First published in South African Airway’s in-flight magazine, Sawubona, in December 2014.
In the midday heat of Malacca, my husband and I found ourselves cooking in the courtyard of an elegant 1920s mansion originally built to house Chinese tycoon, Leong Long Man and his family. Heating the oil in a saucepan, I sautéed shallots and until their fragrance slowly lifted and wafted away in the wet air.
Perspiration trickled down my forehead and I backed away from the flames before adding coconut, palm sugar and tauchu (a local preserved bean paste). I was about to make my first ayam pongteh, a favourite chicken and potato dish of the Peranakan people, also known as Baba Nyonya. Chinese and of noble descent, they’ve adopted a vast amount of Malay culture into their own.The Baba Nyonya are rich in cultural heritage, arts and fashion, but today I’d experience their fusion of Malay rempah (spices) and herbs with the best Chinese cooking techniques.
We were under the leadership of The Majestic Malacca’s Master Chef Pow Chiah Kuan. Pow’s career has endured the fires of many a kitchen around the globe, including the UK, Asia and Singapore. My excitement grew as I added bite-sized bits of shitake mushrooms and potatoes to the pot. It was in this vibrant Malaysian port of Malacca that Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Javanese merchants and traders converged to sell their treasures.
It was in this city, which the Portuguese invaded, that the Dutch and their governor once resided, and where the British left their marks of colonisation. But most importantly, it was here that the Peranakan people originated. This fusion of cultures, industry and resourcefulness first began when Sultan Mansur Shah arranged to be married to the Chinese Princess Hang Li Po in an effort to strengthen trade relationships. Their marriage spurred many more unions between her Chinese male entourage and the local Malay women. Once the community increased in number, arranged marriages were organised among their own.
Once the potato was cooked, I added the chicken. Poh laughed knowingly at the fact that the Western world loves chicken breast for its lean and healthy qualities, but told us that the Chinese and Malay people have always preferred the fatter, tastier leg portions. I learnt that “Baba” is used to address men and “Nyonya” the women.
In the past, this cuisine required a lot of preparation and time, so the Nyonya women began cooking after dawn to start the midday meal. This hard work emerged as a great time for bonding and legend has it that a Nyonya could determine the culinary skill of her new daughter-in-law by listening to her preparing the spices with a pestle and mortar.
Once the chicken pongteh was finished, I scooped some of the hot gravy into my spoon and was surprised by how the sweet flavours overpowered the spice. Due to Malacca’s Eurasian influences, Baba Nyonya cuisine is far sweeter here than it is in Penang.
Only the day before, I’d braved scorching 38 degree C heat on the street in search of the sweet Baba Nyonya dessert of cendol: a delectable, Malay-influenced dish made of gula melaka (sugar), shaved ice, green noodles, yam and coconut milk, mixed with Chinese ingredients of red beans and glutinous rice. Chef Pow explained how the flavours of the pongteh are best once they’ve been allowed to infuse overnight, so most families refrigerate a large pot to reheat and eat with rice over the course of a few days.
It was only during the preparation of the second one that I became familiar with the staples of Malay cooking. We helped the chef make a prawn pineapple curry known in Malay as udang kuah pedas nenas. Before we began, he disappeared into the kitchen and gleefully returned with a plate of traditional Peranakan cakes known as Nyonya kuih. I enjoyed the orange and white glutinous rice cakes, but became instantly addicted to onde-onde, a green ball dusted with coconut flakes and filled with liquid palm sugar which burst in my mouth once the soft outer layer was broken.
Bowls of coconut milk, lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal (blue ginger), dried shrimp and large red chillies coloured the table; all ingredients that form the basis of most Malay dishes. We began with a paste made of shallots, ginger, turmeric, ginger, galangal, red and dried chillies, candle nuts and dried shrimp and fried it with lime leaves and lemongrass (mashed to release its true aroma). When it literally got too hot in the outdoor kitchen, we happily retired to our seats while Chef Pow took over.
When preparing Chinese dishes, it’s said none of the elements (such as aroma,colour and delicious flavour) should be excluded. This dish provided colour from the get-go, after a few minutes in the pot the spicy aroma hung in the humid air and as Chef Pow added the pineapple, I looked forward to tasting it. The Chinese love decorating their homes with porcelain items in yellow, green and pink.
Similarly,traditional Peranakan clothing, Nyonya kebaya, features bright, beautiful colours and comprises a blouse-dress style originating in Indonesia and worn by women from Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand,Cambodia, Burma and Singapore. Sadly, today, in the same way that Westernisation and modern appliances resulted in Peranakan dishes being created with more ease and speed, it’s said that younger generations of Baba Nyonya no longer adhere to the 12-day wedding celebration, speak pure Bahasa Melayu Baba or put in the time or effort to make traditional delicacies, which require tedious preparation.
However, one cultural aspect I noticed was still intact is the delicate scooping of food into the mouth with the right hand. The left hand is never used when eating. I added the diluted coconut milk for creaminess and cooked the curry over a low heat for 15 minutes, before adding the prawns. I was thankful for the blender,which allowed us to make this dish in a much shorter time.
Hours later, seated beneath giant wooden fans in the charming, colonial-styled dining hall of The Majestic Malacca, I was finally able to sample the fruits of our combined labour: sweet and spicy prawn curry. It was one of the most delightful dishes I’ve ever tasted in Malaysia and as I enjoyed the cacophony of flavours, I wondered whether the Baba Nyonya will survive, in the face of globalisation. Will this unique blend of two cultures be forgotten, or will it forever live on, reminding us of how beautiful life can be when we unite and blend the best of cultures, instead of separating and dividing, according to our differences?
WHERE TO STAY IN MALACCA
Find colonial elegance, a world-class spa and a central location at The Majestic Malacca. Take a dip in the heat of the day or join its historical city tour. 188 Jalan Bunga Raya. www.majesticmalacca.com
Where to do a Cooking Class
Ayan Pongteh Recipe
• 500g chicken, cut into bitesized pieces • 100g shallots, sliced • 100 garlic, crushed • 10ml (2 tsp) tauchu (preserved bean paste) • 15ml (1T) gula Melaka (coconut palm sugar), ground • 1 shiitake mushroom, cut into bite-sized pieces • 1 potato, cut into bitesized pieces • 20ml (4 tsp) cooking oil • 300ml (1-1/4 cups) water or chicken stock
SeaSoNINg: • 5ml (1 tsp) dark soy sauce • 1 pinch of salt
MeTHoD: 1. Heat the oil in a wok, then add the shallots and garlic. Sauté over a medium heat until fragrant. 2. Add tauchu and gula melaka to the mixture and stir until dissolved. 3. Add water and bring to the boil. add shiitake mushroom and potato and cook for three minutes, until the potato is half-cooked. 4. Add chicken and cook for five minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. add seasoning. 5. Transfer to a serving plate and serve with steamed rice or bread.