Learn how to make an authentic “Nyonya” vegetable curry called “sayur lemak” by making your own curry spice paste at home. “Nyonya” is also pronounced and spelled as “Nonya”.
Traditionally, “nyonya” refers to women with a mixed parentage of Chinese and Malay from the early 15th century in Malaysia. That’s when Chinese, mostly arriving from Southeastern China, with trading expertise looking for overseas trade with other seafarers until it was outlawed in China. Unable to return to their homeland, they became permanent settlers throughout Southeast Asia. This early Chinese settlers married the local Malays and practised a localised way of life. Their children, from its intermarriage, is called “Peranakan” until the late 19th century.
The word “Peranakan” comes from a Malay word, “anak” meaning a child. Hence, peranakan refers to descendant of the child, and “Peranakan Cina” (“Cina” means “Chinese”) refers to a “Straits-born Chinese” in English to a Sino-Malay parentage. The opposite sex of a nyonya is known as “Baba” referring to a straits-born Chinese man. The peranakan food cuisine is called “nyonya food”, not a “baba food” or “peranakan food” for a simple reason. It is traditionally prepared by the women only in a peranakan family. A home nyonya recipe is usually kept secret by the family, only passing down its own family generations, taught by the mothers and grandmothers.
The “Peranakan Cina” or straits-born Chinese heritage, culture and tradition is unique in Malaysia. The nyonya practised a localised Malay custom such as their dressing and cooking, but keeping their Chinese heritage and tradition in their rituals and prayers by following the Chinese lunar calendar from their Chinese ancestors. Peranakan is a colourful culture with intricate artworks displayed in their daily life in nyonya dressing, embroidaries and accessories, glass beaded shoes, colourful design kitchenwares and diningwares, and elaborately detailed architecture designs in guilded gold leaves Chinese motifs in their houses. This Peranakan culture was predominantly practised in Penang and Malacca back then, but unfortunately it is dying off in our modern time. I believe it is almost non-existent now with time pressures. There is less Sino-Malay intermarriage in modern Malaysia. Less young straits-born “nyonya” into a family and it is hard to imagine a young girl would be willing to stay home spending endless hours in the kitchen learning the hard labouries way of preparing 4-6 nyonya dishes for each family meal from their mother and grandmother.
As a 2nd generation Malaysian of Chinese descendants, my mother learnt how to cook in a nyonya tradition from my paternal grandmother and yet her Chinese cooking is from her mother side. I remember watching her prepared the “sambal” (chili paste) by first toasting “belachan” (shrimp paste) over a small portable charcoal stove and faning the charcoal with a small hand-held straw fan until the charcoal sparked. Once the belachan was toasted with a smoky flavour, she would grind it using a stone mortar and pestle. So I am very fortunate to grow up in a Malaysian Chinese family household, learning to cook by watching my mother. Blending a Chinese style cooking by borrowing flavours of local Malay, Indian and even Thai (especially in Nyonya’s salad) in nyonya cooking using spices, herbs, vegetables, shrimp paste “belachan” that are non-traditional to a Chinese, and learning how to make spice paste and chili paste using mortar and pestle. This is the food culture and tradition of a nyonya household in a nyonya kitchen.
But, modern time has make cooking in a home kitchen so much easier with less effort and time, such as using an electric blender to blend a spice paste rather than a traditional way of slowly pounding the spices on a stone mortar and pestle. For convenience sake, I used an electric blender for this recipe to make my spice paste.
In this post, I am sharing my home recipe of a nyonya vegetable curry called “sayur lemak”. This is a Malay word. “Sayur” means vegetables and “lemak” refers to the flavour of the dish, which is rich and creamy using coconut cream or coconut milk. The recipe is below, which you can also print out.
If you are a vegetarian, you can leave out the shrimp paste called “belachan”. Although in nyonya cooking, “belachan” is almost an essential ingredient usually added to give the dish an extra depth and dimension. Like seasoning your dish with a bit of cracked pepper and sea salt, or in a pasta dish with shaved parmesan.
- VEGETABLES (you can use any of your favourite vegetables but be careful of its cook time as some vegetables may need longer cook time than others)
- 2 carrots
- 1 small aubergine (eggplant)
- 2 small sweet potatoes
- 15-20 green beans
- a quarter of white cabbage
- 10 fried puff tofu
- SPICE PASTE (Rempah)
- 3 french shallots (or 1 large red onion)
- 1 lemongrass
- 5 garlic cloves
- 2 long red chilies
- 8 dried chilies
- ginger about a thumb size (or 2 inches)
- galangal about a thumb size (or 2 inches) (optional)
- 3 candlenuts (optional)
- fresh turmeric about 3 inches (or 1 teaspoon turmeric powder)
- 1 teaspoon toasted belachan (shrimp paste) (leave this if you are a vegetarian)
- 400 ml coconut milk
- 1-2 cups of liquid (water or stock)
- salt and sugar to taste
- Wash and cut all the vegetables into small bite pieces and set aside
- Roughly chop all the spice ingredients – ginger, chilies, french shallots or onion, lemongrass, turmeric (if you have the fresh one) galangal (optional)
- Blend the spice ingredients with 1 teaspoon turmeric powder, 1 teaspoon toasted belachan and a bit of cooking oil until smooth. Remove and set aside
- Heat a cup of cooking oil in a warm saucepan or pot or wok on medium heat
- Once oil is warm enough, toss in the blended spice paste. Fry for 2-3 minutes until aromatic and fragrant. Add some liquid if necessary
- Once the paste is starting to simmer and dancing in the pan, add the vegetables that require more cooking time first – carrots, sweet potatoes, eggplants. Add 400 ml coconut milk. Bring to boil and then lower the heat to gentle simmer. Cook for 5 minutes
- Next add the remaining vegetables – green beans, white cabbages and fried puff tofu. Cover with a lid and gentle simmer for another 5 minutes or less if the vegetables require less cook time. Don’t overcook the green beans so they are still nice and crunchy
- Remove the lid and check. If cooked, turn the heat off and season with salt and sugar according to taste
- Remove and plate. Garnish with a bit of fried shallots and serve with steamed rice