Nyonya – Baba Nyonya, ‘Straights Chinese’ – i.e. the people/culture derived from descendants of Chinese – principally Hokkien – settlers in the ports on Malaya’s Malacca Straights coast. They established themselves as traders in British colonial outposts such as Singapore, Malacca, (Melaka), and Penang as well as Sabah, Sarawak and Dutch settlements in Indonesia, during the 16th and 17th centuries and to a large extent, whilst frequently intermarrying with ethnic Malay women, have retained a separate identity to mainstream Malaysian culture and society, (if there is such a thing?), and even to other Chinese groups such as Hainanese or Cantonese within the region.
They also have a very distinctive and truly delicious cuisine which deserves to be a lot better known than it is outside of Malaysia. Nyonya dishes are a fusion between Cantonese/Hokkien dishes with extensive use of local Indonesian, Malay ingredients so; Chinese with extra lemongrass, chilies, coconut, galangal, peanuts etc – a sure winner for any lover of Asian food! “We’re eating Nyonya tonight honey!” – “What the….???”
Whilst we’ve found a couple of Nyonya restaurants in NY and London, many dishes that you find in any Malaysian eatery are actually Nyonya and anyone having visited Malaysia will have eaten Nyonya dishes without necessarily realizing so.
The famous Laksa – a creamy and sour coconut noodle soup is an example, being a speciality of both Malacca and Penang. In KL & Singapore too you’ll find both versions and there’s something of a rivalry between the two. We preferred Penang Laksa but can’t remember quite why for now! (Don’t dismiss the Kuching Laksa either!).
Anyway whilst I’m digging up a good Laksa recipe here’s an excellent Nyonya spicy chicken curry one in the meantime! (Yes it is Rick Stein!)