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Penang's Soul Food

A new generation of Malaysians are getting hip to Nonya cuisine, the food of their grandmothers

The evening monsoon had left a blameless morning sky over the island of Penang, one of the strongholds of Malaysia's ethnic Chinese community. An hour after dawn, the narrow streets of Georgetown, the island's only large city, were already busy with shoppers vying for mustard greens and bean sprouts, durian and jackfruit, crab and shrimp. Once they'd made their purchases, many gathered around the sidewalk food hawkers to buy a breakfast of Hokkien mee (yellow noodles with seafood in a ham-bone broth) or pork gulai Nonya style (a curry laced with coriander, fennel seed, anise, cinnamon and other spices).

Nowhere else would I have been tempted by food this hearty so early in the day. But it's hard to resist Nonya cooking, with its delectable blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Thai ingredients. And in Georgetown it's served up against an equally eclectic backdrop of late-19th-century shops and town houses built with Chinese terra-cotta tile roofs, European iron-grill balconies and Indian plaster arabesques.

I first encountered Nonya cooking -- the food of the Malacca Straits Chinese -- some three decades ago, as a young journalist based in Asia. Nonya literally means woman in the Hokkien dialect of the Straits Chinese, but in this matriarchal society, Nonya refers to the entire culture.

In subsequent trips to Penang, I thought I was witnessing the demise of Nonya culinary traditions as a new, university-educated generation developed a taste for Western food. Over the past five years, though, those same young professionals, fearing the loss of their culture, have led a revival of Straits Chinese pride. Nonya restaurants have opened along the coastal drive north of Georgetown, where Penang's teens hang out. And hawker stands are selling such nearly forgotten Nonya dishes as heh kian taugeh (bean sprouts and shrimp fritters) and nasi ulam (rice flavored with finely shredded herbs and coconut).

"What I missed most about Penang," says Richard Cheah, an engineer who recently moved back to the island after almost a decade in California, "were the smells and tastes of hawker food. No more burgers and tacos for me now." He loves the stands along Georgetown's Selamat Street, on the edge of the old city. When we met at the communal metal table of one of these mobile kitchens, he and his friends dived into plates of stingray slathered in chile sauce and wrapped in lotus leaves, another Nonya dish that has regained popularity.

Birth of a Cuisine
Of Malaysia's 20 million inhabitants, about 50 percent are Malay, roughly 10 percent Indian and the rest Chinese. But in Penang the Chinese account for some three-quarters of the 600,000 residents. Chinese men arrived during the 15th century to establish themselves as intermediaries in the lucrative spice trade between Asia and Europe. The earliest immigrants wed Malay women. As they prospered, they enticed other immigrants from southern Chinese villages to Penang to marry their sons and daughters. By then the two cultures were well integrated. In the 18th century, England declared that Penang would become part of the British Empire, adding Anglo-Indian influences to the culture and the cuisine.

And yet Nonya cooking has remained distinct from the rest of Malaysian food. The most obvious difference is the use of pork, a Chinese staple but taboo in the Muslim diet of the Malays. Nonya cooking is also marked by a heavier use of fried noodles, which are a southern Chinese legacy, and of such spices as tamarind, fennel seed, anise and cinnamon than is typical of Malaysian food. Finally, Nonya meals are almost always served with sambals (sauces made from ground mixtures of chiles and shrimp paste or dried prawns) and achars (side dishes of pickled vegetables and fruits).

On a recent trip to Penang, I learned more about this resurgent Nonya cuisine from Laurence Loh, an architect, and his wife, Lin Lee Loh-Lim, a sociologist. They had lived in London for several years and could have easily made careers there; instead, they came home, and today they devote both time and money to restoring some of Georgetown's 19th-century landmarks, including an enormous Chinese clan hall and a mansion that had once been the residence of a Chinese magnate.

Not surprisingly, the couple insists on authenticity in food as well as in architecture. "If I brought my grandmother to this restaurant," Loh-Lim told me as we sat down with five of her friends at the Dragon King, long reputed to be Penang's best Nonya dining establishment, "it would be because she couldn't cook anymore. And she would probably complain about the food." Unfairly, in my estimation. Among the dozen dishes we sampled, the standouts were Nonya pie tee (spicy seafood appetizers served in crispy rice-noodle pastries shaped like top hats), Nonya perut ikan (a fish-stomach stew with lemongrass) and kiam chai boey (a stew usually made from a variety of banquet leftovers, including duck, mustard greens, tamarind and chiles).

The latter dish, so often associated with family celebrations, led my friends to reminisce about their favorite holiday specialties. Loh nostalgically recalled the birthday mee -- an egg-noodle stew with shrimp, crab, chicken and pork -- that his grandmother used to cook for him: "Even when I was living in London, she prepared the mee on my birthdays and gave it to her neighbors, in crockery and baskets she used only for those occasions."

Nonya Home Cooking
I also managed to cadge an invitation to a private dinner party. The house stood in a residential district, a few miles south of Georgetown's harbor, that is cooled at night by breezes that sweep down from the rain forest. It's a neighborhood where Victorian mansions stand cheek by jowl with more contemporary suburban-style bungalows. My host, Theresa Goh, cooks dinner every night for her family, which includes her widowed father and her four-year-old daughter, Denise. She spends her days as an executive secretary at an electronics firm where her husband works as a manager. Yet somehow she finds the time to show up several evenings a week at Orange Cafe, the trendy new Nonya restaurant of which she is part owner.

As Goh cooked under the small vermilion kitchen altar dedicated to a food deity, she spoke of her late mother in the present tense. "My mother will kill me if I use a grater," she said, as she sliced her vegetables thin with a cleaver. Grating, she explained, shreds the food and makes it turn soggy as it cooks on the stove.

To prepare jiu hu char (stir-fried cuttlefish with vegetables), Goh chopped her way through jicama, mushrooms, onions, carrots and some preboiled pork loin, which she then dropped into a wok already sizzling with vegetable oil and a large dollop of salty bean paste. She added a small cup of water, a teaspoon of sugar and occasional pinches of salt as she tasted the mixture while constantly stirring. After 20 minutes, she dropped in slivers of dried cuttlefish and kept the wok on a high flame for 10 more minutes.

Meanwhile, she readied the chicken curry Kapitan. Shrimp paste, lemongrass, slices of gingerroot, chopped shallots and garlic, small chunks of turmeric, crushed macadamias and chiles went into the blender. Goh eased the thick mixture into a clay pot of boiling vegetable oil and onion slices. Once the oil had risen to the top of the sauce, she added pieces of chicken and coconut milk.

Both dishes were fantastic. But what made the meal truly memorable was the dessert, bubur kachang, a bean soup with coconut milk, which Goh had prepared earlier in the day and served to us warm.

As we finished eating, she was already contemplating a meal for the coming weekend to commemorate the first anniversary of her mother's death. She settled on a duck soup with salted vegetables, which the family would offer in prayer and then consume a few hours later.

"I learned everything I know about cooking from my mother," Goh told me as she lifted her daughter to a stepladder by the range. Denise stirred some carrots into a pot of water. And I had the sense of Nonya tradition being passed on to a new generation.


Jonathan Kandell is a New York City-based journalist who frequents Nonya restaurants in Manhattan.

Published March 1999
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