After three days of exploring Melaka’s beautifully preserved UNESCO World Heritage site we were ready to gain more perspective on modern Melakan society and enjoy some local cuisine. Howard, the proprietor of our guesthouse, Ringo’s Foyer, in Melaka, Malaysia was happy to guide us on an outing to the city’s largest market. The commotion was well underway when we arrived; swarms of Melakans purchased groceries, produce, and small consumer goods from stalls lining both sides of a narrow street. Unlike the Western half of the globe where chain restaurants and processed foods have become the main substitute for home-cooking, Melakans head to the market instead. Similar to our purposes, most market-goers attend to enjoy local and fresh ready-to-eat meals from all variety of cultural backgrounds.
Melaka, Malaysia was a central location for trade during colonization in the early 16th century. Chinese, Arabs, Indians and Europeans gathered here to haggle and vie for control of indigenous lands. Hundreds of years later all four peoples maintain a distinct and obvious presence within the diverse city and their food cultures are no exception. Characteristically Malaysian is the Nyonya food of Chinatown. Not a typical Chinatown, the Peranakan people compose the majority of Chinatown’s year-round inhabitants.
The Peranakan culture arose when wealthy Chinese men, Babas in Peranakan, began marrying indigenous Malay women. Marriage was viewed as an excellent opportunity to reaffirm wealth and status and in response elaborate multi-day weddings were arranged for those who could afford them. After the wedding, affluence in the family was displayed through the Peranakans’ everyday lives. In addition to adorning every inch of unclothed skin with exquisite jewelry, their dress was adorned with gold and precious gems and their homes were filled with the finest artifacts from Melaka’s international trade scene.
Peranakan women, Nyonyas, were possibly seen as an asset themselves for they were not allowed to leave their houses. Instead Nyonyas spent their time cooking, making crafts and sitting in grandeur. The products of their closed lifestyle include intricate embroidery and most notably today, delicious cuisine. Traditionally Nyonya food is prepared in the home with the family, but nowadays, due to tightening schedules, it is readily available at almost any Malaysian restaurant and at market. Preparation is elaborate and time consuming requiring numerous trade-specific tools to make spice pastes, powders and the like. Recipes in use today have been passed down through generations of Peranakan culture, each family claiming their own special variations. Popular Nyonya food items include spring rolls, or Popiah, dumplings, pineapple tarts and a coconut curry known as Laksa. In our experience, all are extremely delicious. If you’d like to try your hand at making some of these dishes, check out this Nyonya food blog.