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Nyonya Food - Specialty of Penang

Nyonya food is the kind of food cooked and served by Baba and Nyona descendants of Penang, Malacca, Singapore and other places too, where the community thrives.


nyonya herbs and spices
Local herbs used in Nyonya cooking.

In Penang, the food are mainly spicy hot, sourish and use a lot of local herbs and spices. This is because of Thai and Malay influence. As for their southern counterparts in Singapore or Malacca, Nyonya food over there is more savory. Common ingredients used include lemon grass, ginger, turmeric, galanggal, belachan and also torch ginger.

Enjoying a (partly) Nyonya meal after the Penang Cooking Class in the Islamic Museum

Hainanese male cooks were hired to serve the English who stayed in Penang during the colonial period and they brought with them the tradition of using Worcestershire sauce for instance. Roti Ayam is a good example of a Nyonya snack that uses Worcestershire sauce.

Later they also worked in Chinese tycoon's kitchens and Nyonya food became influenced by English ingredients.

Technique of cooking does not differ much from Malay cuisine, a lot of steaming and simmering are involved and also cold preparation is also one of the typical ways of cooking, especially of their kerabu (raw salad).

A typical Nyonya home had a large kitchen. Extended family lived under the same roof, in one long shop house. In this kitchen, the stove used wood and later charcoal as fuel.

Spices were grounded manually, large granite stone mills were indispensable in a typical Nyonya household. During celebration or religious ceremony, the "tok panjang", a long dinner table that could seat at least 16 people would be full of dishes painstakingly prepared for that special occasion.

Young girls were trained in the kitchen so that they would catch a rich husband. The way to the men's heart were supposedly through their stomachs.

nyonya kuih
Some of popular Nyonya kuihs.

The kitchen is also called "perut rumah". Literally, in Malay, it means "house stomach".

The young ladies were also taught other crafts like how to make beaded slippers or embroider intricate patterns on silk table clothes or bedspreads.

Nyonya food also places a lot of emphasis on how the food looks when served. Local kuihs are individually crafted, piece by piece. Each morsel is supposed to taste as good as it looks.

Desserts can also include sweet broth (bubur). Almost anything can be added into this "bubur". Basic ingredients are palm sugar, coconut milk, sago and pandanus leaves. Then, it is up to you to put in any tubers or fruits for that tasty tea treat.

Curry kapitan, made during the Penang Traditional Food Class

Some of evergreen Nyonya dishes for lunch or dinner which are still served now include otak-otak, perut ikan, asam pedas, kari kapitan, kerabu bihun and  inchee kabin. A lot of skills are required to make sure the spices and herbs are blended perfectly. There is only one way to learn how to cook authentic Nyonya food -- learn from a real Nyonya herself. I am happy that I have had a few experience learning from them.

Should you be interested in a traditional cooking class in Penang that includes preparation of Nyonya food, please click here to sign up.


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Traditional Cooking Class

Should you be interested in a traditional cooking class in Penang that includes preparation of Nyonya traditional food, please click here to sign up.

Nyonya food class
Nyonya traditional food class

More about the Baba and Nyonya culture in Penang

The Baba and Nyonya culture is unique in the world and can only be found in Malacca and Penang. Here is the full story

Baba and Nyonya Culture in Penang

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