Nyonya Night

Post date: 15-May-2017 23:54:35

3rd June 2017 is Nyonya Night.

I am half Nyona. Nyona are the women of the Straits Chinese - Chinese diaspora that left China, in my case 7 generations ago, to settle in the Malacca Straits, i.e. Malaysia and Singapore. Our cooking is a class of its own - essentially Chinese, but using local herbs and spices, to give a fragrant twist. We use pandan leaves, and galangal, tamarind, laksa leaves, betel leaves, lemongrass and lime leaves, as well as spices that would be more traditionally used in Indian cooking.

My Grandmother was Nyona, and so is my mother. Living in a large house with a massive extended family, my grandmother's domain was the kitchen - she was in charge of feeding the whole household, which at one point was up to around 25 people and even more at times like Chinese New Year, when the whole extended family would appear to enjoy her cooking.

Luckily for her, she didn't have to go to the market and lug back the heavy trolley of food I have to for every supperclub. No, she had The Van Man. The Van Man (as my mother remembers he was called) used to pass by the house almost daily with choice ingredients from the local market. No doubt a household such as ours was lucrative - and fairly wealthy - so probably we were an early stop on his route. He had vegetables, fish, pork, chicken and fruit, and would drive right into the garden and sell it there under the spreading guava tree. I expect my grandma put on her orange wooden clogs that always waited outside the kitchen door, and stepped out onto the dewy grass every morning to barter with him.

Grandma's cooking was legendary - she could cook an enormous repertoire of things, even dim sum and traditional Malaysian "kuih", cakes made with rice, coconut and palm sugar, which are normally made by specialists. We had a family curry powder and they would buy kilos of whole spices and take it all to the miller to be milled and packed into any spare container going; to this day it often appears in squash bottles and old Nescafe jars.

I'm going to cook some dishes that I remember from her repertoire, and ones that are enjoyed in my family, using all these Nyonya herbs and spices. We'll start with Poh Piah - it's a kind of spring roll that is not deep fried. You assemble it at the table - rather like the crispy duck pancake rolls, you roll your own, and I remember that she used to put crab into hers, so I may have a go at the laborious task of picking a pile of crabmeat. My father always loved this dish and so I think she used to cook it often because of him.

I'll also cook the family Chicken Curry - with curry powder that is still made to her recipe in Malaysia, and shipped back in the old Nescafe jars. I met a man in his 70's who ate her curry when he was in his late 20s, and still could remember it! He asked me for the recipe.

Grandma used to make what is known as Singapore Noodles - though I'm sure she never called it that - curry fried rice vermicelli, and my aunt was famous for her Satay & Satay Sauce, so now that I have a gas barbeque, we'll make some chicken satay too! And whilst the barbeque is on, some Otak Otak which is another classic Nyonya dish - fish in a spicy custard, wrapped in banana leaves and barbequed. My mother enjoys Rojak, which is a fruit/vegetable salad with a tangy tamarind and shrimp sauce. There was always a clear soup at dinner - usually pork bone, with Old Cucumber (whatever that was, I can't get that here) and other things that I CAN get here, thank goodness. And no Nyonya night could be complete without a Sambal dish - a spicy fermented shrimp and chilli based sauce, fried with a vegetable usually.

I'm also going to cook Pineapple Tarts - another Nyonya speciality, most particularly because my good friend has recently sent me the special moulds to make them look pretty, and Kuih Talam, which seems to be everyone's favourite, a white salted coconut layer over a green pandan rice jelly. Definitely tastes better than it sounds!

I'm sure some other ideas will come to light after I spend the next three weeks being told what to cook by my mother :-) Perhaps we can persuade her to contribute.

Price will be £45 of which £35 will go direct to MSF.

Please mail us with bookings on info@parkholmesupperclub.co.uk