Spicy Dining with the Baba Nyonyas of Penang


If you want experience an authentic taste of South East Asia, then look at the Baba Nyonya cuisine. A true fusion style, it blends elements of the original Chinese culinary practices with the spices and aromas of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. The results are amazing – layers of different tastes, piquant mouthfuls, and delightful juxtapositions of clashing flavours.

It’s not perhaps the most appealing food aesthetically but more than makes up in for it not only in tastiness, but in terms of health as well. Blue rice, for example, is cooked with blue pea flowers and the compounds within it not only create a colourful dish but are also good for diabetics. The medicinal properties of turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and garlic are well known, and Baba Nyonya cookery makes heavy use of all of them. But the way you eat is also important.


Recently we dined at Baba Jerry’s house, and his wife Nyonya Su-Pei did all the cooking. When she produced a signature main dish, chicken curry (the intricacies of which had taken her thirteen years to master), her husband explained ways to eat to enhance the flavours. “Eat it first as it is, he suggested. Next add a smear of sambal belacan paste and repeat. “Now do the curry with rice and sambal and add a drop of soy sauce. Which is your preference?” he asked. The chicken curry was served with red-coloured bread and Jerry explained the symbolism of this. While chicken represents the phoenix, or the mother, that rises again and again, red represents prosperity. One of the side dishes was otak-otak, a delicate fish mousse, with a blend of lemongrass, chilli, turmeric, and coconut milk, and steamed in a wild pepper leaf. What fun to open this spicy present!


Our meal ended with an egg tart, Penang style. A slow cooked crust shielded a moistly cooked egg. Cooking one without over-cooking the other would be a challenge for most chefs but this was perfect. There are many fine Nyonya restaurants in Penang but the best way to eat is at home. Another good way to experience this vibrant culinary tradition and to learn about is by attending one of Nyonya Su-Pei’s classes at the Tropical Spice Garden’s Cookery School.

Nyonya Su Pei classes are held weekly and bookings can be made online at https://www.tsgcookingschool.com



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