Nyonya Cuisine For Far Eastern Economic Review

This appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine May 21, 1998 Fabulous Fusion

Jonkers Melaka (17 Jalan Hang Jebat, Melaka, 06-283-5578) Bon Ton (7 Jalan Kia Peng, Kuala Lumpur, 03-241-3614 or 241-3611) Bon Ton At The Beach (Pantai Cenang, Langkawi, 04-955-3643 or 955-6787)

T he multiculturalism of Malaysia can be downright delicious, if you know what to look for. After sampling the country's superb Chinese, Malay and Indian fares, turn your attentions to Nyonya, a definitively indigenous cuisine, which, like all good secrets, delivers a rich reward.

A scarce but savoury vestige of an illustrious Malayan sub-culture, the Nyonya culinary tradition rates among the country's most creative. Complex, labour-intensive Nyonya dishes spring from the Peranakan, born in 15th-century Malacca when Chinese traders married local Malay women (Nyonya). Although their offspring identified themselves with the Chinese, many of their customs mixed the best of both traditions. Chief among these was their food, which some describe as Chinese in spirit and Malay in form, with ingredients dictated by Chinese tastes (and religions), while the spices and preparations are traditionally Malay.

This cultural fusion explains why chillies, cinnamon, pungent roots and grasses, tamarind and coconut milk have found their way into dishes with such stolid Chinese staples as pork, mushrooms, soy sauce and bean curd.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Peranakan culture reached its pinnacle both in Malacca and in the other British Straits Settlements of Singapore and Penang. Genteel communities of Straits Chinese flourished in ornate terrace houses, their marble-topped tables laden with unique concoctions prepared by the Nyonya and her legion of servants.

Revelling in high-calibre culinary artistry, Nyonyas refused to cook simple Chinese dishes like fried rice, proclaiming it too easy. This feisty and hybrid tradition is highlighted at a trio of stylish eating establishments in Malaysia which specialize in the blending of cuisines.

With three exceptional locations and one highly inventive owner, the decade-old Bon Ton restaurants have inspired gourmet pilgrimages among their clientele. For, while the venues share many aesthetic characteristics, along with gift shops and links to the local arts community, they stand alone in their singular settings and menus. All excel with innovative East-West fusions, including astonishing desserts--and have played an important role in rescuing from obscurity old-style Nyonya dishes. The uncommon recipes were provided by the copious culinary memory banks of two Malaccan Nyonyas, one a descendant of the Jonkers household.

Jonkers Melaka, located in an exquisite 90-year-old Nyonya house in the heart of historical Malacca, is an ideal spot for refreshment during a day spent pounding the pavement in search of antiques, the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia or the replica of a Portuguese man-of-war docked nearby.

Initially you'll be stunned by the naturally cooling features of Peranakan architecture until you dig into the current week's medley of Nyonya favourites. Dry curry-beef rendang provides a sweet counterpoint to fern tips or hollow-stemmed morning glory stir-fried in ubiquitous prawn paste sambal belachan (which raises a heavenly stink while cooking, eventually settling down to an inimitable fiery fishiness). The lemongrass chicken is wrapped in the extensively used pandan, or screwpine leaf. Acar, a zesty chutney of crisp cucumber, onion and pineapple, edges a mound of delicately flavoured coconut rice nasi lemak.

Bon Ton in Kuala Lumpur is a society favourite. Housed in a latter-day colonial bungalow in the heart of the city's Golden Triangle district, the restaurant boasts a comprehensive wine list in addition to theatrical, teak-furnished dining rooms.

A good bet is the broad-spectrum Nyonya Special, which includes charming Top Hats (deep fried pastry baskets filled with shredded yam bean, carrot and prawn with a hot and clear dipping sauce); prawn and mango curry; mutton with potatoes; and a piquant braised eggplant alongside nasi kemuli (cinnamon-tinged Nyonya wedding rice). Finish with the oddly comforting and old-fashioned bubur cha cha (cubed yam and sweet potato, white beans and bananas in a warm gravy of coconut milk).

Bon Ton At The Beach, a romantic open-air restaurant, is the hottest dining destination on the legend-rich resort island of Langkawi. A field of windswept coconut palms and beach chalets of century-old Malay timber houses surround the restaurant; hurricane lamps illuminate it as ocean breezes grow brisk after sunset.

The exuberant laksa lemak (yellow noodles in a spicy coconut soup, topped with chicken, prawns, ginger buds, cucumber, omelette and red chilli) should leave you just enough room for dessert. Your choice ranges from the classic cendol (a mountain of ice and coconut milk burying kidney beans, palm sugar and the neon green pandan noodles) to decidedly avant-garde East-West confections like the coconut cream caramel adorned with mango and ginger glass biscuits.