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Nonya: Asian Fusion

May 16, 1996|ANYA VON BREMZEN and JOHN WELCHMAN

If you thought fusion cuisine was the brainchild of some postmodern super-chef, think again.

Cuisines have fused spontaneously throughout history. The Nonya cuisine of Malaysia and Singapore is a spectacular case in point--a delicious blend of zealously guarded Chinese traditions coupled with inspired use of the tropical produce of the Malay Peninsula.

Nonya food is so fine it's considered the haute cuisine of a region already famous as a melting pot of exotic multiethnic flavors. Steeped in Chinese culture and folklore, Nonya enters into a heartfelt dialogue with local Malay and neighboring Thai, Indian and Indonesian styles of cooking.

The idea of traditions "marrying" is usually a metaphor, but it is literal in this case. Legend traces the Nonya lineage to the union of a beautiful Chinese princess, Han Li Po, with the Muslim sultan of Melaka in the 1400s. Five hundred maidens accompanied the princess, and all supposedly married local men, their descendants becoming the first Straits Chinese, otherwise known as the Chinese Peranakans.

The men were referred to as baba (in Indonesian, babah) and the women as nonya (Indonesian nyonya). Although many aspects of their shared culture are known as Baba, the cuisine was triumphantly named for the female side of the union.

Legend aside, it was traders from Southern China who settled along the Malaysian coast beginning in the 1500s, taking local women as wives. By the mid-19th century, the union had evolved into an elaborate subculture, whose upper echelon lived in beautifully furnished houses and conducted themselves according to detailed routines and social rituals.

Baba men introduced their wives to the foods of their native China. But the women, used to the intricate seasonings and lush tastes of their spice-blessed land, found Chinese cooking unbearably monochromatic. So they grafted bright new tastes onto a familiar stock: the heady flavors of lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime and ginger flower; hot and sweet spices borrowed from Indian traders; asam (tamarind) and lemak (creamy coconut) curries; and sambal belacan (sometimes spelled blachan), a pungent mixture of shrimp paste and hot chiles.

The Malay women had to give as well as take. For example, their Chinese husbands insisted on pork--forbidden by Muslim dietary laws--as the predominant meat of the household. The Chinese side of the Baba-Nonya partnership contributed the techniques of steaming, "double-cooking" and stir-frying, as well as the staple noodles, soy sauce, preserved vegetables, fermented bean sauces, dried mushrooms and a love of costly delicacies like shark's fin and bird's nest.

The Chinese penchant for exact shapes and precise textures turned into a fixation with Nonya cooks. And the Chinese obsession with health found its way into the Peranakan dining room in the form of soups and stews based on various medicinal roots and herbs. These were believed to cure anything from blemished skin to a stroke and rheumatic fever. Uniquely Chinese as well are the elaborate symbolism and superstition that surround the Nonya table.

For us, the spell of this marvelous cuisine was cast by "Auntie Belle"--Christobelle Savage, one of Malaysia's celebrity chefs. She came to demonstrate Nonya cuisine at a Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne, Australia, where we were living

It was an Asian melting pot feast. The rice dishes alone came in astonishing varieties: nasi kunyit (Malay turmeric rice) and nasi ulam, a Nonya rice dish that gets its kick from salted fish, wild lime and turmeric leaves. Nearby were Chinese fried rice with sun-dried scallops and a Malay rendition of an Indian biryani.

Acars (sweet-sour pickles) punctuated the creaminess of rich coconut curries. Clear soups were surrounded by a whole bazaar of garnishes. A classic Nonya chicken with bamboo shoots and black mushrooms rubbed shoulders with South Indian-influenced fried fish with okra and tamarind and a host of Chinese noodle-stall favorites.

The magician who prepared the banquet was not actually a Nonya. In fact, Auntie Belle comes from another of the fascinating hybrid cultures in the region. She is one of only a few hundred Portuguese Peranakans, descended from colonial seamen and merchants and their Malay wives, who live in the Portuguese settlement outside Melaka.

Auntie Belle is an extravagant character, fit for the operatic world of Old Melaka. At age 10 she was given away as a kitchen girl to a wealthy, traditional Nonya household ruled by an all-powerful betel-chewing matriarch.

This was the type of kitchen, she recalled, where a Chinese geomancer would be consulted about where to position the stove. Countless pantang (superstitions) governed the preparation and consumption of food. Pregnant women were to avoid eating cuttlefish tentacles, unmarried girls couldn't sing in the kitchen, a messy plate landed a girl with pimples and tapay (sticky rice cake) that failed to ferment betokened misfortune for the entire family.

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