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Nonya cooking labour-intensive but worth the effort, cookbook shows

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 10/2/2019 Susan Jung
a bowl of food on a table © Handout

Iflipped through Nonya Flavours: A Complete Guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine (2003) searching for the author only to realise that it was a collaborative effort - a collection of recipes gathered by the "lady members" of the State Chinese (Penang) Association.

It took a lot of effort to get the book to its present form, which uses standard weights and measurements, says editor Julie Wong.

She writes, "When the original manuscript [...] landed on my desk, I was both excited and apprehensive. Here was a hotchpotch collection of recipes, many of them incomplete and written in a style that was not much more than simple scribblings. The fact that many of the recipes did not have precise measurements did not thrill me either. Some of the recipes asked for '10 sen worth of taugeh' or quoted amounts in katties and tahils. Heavens, how were we to know how much taugeh one could buy with 10 sen in those days, when it has been metaphorically said that 10 sen was the size of a bullock cart wheel?"

a bowl of food on a table © Provided by South China Morning Post Publishers Limited Explaining why the original recipes were written that way, Khoo Keat Siew, the president of the association, writes: "In the bygone days of our grandmothers, the nonya way of cooking was the rough estimation method [...] written recipes were rare as they couldn't quantify the amounts - they were not privy to the tools of standard measurements then. Up to the recent decade, the young nonya housewife underwent her training in the kitchen by observing her mother or mother-in-law when they cooked, and soon learnt the secrets of the nonya kitchen. That, of course, was not the most efficient way of teaching, with only near-reaching consequences. As a result, a number of recipes were lost, and the true essence of nonya cuisine has to this day been confined to Straits Chinese homes."

Nonya cooking is notoriously labour-intensive, as shown by the pages on cooking methods. "The grey stone mortar and pestle is at the heart of nonya cookery. Any nonya will vouch that mortar-pounded sambal belachan is superior to that whizzed up in an electric blender." However, it is conceded that for tasks such as extracting the colour and essence of pandan leaf, a blender is more efficient than a mortar.

There are recipes for popiah (fresh vegetable rolls); popiah skins; sweet potato leaf curry; sambal-stuffed fried fish; nonya birthday noodles; pickled fish stomach with herbs and vegetable curry; roasted trotters in sour soup; stir-fried chives with pig's blood; pineapple curry; fried pork sandwich; banana fritters; watermelon skin soup; sweet peanut broth and rice vermicelli in syrup.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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