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Nonya: Asian Fusion

If you thought fusion cuisine was the brainchild of some postmodern super-chef, think again.

Cuisines have fused spontaneously throughout history. The Nonya cuisine of Malaysia and Singapore is a spectacular case in point--a delicious blend of zealously guarded Chinese traditions coupled with inspired use of the tropical produce of the Malay Peninsula.

Nonya food is so fine it’s considered the haute cuisine of a region already famous as a melting pot of exotic multiethnic flavors. Steeped in Chinese culture and folklore, Nonya enters into a heartfelt dialogue with local Malay and neighboring Thai, Indian and Indonesian styles of cooking.

The idea of traditions “marrying” is usually a metaphor, but it is literal in this case. Legend traces the Nonya lineage to the union of a beautiful Chinese princess, Han Li Po, with the Muslim sultan of Melaka in the 1400s. Five hundred maidens accompanied the princess, and all supposedly married local men, their descendants becoming the first Straits Chinese, otherwise known as the Chinese Peranakans.

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The men were referred to as baba (in Indonesian, babah) and the women as nonya (Indonesian nyonya). Although many aspects of their shared culture are known as Baba, the cuisine was triumphantly named for the female side of the union.

Legend aside, it was traders from Southern China who settled along the Malaysian coast beginning in the 1500s, taking local women as wives. By the mid-19th century, the union had evolved into an elaborate subculture, whose upper echelon lived in beautifully furnished houses and conducted themselves according to detailed routines and social rituals.

Baba men introduced their wives to the foods of their native China. But the women, used to the intricate seasonings and lush tastes of their spice-blessed land, found Chinese cooking unbearably monochromatic. So they grafted bright new tastes onto a familiar stock: the heady flavors of lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime and ginger flower; hot and sweet spices borrowed from Indian traders; asam (tamarind) and lemak (creamy coconut) curries; and sambal belacan (sometimes spelled blachan), a pungent mixture of shrimp paste and hot chiles.

The Malay women had to give as well as take. For example, their Chinese husbands insisted on pork--forbidden by Muslim dietary laws--as the predominant meat of the household. The Chinese side of the Baba-Nonya partnership contributed the techniques of steaming, “double-cooking” and stir-frying, as well as the staple noodles, soy sauce, preserved vegetables, fermented bean sauces, dried mushrooms and a love of costly delicacies like shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

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The Chinese penchant for exact shapes and precise textures turned into a fixation with Nonya cooks. And the Chinese obsession with health found its way into the Peranakan dining room in the form of soups and stews based on various medicinal roots and herbs. These were believed to cure anything from blemished skin to a stroke and rheumatic fever. Uniquely Chinese as well are the elaborate symbolism and superstition that surround the Nonya table.

For us, the spell of this marvelous cuisine was cast by “Auntie Belle"--Christobelle Savage, one of Malaysia’s celebrity chefs. She came to demonstrate Nonya cuisine at a Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne, Australia, where we were living

It was an Asian melting pot feast. The rice dishes alone came in astonishing varieties: nasi kunyit (Malay turmeric rice) and nasi ulam, a Nonya rice dish that gets its kick from salted fish, wild lime and turmeric leaves. Nearby were Chinese fried rice with sun-dried scallops and a Malay rendition of an Indian biryani.

Acars (sweet-sour pickles) punctuated the creaminess of rich coconut curries. Clear soups were surrounded by a whole bazaar of garnishes. A classic Nonya chicken with bamboo shoots and black mushrooms rubbed shoulders with South Indian-influenced fried fish with okra and tamarind and a host of Chinese noodle-stall favorites.

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The magician who prepared the banquet was not actually a Nonya. In fact, Auntie Belle comes from another of the fascinating hybrid cultures in the region. She is one of only a few hundred Portuguese Peranakans, descended from colonial seamen and merchants and their Malay wives, who live in the Portuguese settlement outside Melaka.

Auntie Belle is an extravagant character, fit for the operatic world of Old Melaka. At age 10 she was given away as a kitchen girl to a wealthy, traditional Nonya household ruled by an all-powerful betel-chewing matriarch.

This was the type of kitchen, she recalled, where a Chinese geomancer would be consulted about where to position the stove. Countless pantang (superstitions) governed the preparation and consumption of food. Pregnant women were to avoid eating cuttlefish tentacles, unmarried girls couldn’t sing in the kitchen, a messy plate landed a girl with pimples and tapay (sticky rice cake) that failed to ferment betokened misfortune for the entire family.

Nonya cooks were famously fastidious. Auntie Belle was taught to cut vegetables into elaborate flower shapes and made to grate coconut on a parut (a spiky hand grater) until her knuckles bled. She was given meticulous instructions on how to extract tamarind pulp from the pods, to grind rice by hand into flour used for cakes and to give her arm muscles a daily workout by pulverizing spices with a heavy granite pestle.

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To illustrate the refinement of the Nonya palate, Auntie Belle recalled her cooking debut. Ordered to prepare a huge pot of ayam pongtee (chicken in rich dark soybean sauce) for a New Year feast, she accidentally put in a pinch of the wrong spice. The difference in taste was minute, but the lady of the house sensed it in her first spoonful. She declared it masuk medan (“not fit for a banquet table”) and threw the whole pot away. Auntie Belle cried all night.

Her Cinderella story has a happy ending, however. Auntie Belle started her own restaurant in Melaka and soon became the city’s unofficial culinary queen. A posh resort near Kuala Lumpur got wind of Auntie Belle on the cooking grapevine. She was whisked away to cook for its clientele of bankers, sultans and Japanese golf professionals. She was so good they flew her around the world to promote her adopted Nonya cuisine.

When we visited Auntie Belle in Malaysia, we found her presiding over a veritable army of underlings in her high-tech kitchen at the Hyatt Hotel, near the Malaysian capital. She welcomed us effusively, sat us down and began an inimitable culinary crash-course.

We started with rempeh (or rempah), the sine qua non of Nonya and Malay food. It’s a pounded mixture of aromatics (ulam): shallots, dried and/or fresh chiles, lemongrass, fresh turmeric root, candlenuts (a near relative of the macadamia) and a selection of dried spices dictated by the individual dish. After the aromatics are ground into a fine paste, the next step, Auntie Belle insisted, is to master tumis, the exact cooking of the rempeh.

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Like any wet curry paste, it must be slowly sauteed in fat to fully release its fragrance and temper the harsh taste of raw aromatics. The rempeh is ready when the paste looks “cracked” and the oil separates. (How much oil? “A knuckle-length of chile-red oil,” Auntie Belle said.)

Auntie Belle used the rempeh to prepare her signature dish, coconut curry of giant prawns and pineapple. And she routinely tossed it into her Portuguese-Melakan kari debil (devil’s curry), a tomato-rich chicken-and-potato stew with a host of spices and a sweet-sour tang. We imagined a version of this chicken being prepared by Portuguese seamen as they began their arduous voyage from the entrepot of Melaka back to the Iberian peninsula.

We made plans to continue our education in the Portuguese settlement, a small shantytown of bungalows inhabited by fishermen and their families, focused on a pier and a square with a couple of Portuguese-Malay restaurants. When we arrived we were greeted in the square by a bevy of Auntie Belle’s relatives, young and old, the size of a football team. Auntie Belle had been whisked away the day before (“by limo,” they said) to prepare a banquet for a contingent of (“top, top”) notables from Brunei.

Although we missed Auntie Belle, we continued our quest for Nonya culture in Singapore. There we spent an afternoon with Thian Hock Gwee, one of the island’s chief historians of Peranakan culture. In contrast to the flamboyant Auntie Belle, Gwee and his wife, Carolyn, were a textbook Nonya-Baba couple. Their speech was stately and soft, their manners elegant and refined. Dressed in the traditional sarong kebaya, a lacy blouse fitted over a batik sarong, Carolyn floated around the room with bird-like steps.

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The house was adorned with Chinese antiques, ornately carved from tropical hardwood. Rows of exquisite Nonya porcelain wares were displayed on the sideboard, and the nearby family altar was scrupulously primed with fresh fruit, flowers and cakes. On the walls were antique family photographs. One showed Mr. Gwee’s mother with her bejeweled, perfectly lacquered, jasmine-garlanded sanggul (traditional hairdo). Others pictured both parents in lavish wedding costumes.

Captivated by these images, we asked about the old-time Nonya marriage customs. Cooped up behind the lattice door of the women’s quarters, the Gwees said, unwed Nonya women used to be as secluded as the most chaste maidens of feudal Europe. Once a year, on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, the cloistered girls would be fantastically made up and taken on a promenade. Riding in trishaws, buggies or (later) automobiles, they would drive past lines of curious bachelors eager to gaze on their immaculate, blushing splendor.

The party would stop at a bridge so that a girl could toss an orange into the water and make a passionate wish for the right husband. Chance and water-deity willing, a matchmaker would appear the next day on behalf of the most persuasive young Baba.

But then came the real test. So important was cooking to the Peranakan household that it was a matchmaker’s job to listen at the kitchen door for the rhythms of the mortar and pestle to determine a girl’s suitability for marriage.

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It was at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations, the Gwees continued, that Nonya food really shone. Displayed on the long table called tok panjang, it was elaborately choreographed in groups. There would be no fewer than three soupy dishes (laok mangkok, also spelled lauk mangkuk): perhaps a tripe soup, a crab ball soup and a curried broth with the Indonesian black nut (buha keluak) painstaking stuffed with chicken.

Main dishes (laok pinggang besar) were lavish: curries, noodles, roast chicken, Hainanese roast pork. There would be an expensive centerpiece, such as scrambled eggs with shark’s fin. Then, after hours of eating came laok piring (“food on medium plates”), which ranged from sates to seafood or vegetables in a chile-laden sambal belacan sauce to pickles and condiments. Finally, elaborate sweets (kue)--the trademark of Nonya cooking--would be brought out.

Carolyn Gwee prepared a sample for us: coconut crepes stuffed with grated coconut and the dark local palm sugar (gula Melaka). For important occasions, kue are turned out en masse. They might range from a symbolic birthday offering of bright red glutinous rice flour cake with green pea paste (kue koo) to coconut rolls doused with coconut sauce, sweet potato cakes, carrot cakes or kue lapis, a rainbow-colored layer cake. Many sweets are into elaborate shapes, brightly colored with vegetable dyes and/or are flavored with pandanus leaf, which imparts strongly floral vanilla-like fragrance and a soft green color.

In modern Malaysia, even the most intensely local eateries are surrendering to the convenience of food processors and canned goods, but Nonya households stubbornly cling to their traditional ways. The mixed marriage between Chinese and Malaysian styles is not only one of the most fanciful and creative culinary fusions, it is also one of the most sophisticated and exciting.

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The Gwees of Singapore, Auntie Belle in Melaka and Kuala Lumpur and families on the island of Penang in the north of Malaysia have preserved Nonya cuisine in their restaurants, home kitchens and recipe books. Thanks to them, its delicious subtleties will survive for future generations--as they have for half a millennium.

Auntie Belle’s Pineapple Shrimp in Coconut Sauce. Rajahs swooned.

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NONYA SPICE PASTE

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(Rempeh)

30 dried red chiles (such as japones or arbol)

8 to 10 stalks fresh lemongrass (4 inches of lower stalk, tough outer leaves discarded), chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh or frozen galangal (if unavailable, substitute ginger root)

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12 cloves garlic, chopped

3/4 cup chopped white onion

1 tablespoon shrimp paste (such as Malaysian blachan or Indonesian terasi)

1/2 large, very ripe red bell pepper, chopped

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10 candlenuts, soaked in cold water for 10 minutes, or 1/3 cup cashews

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

2 teaspoons ground coriander

Water

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Like masala in India or sofrito in the Spanish Caribbean, rempeh is the cornerstone of Nonya and Malay cooking. Every dish requires its own precise blend of spices and aromatics. But to make things easier for a novice cook, we offer here a “master recipe” for rempeh that would work well with the three dishes included here. If you have rempeh left over, saute it in oil and use it as a flavor base for sauces, marinades and stir-fries.

Stem chiles and shake out seeds. Crumble chiles into pieces and soak in hot water 15 minutes. Drain.

Combine chiles with lemongrass, galangal, garlic, onion, shrimp paste, bell pepper, candlenuts, turmeric and coriander. Process in food processor to smooth paste, adding little water to assist blending. If refrigerated in clean jar, rempeh will keep about 10 days. Frozen, it will keep several months.

Makes about 1 cup.

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Each teaspoon contains about:

12 calories; 7 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.27 gram fiber.

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GRILLED CHICKEN IN TAMARIND “BARBECUE” SAUCE

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3 pounds chicken legs and thighs (skinned if desired), well rinsed and patted dry

Salt

Large pinch turmeric

1 teaspoon paprika

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Oil

4 tablespoons Nonya Spice Paste

3 tablespoons tamarind pulp

1 1/2 cups hot chicken broth or water

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1 1/2 tablespoons catsup

2 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1/4 cup torn fresh mint leaves

Western condiments (especially Worcestershire sauce) enjoy great popularity in Malaysia, so the catsup in this Nonya chicken is quite an authentic touch. The chicken can be enjoyed hot or warm, and the leftovers are delicious. Tamarind pulp is sold dried or in jars at most Indian markets and many supermarkets. Bottled pulp requires no soaking; if you buy it dried, look for a pliable piece.

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Rub chicken with salt to taste, turmeric and paprika, then brush with little oil. Grill or broil chicken until cooked through, turning once, about 25 minutes.

While chicken cooks, prepare sauce. If using dried tamarind pulp, soak it in hot broth 15 minutes. If using bottled pulp, combine pulp with hot broth. Rub soaked pulp with your fingers to release fibers and strain through fine sieve, pressing on solids and scraping bottom of sieve with wooden spoon.

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in wok or heavy saucepan. Add Spice Paste and cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until it no longer tastes raw, 5 to 7 minutes. Add more oil, a little at a time, if mixture begins to stick to bottom. Add tamarind liquid, catsup, brown sugar and salt to taste. Cook over medium heat until sauce thickens, about 7 minutes.

Add cooked chicken to sauce, stirring to coat, and cook 5 minutes. Stir in mint and serve hot or at room temperature.

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Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

334 calories; 531 mg sodium; 103 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 25 grams protein; 0.81 gram fiber.

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PINEAPPLE SHRIMP IN COCONUT SAUCE

2 tablespoons peanut oil plus extra if needed

5 heaping tablespoons Nonya Spice Paste

1 1/2 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk, well stirred

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2/3 cups water

1 1/4 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 thick slices fresh, ripe pineapple, cored and cut into neat wedges

2 teaspoons sugar, or more to taste

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Fresh juice from 1/2 lemon

Salt

Handful cilantro leaves

These shrimp are Auntie Belle’s signature dish and, according to her, it has “rajahs and sultans swooning.” Gwee, for his part, insists that this dish “maintains youthfulness, streams down the belly, serves as an aphrodisiac and eliminates the effect of alcohol.” Well!

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Heat oil in wok or heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add Spice Paste and cook, stirring, until it no longer tastes raw, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently, adding a little more oil if it begins to stick.

Stir in coconut milk, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes. Add water and cook until sauce thickens and reduces, about 10 minutes. Add shrimp and pineapple and cook until shrimp are pink, 3 to 5 minutes, taking care not to overcook. Add sugar, lemon juice and salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro and serve over rice.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

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266 calories; 164 mg sodium; 93 mg cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 2.06 grams fiber.

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AUNTIE BELLE’S TOMATO RICE

1 1/2 cups basmati rice

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1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil, optional

2 tablespoons Nonya Spice Paste, optional

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 1/2 cups boiling water

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1 whole star anise, broken into points

1 cinnamon stick

6 cardamom pods, lightly crushed

Salt

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True to her Portuguese heritage, Auntie Belle had a great penchant for all manner of tomato flavors. This tomato rice is her rendition of an Indian rice but with Nonya-Portuguese overtones.

Rinse rice in several changes of water. Drain, place in bowl and soak in water to cover 30 minutes. Drain again.

Heat oil in heavy saucepan over medium heat and saute Spice Paste 5 minutes. (If not using Spice Paste, omit oil and this step.)

Add tomato paste and stir in hot water. Add star anise, cinnamon, cardamom and salt to taste and cook over medium heat 5 minutes. Add rice in slow, steady stream. Return to boil and cook uncovered, stirring once, until water is level with rice and small bubbles appear on surface.

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Reduce heat to very low, cover tightly, and cook until rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, without disturbing, 15 minutes. Fluff rice with fork and transfer to serving bowl.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings, with peanut oil and Spice Paste, contains about:

215 calories; 62 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.47 gram fiber.

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Von Bremzen’s and Welchman’s latest book is “Terrific Pacific Cookbook” (Workman, 1995)


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