In the 15th century some city-states on the Malay
Peninsula paid taxes to China and Siam, now Thailand. There is a
legend that the Emperor of China sent a princess, Hang Li Po, to the
Sultan of Malacca as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The 500
nobles and their servants who accompanied the princess eventually
married local girls, and their descendants became “Straits-Chinese” or
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You might think you know nothing of this unique culture, but Peranakan
ladies have inspired the striking, beautiful and iconic costume worn by
Malaysia Airlines staff that is loosely, or more accurately, tightly,
based on the Peranakan kebaya. The traditional dress for Peranakan
women is a long skirt adapted from the Malays’ batik sarong, with a
chiffon embroidered blouse called a kebaya. These gorgeous creations
are enhanced still further by the traditional three fastening brooches
called kerosang. The costume is completed by a pair of intricately
beaded slippers called kasot manek. These were originally made by
sewing Bohemian glass beads onto canvas-topped shoes. The designs
tended to be floral and reflected the patterns found in the colourful
Peranakan dinner services and tea sets.
Malaysians and Indonesians use the word ‘Peranakan’, meaning
descendant, followed by a qualifying indication of ethnicity, such as
Cina for Chinese, and Belanda for Dutch, the term referring to the
origins of someone’s great-grandparents or ancestors even further back
than that. Female Straits-Chinese descendants were called nyonyas. The
word nyonya or nonya comes from Javanese and is thought to be a
corruption of the word ‘donha’, the Portuguese for lady. Baba is a
Persian word borrowed by Malay speakers as a respectful name for
grandparents. The term is thought to originate with Hindi-speaking
Baba Nyonya heritage is celebrated at the private museum, called the
Peranakan Museum, run by the Babas and Nyonyas of Malacca. This
traditional 19th century Peranakan house is located along Jalan Tun Tan
Cheng Lock. The building shows some of the typical elements of a
Peranakan house: it’s a long house as properties were taxed by width,
and has an interior courtyard which allows both light and refreshing
rain into a home that would otherwise be rather gloomy.
From the Malay and Chinese influence Nyonya cuisine has developed, and
it’s becoming more popular as food-lovers search for regional or speciality
dishes. There is too much exciting food in Malaysia to even consider a
burger or even the ever-popular fried chicken on your visit, and it’s
unlikely you’ll find Peranakan dishes outside the Peninsula.
Peranakan cuisine takes advantage of a larder of regional spices, and a
battery of unique dishes has evolved to entice and intrigue the diner –
they range from the mild and comforting to the spicy and complex. The
visitor might have had Peranakan food in Singapore and that is also
authentic, but the Peranakan food in Malaysia is said to be hotter.
Laksa Lemak – rice noodles in coconut sauce – is a popular dish in
Malaysia with each restaurant offering its own interpretation. Ayam
Buah Keluak – Chicken with Keluak nuts – Is one of the most famous
Peranakan dishes. It’s delicious but needs to be prepared by
professionals: the seeds contain hydrogen cyanide and are poisonous if
consumed without proper processing. The nuts are boiled and buried in
ash and banana leaves and covered with earth for more than a month.
They change colour from a creamy white to dark brown or black; the
hydrogen cyanide released by the boiling and fermentation is washed
away with fresh water. The result when cooked is a nutty-sweet
preparation which is often returned to its shell for final
presentation. Ayam Buah Keluak is thought by many Peranakan food
aficionados to be the characteristic expression of how well a chef has
mastered the Peranakan culinary arts.
Nyonya cooking in the home has been in decline over the last several
decades. It’s not lack of regard for the epicurean heritage but more
the constraints of modern life. Long marinating of meats and
seafood before cooking, and the time-consuming preparation of spice
mixes make some of these dishes appropriate only for celebrations these
days. Here is a delicious and vibrant fish recipe that uses easily
found ingredients. This is a spicy dish but one could cut down
the number of chillies for a milder flavour. Other fish could be used
but be sure to choose a fish with firm flesh so that it doesn’t
disintegrate in the sauce.
Assam Pedas Mackerel
500g mackerel, in fillets
8 dried chillies soaked in water
2 cloves garlic
1 stalk lemongrass, crushed
1 tsp turmeric powder
20g shrimp paste
10g daun kesum / vietnamese coriander, or a
combination of mint and coriander
2 cm ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 tomatoes, cut into quarters
50ml tamarind juice or extract
Oil for frying
Salt to taste
Process the shallots and garlic together to form a paste.
Process the dried chillies and the shrimp paste together.
Remove the top and bottom parts of the okra but keep them whole.
Cut the aubergine into bite-sized chunks.
In a large pan or wok, heat a little oil and sauté the shallots
and garlic paste for a few minutes but without browning.
Add in the turmeric and dried-chilli-and-shrimp paste, and fry until
the oil separates slightly.
Add the tamarind juice, tomatoes, okra, aubergine, ginger and herbs.
Add salt to taste.
Simmer until the vegetables are just tender.
Add in the fish and simmer for a few minutes until the fish is cooked
Serve with steamed rice and other Peranakan dishes.
Malaysia is famed for its fine food and friendly faces.
Restoran Peranakan in Malacca offers a good selection of Nyonya dishes,
many of which show the Chinese influence. The restaurant is superbly
furnished with the dark wood and heavy furniture which is so much a
hallmark of traditional Peranakan homes, and now restaurants.
107, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock,
75200, Melaka (Malacca)
For more information on Malaysian holidays visit
For flights to Malaysia visit Malaysia Airlines