You may not know the word Nyonya, but you’re probably familiar with laksa, the creamy spice-doused noodle soup that is a product of the Straits Chinese culture. Nyonya, or Peranakan cuisine, was born when Chinese immigrants to the Straits Settlements territories began marrying local women. It’s a delicious combination of Chinese wok cooking styles and Hokkien spices with Malay and Indonesian ingredients.
Phuket, along with Penang and Malacca, became important hubs for the Peranakan community, and with each city’s different geographical location, different styles of Nyonya cuisine emerged. From the coconut milk heavy dishes in the south to the tangy Thai-influenced fare of the north, here are some of the dishes to add to your eating bucket list.
Ayam Buah Keluak
Don’t fear the black, coal-like lumps in this dish— even if they contain hydrogen cyanide that can be lethal to consume in large amounts. These Kepayang tree seeds that are native to the mangrove swamps of Malaysia and Indonesia are painstakingly prepared by first being boiled and then buried in ash, banana leaves and soil for more than a month to ferment, which cleans away the cyanide. Smothered in tamarind and rempah, or Malay spice, paste and simmered for hours with chicken, the end result is a hardy dish that sings with spice, tang, and a flavour that keluak aficionados like to compare to truffle.
Sambal Udang Petai
Stinky petai beans add a nice crunch to prawns smothered in sambal, or stir-fried chili paste, in this dish that is a balancing act of bitter, spicy, sweet, and sour flavours. What it lacks in prettiness, the pungent dish makes up for in serious taste with a sauce that features generous amounts of ginger, lime and lemongrass.
Laksa is everything you want from a dish: spicy, sweet and sinfully creamy. The fiery noodle soup that involves heaps of seafood or meat, spices, lemongrass, rice noodles, and egg wedges in a bath of coconut milk is the perfect example of a balancing act. The Peranakan staple comes in many forms throughout the region, varying in tanginess, sweetness and creaminess, but all consistently satiating.
Ngoh Hiang Lor Bak
Every meal should start with these crispy meat rolls that are iconically Peranakan. The juicy bed of minced pork, prawns, onion, and chestnut that lay on blankets of dried bean curd skin are seasoned with ngoh hiang, or five-spice powder, that gives the rolls a serious punch.
No one can resist green slivers of pandan jelly over crushed ice with fresh coconut milk on a hot day. Not even the Peranakans, who made the classic Southeast Asian dessert their own by adding red beans or durian to the sweet concoction. Hints of saltiness stand in contrast to other versions of the dessert, like Thailand’s lod chong, which keeps it simple with just pandan jelly, syrup and coconut cream.
Melt-in-your-mouth braised pork belly. Need we say more? Okay, fine. If you aren't sold on the idea of succulent fatty meat over rice on its own (and yes, we are judging you) then imagine the chunks of meat softened with taucheo, or preserved fermented soybean paste, and gula melaka, a type of sugar, and served with stewed potatoes and mushrooms over rice. Rumour has it that the dish tastes even better as leftovers, once the flavours of the thick, fragrant sauce get a little more familiar with each other.
Now that we've whet your appetite, why not treat your palates to a Peranakan meal? Here's the closest you can get to enjoying Peranakan food in Bangkok.
Here’s what our Inspectors said about Prai Raya (Bib Gourmand)
After winning the favour of locals in Phuket, residents of the capital are equally starry-eyed for Prai Raya's southern-style cuisine. The signature dish is the yellow curry noodle dish with large chunks of fresh crabmeat served with coconut milk. To ensure freshness, ingredients like crab, vegetables, and shrimp are brought in weekly from Phuket. Dine indoors in a relaxing atmosphere or al fresco in the charming garden that makes you forget you're in a city.
Here’s what our Inspectors said about Khua Kling Pak Sod (Prasanmit) (Bib Gourmand)
The family that runs this casual restaurant brought their beloved aunt's homemade recipes from Chumphon in southern Thailand to Bangkok to much fanfare. Dishes are unapologetically spicy - just how good southern Thai food should be. Recommended dishes are the fiery kua kling pak sod (dry curry with minced pork), sataw pad kapi goong (stir-fried stink beans with pork), and moo hong (stewed pork in sweet sauce). An ideal spot for a casual meal with spice-loving friends.