25 Dec 2016: Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes

Here is an extraordinary and practical cookbook that reveals new information about the wide-spread and global roots of Nyonya food.

What makes a cookbook great is its total package, combining practical recipes, sublime photography, narratives that entertain, educate and inspire, but most important of all is that it features food that people love to eat. When it comes to Nonya (also spelled Nyonya*) cuisine, there’s so much to choose from you’ll definitely be spoilt for choice – the same goes for the variety of cookbooks available on the subject. Although they are all designed with a singular purpose, some titles stand out for their originality. One of these is Ong Jin Teong’s latest offering, Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes. As the title implies, Ong brings together the stories of how popular food, cooking techniques, ingredients, recipes and utensils ‘interacted’ to create Nonya cuisine.

For those unfamiliar with the Peranakans (or Baba and Nonya), their culture is a result of intermarriage, from the 15th century, between Chinese immigrants and the local population of Indonesia and Malaya. From this cross-pollination came what is called Nonya cuisine, an early example of fusion food which evolved from this integration of Malay and Hokkien food with the colonial cuisines of Portugal, the Netherlands and England.

Ong thoughtfully begins each recipe with an interesting introduction, weaving together bits of description, history, family anecdotes, ingredients used and preparation methods into a seamless backstory. Unlike conventional recipe books, the chapters in Nonya Heritage Kitchen have not been divided according to cuisine type, but the method of preparation – Grinding, Pounding & Slicing, and Stoves, Ovens, Pots & Pans are just two examples. 

Putting together the recipes in this book was definitely not a walk in the park for Ong. The early Nonya cooks were guided mostly by instinctual and seasoned hands, and their methods of measuring ingredients were described as agak-agak, which translates approximately to ‘a handful of this’, or ‘a pinch of that’. It was all done by taste, feel and experience. “All these utensils and ingredients enabled the Nonyas of old to create their culinary wonders, often without recorded recipes but with the instinctive estimation of quantities that characterise cooking expertise and cooking with love.”

From the everyday to the exotic, the recipes appear simple enough and should not discourage amateur cooks. The many photographs, so tastefully executed that you can imagine getting a whiff of the spreads, serve as the perfect foil for the accompanying dishes. They make everything appear tempting! If you’ve ever needed a reason to get out of your culinary comfort zone, this practical book will serve as vade mecum to discovering, preparing and enjoying traditional and timeless Nonya food. Happy cooking!

Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes is brought to you by Landmark Books, Singapore, a publisher of fine books rich in quality content and aesthetics.

*Nyonya is the Penang spelling; alternatively, they are also called Straits Chinese.

About the author: Dr Ong Jin Teong also produced Penang Heritage Food: Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cooks which won the Best Culinary History national award at the Gourmand World Cookbook  Awards. He was born and raised in a Penang Nonya family and was encouraged by his mother to cook at an early age. A retired Professor of Electrical Engineering, he has extensively researched Penang and Nonya cuisines and is a sought-after authority on the subject. He is also a featured speaker at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore and the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang.