandoline to cut her bang kwang. A mandoline uses two sets of blades at right angles to each other. Mine has three changeable blades and allows for variations in the thickness of the julienne. I have been using a Japanese mandoline, and realised not long ago that my mother had a similar one. Mine is made of plastic, but hers is of wood.

In my younger days in London, we used plastic bags that could go straight from the freezer to the boiler, and a sealer to wrap our bak chang (rice dumplings) with. The bak chang is shaped similar to the traditional ones wrapped in bamboos leaves – no skill or practice is required to wrap these! I came across what I call the two-dimensional (2-D) chang in a book. The bak chang ingredients are arranged in layers on a tray before steaming, and some pressure is applied to compress the ingredients so that they stick together.

There is also a kuih stall in the Pulau Tikus market that sells 2-D abok abok, instead of the traditional conical banana leaf wrapped ones. The kuih is sprinkled with grated coconut as a bonus.

Nyonya Derivative Food

Traditional bak chang wrapped in bamboo leaves.

There are derivatives in finance; so we have them too in Nyonya cuisine. McDonald’s Nasi Lemak Burger, for instance, is a real “con”-fusion Nyonya food. In conjunction with the Singapore Food Festival in July 2017, the burger was launched for a limited time and sold out within two weeks. So, when back in Penang, I made a special effort to check this burger out. I tried to identify the ingredients that I would normally associate with the original nasi lemak like ikan bilis (anchovies) or peanuts. There were sliced cucumber, fried egg and chicken patty; all are essentials for a burger. I learned that the chicken patty is supposed to be coconut-flavoured and paired with a special sambal sauce. I did not detect the coconut flavour in the patty, however, and it was not obvious to me that the “spicy” sauce was sambal! Perhaps the burger is popular because it is gimmicky, but I should remind readers that this is fast food, and not traditional or fine dining food. On a side note, McDonald's Malaysia introduced its version of nasi lemak in celebration of Merdeka last year, which comes close to the rice dish.

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Penang Nyonya Nasi Lemak.

I have also come across nasi lemak cakes which are close to the real thing. There are several other cake derivatives like ondeh-ondeh, bubur cha cha, putu piring and ice kacang. There is even nasi lemak ice-cream. There are also various cookie derivatives. My cousin Yvonne Khoo makes many such “Khoo-kies”. I could not recognise her laksa cookie from the taste and flavour alone, but easily identified her nasi lemak cookie because of the peanuts and ikan bilis used.

The “Nyonya Classic Pengat” is another derivative Nyonya dessert. In Singapore where buah keluak is readily available, Candlenut Kitchen, a one Michelin-star Peranakan restaurant serves buah keluak ice cream; there is also buah keluak hambaobao (hamburger) – an interesting innovation. From a fine dining restaurant, there is also a Nasi Lemak salad which is supposedly inspired by Laksa Lemak.

The Future of Penang Nyonya Cuisine

Nasi Lemak "Khoo-kie". Photo: Ong Jin Teong.

The future of Penang Nyonya cuisine remains uncertain since customers at new fusion establishments tend to be foreign; the younger generation of Peranakan Penangites do not have much experience nor are they familiar with the taste of Penang Nyonya food. I also notice that many of the food bloggers and reviewers are not local. They do not have a sound understanding of local food culture – yet, this is one group of people who could determine how Penang Nyonya cuisine will evolve and hopefully, not be revolutionised!

The second group is made up of Nyonyas and some Babas who still cook traditional meals at home. During the 30th International Baba Nyonya Convention in Penang in 2017, I was privileged to be introduced to Pat Lim Chooi Ewe who was responsible for preparing many of the dishes, with helpers from her temple. There are many others like her in the State Chinese Penang Association (SCPA) who still prepare old fusion Nyonya dishes at home, and occasionally for functions at the SCPA. Just a point to mention, many in this group are not members of the SCPA. This group is key in keeping old fusion Nyonya cuisine alive. Some of these Babas and Nyonyas have set up establishments such as Nyonya Breeze Desire and Moh Teng Pheow, and more recently, Nyonya Su Pei and Kuih Culture. They deserve all the support we can give them, and I hope that they will maintain a standard for others to follow.

Ondeh-ondeh cookies. Photo: Ong Jin Teong.

The third group are the owners and chefs who run the old fusion Nyonya restaurants in Penang. I am not a food blogger nor a reviewer, but I do try Nyonya food at a representative number of restaurants, and I also talk to relatives about them. Like my cousin Sandy who cooks Nyonya food at home, I have high expectations. I would rate most Nyonya restaurants as passable and occasionally, good. I often find their quality to be inconsistent. My brother informs me that we don’t have many options available. Nevertheless, I think many restaurants do struggle to keep good chefs. You may be served good tau eu bak one day, but the next time, you’ll find more fat than meat in the dish – there is a lack of quality control. Another case in point: I was at a restaurant that had an optional charge for lettuce when you order ju hu char. This shows a lack of appreciation for Nyonya cuisine; ju hu char is always served with fresh lettuce.

The real Nyonya Pengat. Photo: Ong Jin Teong.

Social media can be an impediment to the conservation of Penang Nyonya culinary culture because the younger generation do not learn how to cook from their elders, but from recipes found on Facebook, YouTube and other social media; and unfortunately, there are not many such recipes from Penang and so, the younger Penangites may be unaware of the differences between a Nyonya dish from the North and one from the South.

Visit the Facebook group Penang Heritage Food to share your comments.

Dr Ong Jin Teong is an engineering and food consultant. He conducts cooking classes, does research on Nyonya and heritage cuisine, and hosts the occasional supper club. He has published two award-winning books: Penang Heritage Food – Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook and Nonya Heritage Kitchen – Origins, Utensils and Recipes.



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