The 600-year-old city of Malacca is the birthplace of Nyonya cuisine, the hybrid Chinese-Malay-Javanese-Thai cooking style unique to the former British East India Company’s Straits Settlements of Malacca, Singapore and Penang. The early Chinese immigrants who settled in Malacca since the Ming Dynasty took on native women as wives, and they, in turn, combining native cooking styles and ingredients with Chinese ones to produce a cuisine which is rather special. The naturalised Chinese community here are called Peranakans (meaning “local-born”, also referring to their mixed parentage) - the menfolks are called “Babas”, and the womenfolk “Nyonyas”. The Peranakans were favoured by the British East India Company and the British Crown during its colonialism of Malaya, as the Peranakan community combined the industriousness & resourcefulness of their Chinese heritage, with their cultural and linguistic affinity with the local Malays. Consequently, the Peranakans were favoured trading partners, middlemen and, later, civil servants to the British colonial government, making them an elite community within a polyglot of races peopling the British Straits Settlements.
Nyonya cooking has a reputation of being very complex and time-consuming, its age-old recipes dating back to a time centuries ago when the womenfolk (called Nyonyas) were confined to their homes, many spending most of their time polishing up their cooking skills in their kitchens.
Thus, it was with a certain level of heightened expectations when we were in Malacca last weekend, where we found ourselves in Nyonya Lin’s Kitchen, a two-and-a half year-old restaurant ensconced in Kapitan Kongsi, a Peranakan-themed hotel in Porto Historia, a relatively new part of Malacca town.
Owner-chef of Nyonya Lin’s Restaurant is Ricky Gan, whose brother, Ronald, also happens to be the president of the local chapter of the Peranakan Baba-Nyonya Association of Malaysia. What we had for lunch:
Kueh Pai Tee
These are crisp pastry cups filled with cooked, shredded jicama, shrimps, egg omelette strips, chopped coriander and topped with a spicy-sour chili paste. I find the version here a bit bland, compared to the tasty ones I get in Singapore or Penang, or even in other Nyonya restaurants around town.
Ayam Buah Keluak
I rather enjoyed Chef Ricky Gan’s rendition, which I find to be light yet flavoursome. My Malaccan aunts who were lunching with me weren’t as impressed, as they preferred the dish to be more aggressively spiced. Well, Nyonya food can vary from family to family, and even between branches of the same family/clan. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, but I can also see where many Babas-Nyonyas would find it too mild.
Just for comparison’s sake, this is my rendition of the Ayam Buah Keluak dish - I cooked this for my family’s New Year’s Day luncheon: it’s spicier and more sour (use of more tamarind) than Chef Ricky Gan’s version.
Bendi Rebus sama Sambal
This simple dish of blanched ladyfingers/okra with a spicy chili dip turned out to be my favourite dish for the meal! The okra was surprisingly crisp and supple, and the chili dip, described as sambal belacan is actually not, IMO, as it didn’t have the obnoxious, heavy scent of toasted, fermented shrimps typical of belacan. Instead, the chili was light, with a citrusy zing, further lifted by raw slivers of purple onions sprinkled on top. Loved this dish.
Basically an egg frittata spiked with “cincalok”, a powerfully-scented sauce made from fermented krill, and is one of the signature food products which Malaysians/Singaporeans would associate with Malacca.
Ikan Masak Lemak Nenas
Malaccan-Nyonya restaurants are famous for this dish, usually cooked with either prawns or a white-fleshed fish. The version we had here used Red Snapper. This richly-spiced curry gets its sourish tang from slivers of fresh pineapples, which will undercut the milky, cloyiness of coconut milk used to enrich the curry gravy.
Maybe we set our expectations too high, but I found the version here to be pretty “meh”.
Sambal Sotong sama Petai
Spicy chili squid, stir-fried with stink-beans (Malay: petai) and onions - it was also pretty average, but I’m a sucker for stink-beans, and picked up every last one of them - little round, emerald-green gems of bitter deliciousness.
I’d never been able to find good Nyonya-style chap chye anywhere - in Singapore, Penang, or here in Malacca. Today was no exception. The stewed cabbage dish had wood-ear fungus, shitake mushrooms and tiger lily buds, but not in amounts that will add flavour to the dish. No shrimps or pork (this is a pork-less restaurant to cater to Muslim customers) to add sweetness to the dish. Avoid.
Dessert: Nyonya Cendol
Quite a respectable rendition, with generous amount of pandan-scented green cendol noodles, stewed red beans and fresh coconut milk. The Gula Melaka local palm sugar was too thick and gluey, not off the best quality.
Overall, it was an okay meal. The pork-less bit didn’t help much as pork is a requisite ingredient in many Nyonya dishes.
Nyonya Lin’s Kitchen, Kapitan Kongsi Hotel
53, Jalan KLJ 10 Jaya, Taman Kota Laksamana, 75200 Malacca, Malaysia
Tel: +606-775 5555
Opening hours: 11am to 8.30pm daily