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The Nonyas of Malaysia

Malacca Straits Bridge

The Nonyas of Malaysia are an interesting story. Originally, the Chinese dominated trade in the Strait of Malacca and on down the southwest coast of present-day Malaysa. Of course, these traders and explorers brought their culture and cooking with them. Because only men were permitted to leave China for trade, they set up businesses and households along the peninsula, inter-marrying with the Malay tribes.

The wives of these prosperous Chinese traders became known as Nonyas (also spelled Nyonyas). They spoke Chinese and Malay and dressed in traditional Malay garb. The cuisine they innovated is the result of blending mostly Chinese (and a bit Portuguese) dishes and wok cooking methods with local Malay spices and ingredients. The food is zesty to fiery hot, highly aromatic, herbal and spicy.

The region where Nonya cooking can be found stretches from Penang down the coast to Singapore and into Indonesia. The Babas (males) and Nonyas collectively are known as Peranakan, now a distinct subculture.

One of the best Peranakan buffet meals I ever had was at the Holiday Inn Atrium on a Sunday afternoon. (I went back the next week.)

I like the heat of Nonya dishes, but I especially like the smells. Most people would say they eat first with their eyes; Nonya dishes are artfully beautiful. I eat first with my nose, however; I can smell a good Nasi Lemak or Laksa cooking from blocks away.

So I’ve tried to recreate some Nonya dishes. Here are a couple:

The Sayur Lemak is fairly zesty, and oh so colorful. I couldn’t find any candlenuts to put in it, so I substituted what I had. It didn’t hurt the flavor any!

Spiced Wedding Rice is a very special dish, as the name suggests. But you can have it anytime! Just don’t serve it to your marrying-high daughters, you might start something you’ll regret; unless, of course, you’re maneuvering to get your bathroom back

Enjoy the (Nonya) Heat!

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