Tracking down the origins of Nonya cooking

An old-fashioned wire mesh for toasting dried cuttlefish.
An old-fashioned wire mesh for toasting dried cuttlefish.PHOTO: THE STAR / ANN

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ANN) - Bending and twisting lengths of wires with bare fingers, he fashioned a handheld grill – the kind that your grandmother might have used – for toasting dried cuttlefish, belacan or toast over a small charcoal stove.

It took him an entire day, but these days, the retired professor of electrical engineering is quite content to spend his time tinkering over small kitchen tools.

“It’s quite simple to make but not easy to get it perfect,” he tells me over an espresso at Podgy And The Banker in Desa Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, his face breaking out in a wide grin.

His book, Nonya Heritage Kitchen – Origins, Utensils And Recipes, is freshly minted. He flips to the page where he is hammering grilled jiuhu (cuttlefish) set over what looks like a structural steel I-beam. “I remember seeing the Malay hawker making his sotong bakar outside Union School in Penang this way years ago; I thought I would try it as well,” says the Penang-born Dr Ong Jin Teong, who now lives in Singapore.

Once a fixture in every home 50 years ago, the handheld grill, along with the charcoal stove, coconut grater and batu giling, has all but disappeared from our kitchens, made redundant in the machine age.

Now items in an antique shop or museum, these old-fashioned kitchen tools have become objects of fascination for this Baba in his investigation to find out if popular food, cooking techniques, ingredients and utensils interacted to create nonya or Peranakan cuisine. The Peranakan culture is the result of the intermarriage between Chinese – predominantly Hokkien – men and Malay women from the 15th century onwards.


Dr Ong Jin Teong in Penang, looking for his fix of tok tok mee. PHOTO: NONYA HERITAGE KITCHEN
 

The early Peranakan community sprung up in Malacca which had been colonised in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch and English since the 16th century.

“Nonya cuisine is an early example of fusion food, one that evolved from this integration of Malay and Hokkien food with the colonial cuisines of Portugal, the Netherlands and England,” Ong tells in his book.

When Penang was founded by the English East India Company in 1786, a Peranakan community was established in George Town by Chinese settlers who came from Kedah and southern Thailand.

A similar community was established in Singapore when Raffles arrived in 1819 and Peranakan families from Malacca, Penang and the Indonesian Riau Islands moved to the new settlement because of the prospects of trade.

“Hence, the Nonyas and Babas of Malaya were predominantly centred in what was known as the British Straits Settlements made up of Singapore, Malacca and Penang.”

In the preparation of their food, the Nonyas use a large variety of utensils which originated from all over the world, particularly China and India.

“You could say that these utensils have shaped Nonya cuisine literally and metaphorically,” he says.

These include the batu giling grinding stone, “most probably of Indian origin”; the mortar and pestle (lesong), of indeterminate origin but he suggested South America as the Mayans and Aztecs have used it for more than six centuries; the stone mill (cheok bo), of Chinese and Indian origin; ladles made of coconut shells (senduk), of Malay origin; carved wooden moulds such as those for shaping angku and kuih bangkit, from China; claypots (blangah), from India; clippers for making kuih kapit (love letters) are “by intent and purposes identical to Dutch knieperties waffle irons”; and kuih bahulu pan could have a Portuguese origin although the Chinese have similar sponge cakes.

“The mould for making koay pai ti shells and the origin of the dish is less clear,” he says. The fact that it is also known as Singapore popiah and Syonanto pie, seems to point to Singapore while Java kwei patti and kroket Tjanker suggest Java and Dutch Indonesia.

The roti jala spout, on the other hand, he says, is an entirely nonya invention. “A clever Nonya, frustrated from drizzling batter from her fingers to make the lacy pancake, probably commissioned her local metalsmith to make her an innovative cup with many thin spouts.”

On this last suggestion I am inclined to argue that roti jala is not considered part of the Nonya repertoire but that of the Malay, with its roots in the many roti of Indian origin such as the string hoppers and rawa tosai.

The word “roti” in the name is a giveaway. Roti comes from the Sanskrit word “rotika” for bread. The device for making string hoppers, however, is quite different from the one used for roti jala.

Before the tin or brass roti jala mould became widely available, the innovative cook devised a spout by punching holes in a used tin can – typically a condensed milk can popular at the time.


Roti jala cups made of brass and an improvised funnel using banana leaf. PHOTO: NONYA HERITAGE KITCHEN

The closest to a roti jala mould that I have come across is a home device for making kataifi, a hair-like pastry popular in Greece and the Arabic world. Now kataifi is made with a machine to produce far more superior, fine strands.

To link the kataifi mould to the roti jala mould, however, is another story. But if the lesong can come from the Peruvian world, it is a far less far-fetched story for the roti jala mould to have arrived from the Arab world as Asia have been trading with them since the first millennium BC.

Closer to home – just for the fun of speculating – the jala mould has some resemblance to the kettle used for holding hot water for making coffee in a kopitiam. A cook could have very well imagined a smaller version for making roti jala.

When cornered about the nonya appropriation, Ong laughs. “It is merely a conjecture; it’s a way to start conversations about our food origins,” he says. “Go on and prove me wrong!”

Apart from the tools, food origins can also be traced from the names. The words koay (Chinese), kuih (Malay) and kue (Indonesian) all describe a kind of sticky sweet cake and comes from the original Chinese character which is made up of the character for “rice” and “fruit”.

When you think about it, it is true that most kuihs are made of ground rice or sticky rice, or their flours. For example, kuih talam, kuih koci, koay pai ti, angku kuih, chai kuih, and etc.

The fruit element is more difficult to explain for most of the kuih do not contain fruit. Could it be a symbolic reference to the colourful aspect of kuih or their sweet nature?

Hence, it could also be inferred that all kuihs with the word “kuih” as an intrinsic part of the name, likely originate from the Chinese community.

This claim can further be boosted by considering the cooking method employed. If the kuih is made by steaming, the Chinese origin is reinforced as this method of cooking is most associated with the Chinese. If it is deep-fried, a Malay or Indian origin is possible.

But you get the picture: tracing the origin of our foods is a fascinating and complex exercise going back in time to unearth buried history.

The kitchen also proves to be a hotbed of innovation. While the wok is what he can’t cook without, Ong is most proud of the coconut scrapper that he fashioned himself from a stick and a bottle cap.


Common Nonya kitchen tools. PHOTO: NONYA HERITAGE KITCHEN

“I saw one in a market in Phnom Penh. It was such a simple tool but it works! I made my own when I got back.”

The other thing he has made is a wooden box for compressing pulut taitai that accommodates exactly 1kg of glutinous rice, and he made sure that his foot could fit the cover “should there be a need to stand on it!”

But fret not if you do not have a tailor-made pulut taitai mould. Ong has an ingenious idea: “Use two cake tins with detachable bases; you can use the second base as a cover to press down the steamed rice.” Voilà.

The one kitchen gadget that he would like to reinvent is an automated system for making koay pai ti shells – “Making the shells manually is so time consuming even though I could make about 100 an hour!”

The most useful modern invention? “The Thermomix; it can be programmed to cook at a set temperature and time, and it is very good for making kaya and to tumis rempah.”

In the book, he shares his family recipes, writing in great detail on how to replicate the original taste. His favourite recipes are koay pai ti, onde-onde and roti jala. “If I have to choose, it would be the pai ti,” he says.

The pai ti holds a lot of good memories for him as his mother used to make pai ti for every birthday party.

“My mother’s pai ti has a special filling with julienne of belly pork, chopped prawns and crab meat; in Singapore they make popiah and as an afterthought, buy pai ti shells to go with the popiah filling.”

Among the recipes shared, some are in danger of disappearing, like the sandy sesargon snack and cheak bee soh, which looks in all intent, like a curry puff with a vegetable filling similar to that of pai ti.

“Cheak bee soh is no longer commercially made and hardly prepared at home, too. It was served during weddings along with other Nonya kuihs in the old days. When the other kuihs cost RM5 sen each, cheak bee soh cost RM20 sen! That’s because it is very difficult to make.

“The dough has to be mixed, boiled and kneaded when hot to make the skin. I learned to make it from my wife’s aunt to whom I am indebted for the other kuih recipes as well. Hence, this book is dedicated to her.”