Ah Ba and Ah Nya
When I was young, my aunt who is my father’s second sister, used to call me and my sister Ah Nya and her only son Ah Ba. I was always curious what it meant, and I would ask, why Ah Nya? Vaguely I remembered that it was explained that there is a group of people call Baba and Nyonya, Baba for boy, Nyonya for girl, thus the short term coined for us, Ah usually being added by us Chinese as a way to call a closed one informally and affectionately. I liked being call Ah Nya very much as it makes me feel more ‘manja’ (asking to be pampered) at that time, which I am quite one myself, being the youngest.
So later on, when I got interested in the culinary world, I started to read more about what Ah Ba and Ah Nya had to offer to us, and I found out that most of the dishes that I loved so much are actually originated from them! Baba and Nyonya, also formally known as Peranakan, are mostly of the Chinese Hokkien descendent, which are actually my descendent as well, have cuisines with mixture of Chinese and Malay and everything else in between. It is said that they are the group of Chinese that had embraced the Malay culture, thus the heavy influence in a lot of aspects of their lives from their dressings and celebrations to cuisines. Combine Chinese best skills in cooking methods along with various fragrant spices from the Malay, you have the best of what Malaysia can offer! Though generally the Peranakan cuisine is divided into north and south, its various dishes have its own unique delight, I for once could not decide which one I liked more therefore just enjoy both without the need to differentiate!
Here are some of my personal favourites from the Peranakan kitchens:
Photo by oranje
This is one of the most genius creations of mankind, or Malaysia-kind if you are so keen, which comes from the north Peranakan. This spicy and tangy noodle soup features the best of both worlds, the Chinese and Malay cooking. My hats off to the creator, whoever you are, you have always warmed this little tummy of mine! This is a must try to anyone who ever step foot in Malaysia, yes a bold statement indeed but nevertheless a must! Imagine the taste of tangy soup laden with shredded fish and loads of other goodness herbs to create an extremely pungent broth, and then added liberally with ‘hae ko’ (thick shrimp paste) right before digging in. Don’t be put off by its special smell, which kind of stinks with fishiness but in a good way, and let me tell you, the taste will grow on you. You will find yourself hankering for it days later on all of a sudden, and don’t say I did not warn you!
Photo by su-lin
My maternal grandmother, Pho Pho, used to make a really mean otak-otak with the freshest of seafood that she can find, wrapped delicately in banana leaf and then slowly steamed to perfection, which as I as a child had enjoyed it immensely. Although at first I must admit I was a bit apprehensive by the looks of it, reddish soft paste press together in a green leave, but once cajoled enough to try, I never looked at it twice ever again before devouring! Pho Pho’s version is one of the top ones that I had, probably due to the fresh and good ingredients, but also because her years of experience of refining to the right taste for all the ingredients of fish paste, shelled prawns, coconut milk, chili paste, galangal and herbs. I am salivating as I describe this, time to ring up Pho Pho for some otak-otak, yes I am such a granddaughter, but do not be mistaken I don’t ring up just to ask how is she, alright.
Kuih/Kueh (plural Kuih-Muih), is actually referring to the various bite sized delicacies, mostly sweet, and are usually eaten for tea or snacks by the locals. Made mostly with the base of coconut milk, pandan leaves and Malaysia’s famous palm sugar, these addictive morsels are definitely a force not to be ignored! Their complex taste and texture is distinctively different from your usual desserts of cakes or pastries, and something that one should try if they ever have the chance! To name one of my favourite from the vast selections is the Kuih Talam (two layer of coconut milk and pandan) which I used to ignore when I was young due to its boring colour of white and green that does not appeal at all to a kid in contrast to the other colourful selections but as I grew older, I found that it was indeed a superb combination of taste, the slightly tangy coconut paired perfectly with the sweet fragrant pandan. Another is the Kuih Lapis, by the opposite, has layers of colours, which as a kid, I love to peel off layer by layer while savouring it one by one! One more of my favourite is the Pulut Inti, a blue sticky rice (traditionally coloured with the Blue Pea flower), which I find best slathered with a thick slab of kaya (coconut jam), delish! One place to find really good, if not the best, Nyonya Kuih-Muih is at Taiping’s (a town up north in Malaysia) casual market, I am honestly not being bias here (as I am from Taiping) for I have yet to find any other kuih-muih in Malaysia that has yet to surpass these! Do try to get there early in order to avoid the classic sold-out scenario.
Photo by awhiffoflemongrass
One of the dishes that I fell in love with through words before the taste itself is Ayam Pongteh. I find it amazing how sometimes words can describe a dish so well that I can imagine it so vividly, I can nearly taste it, so much so it became a breeze for me to reenact it at home. Though this Peranakan dish may not be as famous as the other sometime over-rated ones, this dish is in fact a good addition to any home cooked meal. I made this before, where the dish came out just as I had imagined, juicy chicken meat that had been infused with all the goodness of the salty bean paste and spices of garlic and onions. It was like a story that came to life for me, just better as not only I can see it and smell it, I can even taste it! Oh boy, do order this dish if you are ever in a Peranakan restaurant that offers it, and revel in its simple yet humbling flavor.
So there you have it, some of the favourite Peranakan dishes of this Ah Nya. As there are more to Peranakan cuisines as mentioned by me, do go out and try as much as you can when you have the chance in Malaysia, as they are truly unique to us here while I go out to find some unassuming victim to ‘manja’ for my favourites above now, as all of the sudden I have the urge to consume copious amount of them!
Rokh is a food columnist on Malaysia Travel Guide, she’s an epicurean and a cook who loves to eat, also writes in her own Malaysia Food Guide – Thamjiak.com . In this column, she will bring you along while she explore various Malaysia foods, like what is good, what makes them so special and how or where to best well enjoy them. More [+]