Unveiling Nyonya

I have been to Malaysia a number of times, but on a recent visit to prepare for the opening of our latest venture, Mama San, Kuala Lumpur. I was afforded some pleasing time in the beautiful city of Penang, where I discovered yet more layers of the Nyonya culture and its cuisine – a whole area of history that I find so fascinating.

Nyonya cuisine is steeped in the history of migration, intermarriage and the passing of secret recipes from one generation to the other. Nyonya women mostly welcomed the arrival of wives from China, and would share and mix up local and foreign recipes for their husbands. What a time that must have been!

I am here on a mission to meet the wonderful Nyonya cuisine expert, Pearly Kee and her sisters at Pearly's cooking school. I am hoping they are going to weave stories into their cooking, and if I can I will get them to divulge some secrets about Nyonya cuisine.

Pearly tells me that while it’s only Chinese of mixed descendant that are Peranakan, there are also the Eurasian, the generation of mixed European and Malay heritage; the Totok, born in China; and the Malay K'ling or K'ling Jawi Indian Indonesians – and all with a Nyonya cuisine. “The Penang Nyonya are from the Thai culture, and their food is spicy with a sour taste; the Melacca Nyonya food is a little sweeter. Still, we all make food according to the old recipes; the differences stem from the locations of the settlers."

“In the old days,” she continues, “we ate for health. Turmeric for blood circulation, and shark meat for breast-feeding mothers. If you had a fever you'd be fed watery rice porridge. The rice water lowered your temperature, while the rice grains filled your stomach when you had no appetite. And food was preserved for when times were lean.” The traditional century-old eggs are a good example of ancient preservation methods, using herbs and salts to preserve the eggs, which are encased in candle wax for longevity.

But I am neither sick nor in need of a three-week-old egg doused in horse urine, so I eagerly move the topic along to the dishes we can find today. Nyonya cuisine, the girls tell me despondently, is going to die. “It will not evolve."

But how can these dishes – amazing Laksa pungent with fish sauce, sweet with coconut, and hot fiery curries with their Chinese spices mixed in with local ingredients from the Northern Cantonese Nyonya – just disappear? Pearly laughs. "We never wrote anything down." For years the recipes went from mouth to mouth, with the women learning them from their grandmothers. Then in the ’70s the women went out to work, and the Nyonya food was sold by male hawkers to the workers. The cuisine thus skipped a generation of women, and before we knew it the old cooks were dying along with their recipes. “So now we write it down; we figure out the measurements and we keep the recipes. And we teach them to others, so maybe it won't die out after all."

As Pearly and I venture outside I see no justification for this pessimism. Our first stop at Chow Rasta Market reveals food stall upon food stall, with customers slurping from bowls of Laksa and picking at Hong Kong-style Dim Sum. The aromas rising from the bowls waft into the morning air. Like all good Asian markets you have to be here early to get the best of it.

While you're here, have breakfast with the locals, who will have put in a good few hours already hauling carts through the nearby fish market and pig market. Visit the Pulau Tikus Market, otherwise known as the rich man's market, situated as it is in the Pulau Tikus area of Georgetown. There is an obvious Thai influence here originating from Phuket. Head over to Jalan Burma and the junction of Bangkok Lane and see the Seng Lee Café, where nothing’s changed in nearly 100 years. The Mee Rebus and Mee Goreng gain their unique flavour from the main ingredient – dried cuttlefish. Check out Loring Seratus Tahun, a corner building where the owner sells soft drinks only and rents out spaces to hawker stalls like Curry Mee, who serves a sensational curry mee with prawns, pork and pork blood. It's so good. The prawn head stock gives it a kicking flavour, but it remains light and clear – truly spicy and delicious. This corner is like a mini food court with vendors scattered around the building.

I think my favourite, despite a choice being hard to make, has to be Tek Sen Restaurant. It's a real inspiration of Nyonya Chinese, with stir-fried clams, sweet crispy double cooked caramelised pork and a tofu stuffed with fish balls. Actually, they stuff everything here – including their customers. Tek San started out as a rice stall in 1965, but now it represents what is so great about Penang: the revival of preservation, the determination not to get lost in homogeny, and, despite them not being written down, the cooking of Nyonya recipes.