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History of Peranakan Nyonya Food ● Legacy of The 500 of Malacca


The main outposts of Nyonya food and Peranakan culture are in Malacca, Penang and Singapore. The DNA of most Peranakan cuisine (or Nyonya food) are believed to be from Peranakans who descended from the Chinese community which settled in Malacca in the 1400s. 

(There are also Peranakan communities in Indonesia and southern Thailand.)

Replica of Sultan Mansur Shah's palace in Malacca. Image credit: Wikipedia
It was recorded in the Malay Annals that in 1459, Emperor Yingzong of China's Ming dynasty sent one of his princesses, Hang Li Po 漢麗寶 to be the fifth wife of Sultan Mansur Shah (who ruled the Malacca Sultanate from 1459 to 1477). 

(However, no Chinese record of such an event exists today.  Which doesn't conclusively rule out anything as much Ming records were destroyed. The Qing dynasty defeated the Ming only after ferocious wars and decapitating the last Ming emperor. So, they are not expected to preserve their predecessors' memories with much diligence or sentimentality. Lack of corresponding records in China, led to suggestions that Hang Li Po might be the daughter of a concubine, sea captain or a handmaiden.)

Bukit Cina in 2016. Image credit: Wikipedia
Ming princess or commoner, Sultan Mansur Shah settled his bride and her retinue of 500 courtiers ("youths of noble birth" according to the Malay Annals) on Bukit Cina.

Bukit Cina between 1860 & 1900. Image credit: Wikipedia
Bukit Cina is a Chinese cemetery today with the oldest grave here dated 1622 (thus giving us a clue on the age of this community).

It is likely that The 500 were joined by later arrivals from China as relations between the Malacca Sultanate and Ming Dynasty was longstanding and excellent.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Ming and Malacca relations were put on a strong footing since Admiral Cheng Ho's voyages sponsored by the Ming emperors. The Admiral's fleet stopped over at Malacca for 5 times out of his 7 voyages from 1405 to 1433.

Many Chinese settlers married indigenous Malaccans, and adopted local customs like language, dress and food. However, most did not convert to Islam.

Descendants of the Chinese settlers in Malacca were given the name "Peranakan" which means "local born" in Malay. The ladies are known as Nyonya and gentlemen as Baba. However, it is not known if any of today's Nyonyas and Babas are able to trace their family genealogy to The 500.

Image credit: Wikipedia
After the fall of the Malacca Sultanate, the Peranakans lived under Portuguese (1511 - 1641) and Dutch rule (1641 - 1824).

In 1824, the Dutch and British cut a deal to crave up the region between themselves. The British got control of the Malay peninsula and the Dutch control of the Indonesian archipelago.

The Dutch gave up Malacca to the British in exchange for Bencoolen in southwest Sumatra (today's Bengkulu).

Image credit: Wikipedia
With Malacca now under them, the British established the Straits Settlements which included Malacca, Singapore and Penang.

With the creation of the Straits Settlements in 1826, some Peranakans moved to Penang and Singapore, hence there are three main Peranakan outposts today.

Sometimes, the term Straits Chinese is used interchangeably with the word Peranakan. But, it is a broader term and can mean Chinese persons born in the Straits Settlements (not necessarily Malacca or descended from The 500).

The 500 in Malacca are not the only Chinese that settled in Nanyang.

Nyonyas in Pulau Singkep island in Indonesia. Image credit: Wikipedia
Other Chinese migrated to Indonesia in the 1500s, married locals and adopted local customs forming pockets of Indonesian Peranakan communities.

Phuket Baba Museum. Image credit: Photo by CEPhoto, Uwe Aramas
Chinese who migrated to Phuket in Thailand in the 1800s, married locals and/or adopted local customs are known as Phuket Baba and referred as Peranakans as well.

What is Peranakan or Nyonya food?

From my own experience (I am not a Peranakan), it's a no holds barred yet sensitive blending of Chinese and Malay techniques and recipes with local ingredients and spices resulting in dishes that are neither Chinese nor Malay but distinctly Nyonya. Though mainly a southern Chinese and Malay fusion, Peranakan culture is inclusive, so we will also find traces of Portuguese, Dutch and English influences in Nyonya food.

In Nyonya cuisine, there are more flavours and aromas in the each dish and they are bolder when compared with southern Chinese (Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese) cuisine.

Each Peranakan family have heirloom recipes passed down the generations. The matriarchs and Nyonyas are very proud of their recipes and skills which they show off during special celebrations like weddings by hosting a tok panjang. Known as "thng tok" in Hokkien, it literally means "long table".

It is a Peranakan style banquet where at least 18 dishes, from appetisers to mains to desserts (colourful Nyonya kueh) are painstakingly prepared and served on a long table by the host family. The setting may be grand and the spread incredibly sumptuous but it is more a family gathering than any formal affair.  

In the past, Peranakan dishes were only served at home, their recipes jealously guarded like family jewels. Non-Peranakans can taste Nyonya food only if they were lucky enough to be invited to a Peranakan home. After the Second World War, economic hardship led to Nyonya dishes being sold commercially and became more accessible to the general public. They caught on quickly and were instant hits due their exquisite flavours, aromas, texture, etc.

I try to explain Nyonya cuisine by describing a few dishes here, as examples. The best way is to eat it yourself, of course 😋

Nyonya Cafe (June's Kitchen), Johor Bahru
The first dish that come to my mind is Ayam Buah Keluak. Originally by Indonesian Peranakans, this dish is now iconic across all Peranakan communities.

The cooking process is rather tedious and complicated, but not atypical of Peranakan cuisine.

Black colour meat dug out from buah keluak nuts (of pangium edule or kepayang tree) are mashed and combined with pounded chicken (also pork or prawn). The mash is seasoned with sesame oil and light soy sauce, and stuffed back into the nut cavity.

The rempah (spice paste) is made by stir frying pounded candlenut, turmeric, chilli, galangal (ginger root), lemongrass, belacan (fermented prawn paste) etc in oil till their aromas are released.

The stuffed nuts and chunks of chicken (often drumsticks) are stewed with a sauce of rempah, mashed buah keluak meat, tamarind juice and chicken stock.

MaMa Nyonya in Johor Bahru, Malaysia
I love this dish even though it is not pretty and an acquired taste. The rempah, pounded chicken meat and buah keluak meat mashed together makes a butt kicking robustly savoury blend with underlying bitterness. The taste of ayam buah keluak sauce is like a different kind of truffle.

Charlie's Peranakan in Singapore
The robust savoury sauce and buah keluak flavours somewhat overpower the subtle sweetness of the chunks of chicken. But, when eaten together with plain white rice, the whole combination tastes wonderful.

History of Singapore Katong laksa
The Nyonya coconut milk based laksa lemak of Singapore is best represented by Katong laksa. Aromatic spices suspended in creamy coconut milk smothering short stubby, thick rice noodles, peeled prawns and blanched blood cockles. Eaten with a clump of fragrant Vietnamese coriander (daum kasum) and a dollop of sambal chili for more spicy kick.

The wildly popular Nyonya laksa is perhaps the most recognisable Nyonya dish to non-Peranakans in Singapore.

Though blood cockles are commonly used in commercially sold Nyonya laksa, the original version do not have any blood cockles, only prawns.

Penang Laksa in Johor Bahru
Whereas Singapore's Nyonya laksa is literally a bowl of spiced coconut milk with noodles, Penang laksa uses no coconut at all. The broth is fish stock thicken somewhat with chopped boiled fish (usually sardines or mackerel), and rempah spices like asam gelugur, chili, turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, shallot, belacan, pineapple puree, laksa leaves, tamarind, torch ginger flower, lime and more good stuff.

Eaten with thick rice noodles swimming in the flavourful and aromatic broth topped with raw onion, pineapple, peppermint, chopped torch ginger flower, julienned cucumber, cut chili pepper etc.

Kim Laksa in Balik Pulau, Penang
The mildly savoury sweet slightly zesty broth undergirded by tanginess from asam gelugur and tamarind is balanced by umami savoury sweetness from fermented prawn sauce. You can imagine the flavours rioting dancing on your tastebuds.

Shiduoli Otak Otak in Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Otak otak originally from Malacca Peranakans is mashed fish (usually mackerel) blended with rempah spices and coconut milk wrapped in a sleeve of coconut or nipah palm leaf cooked by grilling over charcoal fire. Wonderful taste of fresh fish, overlaid with flavour and aroma of mild spices and coconut milk. The toasty smokey taste and smell of slightly charred palm leaf infuse the soft tongue of spiced mashed fish adding another layer of flavour. Highly addictive little snack.

Muar otak otak
Otak otak in Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia
Sold throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in various forms, otak otak is probably the Nyonya dish with the widest commercial footprint and success.

There are many more Nyonya dishes I want to show you. I am updating this post, adding to this list from time to time.

Where do you get your Nyonya food fix?




Date: 1 Jun 2020


  1. Nice piece Bro. Just an observation and a point of interest you may wish to research.

    Peranakan Laksa does not include the use of Blood Cockles (aka See Hum). Prawns are used. To this day I recall my maternal grandmother admonishing me for wanting to add cockles to her Laksa. Are you a “Sin Kek” (literally 新客 or new guest)? It was a derogatory term for new arrivals from China. So chances are in any Peranakan Restaurant or Stalls selling Laksa, you’re unlikely to find Cockles in your bowl. 😬

    The point of interest to research is the little known fact of the Chitty (Indian Peranakans) and their cuisine. A lot of similarities to mainstream Peranakan dishes, but also others that are quite unique to their Tamil Heritage. Hope this helps to pique your interest. 😋

    1. Thank you Milton for your insight. I've added a footnote about blood cockles in laksa.

      Yes, Indian Peranakan is only my list of food heritage to explore. I am looking forward to taste it and learn about its history.


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