Penang Nnonya Food
Penang Nnonya Food

As Bee Lee Tan says in her introduction to Penang Authentic Nyonya Cuisine (Mother’s Recipes),’No recipe can be perfect or accurate, chiefly because there are so many variables in cooking.’

One person’s Penang Laksa might be prepared slightly differently or add or subtract a particular ingredient. However, the basic dish does shine through and a Penang Laksa will have a commonality that is recognizable as’Penang Laksa’ to all.

Bee Lee goes on to say that there are many Nyonya cookbooks out there but many end up fusing the modern with the traditional and each chef, rightly, puts their own twist on an old favourite to improve it to their own taste. Bee Lee’s recipes go back to the roots of the dish and tell you what is essentially and Authentically Nyonya cooking.

Penang (Air Hitam) Laksa Ingredients A: 400g coarse rice vermicelli 500g fish herring, mackerel or yellow tail 6 dried chillies Ingredients B: 1 large brown onion, sliced ½ tsp. galangal ½ tsp. turmeric powder 2.5cm piece belachan 3-4 cups water 1 tbsp. tamarind juice 4 tamarind pieces 3 or 4 sprigs polygonum Garnish: 1 lemon or 2 limes 3-4 sprigs of mint leaves, stalk removed 2 tbsp. black prawn paste ½ pineapples 1 cucumber 1 onion 1 pink ginger bud (optional) 1 red chili

Her wish is that the reader also takes away a little insight into the Baba and Nyonya’s diminishing culture which covers a substantial portion of her text to describing their traditional life and times through her personal journey using her Nyonya family background and childhood memories as context.

First, I feel that we should cover what exactly is Nyonya and Baba. Chinese migrants have long gravitated towards the world’s busiest trading centres, seeking out opportunities, which in the 15th and 16th Century was regionally located in Indonesia and later Malaya.

Many of these Chinese were single when they left and ended up taking local wives. The children of these mixed race marriages became known as Nyonya-Baba or Peranakan Chinese (meaning of Chinese decent); men were called Babas and the women, Nyonyas.

Method Soak vermicelli in water and boil until soft but firm in the centre. Rinse in cold water, drain and set aside. Then grind ingredients A into a fine paste and set aside as well. Boil fish in water and cool before removing bones. Add curry paste into the fish stock and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Add polygonum. Tamarind pieces and tamarind juice. Serve by placing vermicelli in a bowl and garnisihing with vegetables. Fill the bowl with the curry soup, black bean paste, sliced chillies and lemon can be added if desired.

Many came to settle in the emerging colony of the Straits settlements (Singapore, Malacca and Penang) under the British and quickly became a major trading force building language skills and wealth. Along the way they brought influences in the Chinese cuisine from Indonesian, Thai and Malay cooking.

The art of cooking was compulsory learning for the young Nyonya girls who learnt from their mothers at a very young age, the best way to prepare the ingredients, artfully carve vegetables into minor works of art and had to be proficient before they came of age to marry.

They would have been considered not well brought up if they could not prepare traditional Nyonya cuisine to the satisfaction of their inlaws and brought disgrace to her family.

The Penang style of Nyonya cooking was heavily influenced by Thai cuisine due to its proximity to Thailand and the availability of ingredients.

Nnonya Food Penang
Nnonya Food Penang

Penang Nyonya cuisine has always had a local following and many people travel here just for the food. In recent years this fame has spread around the world with the New York Times readers voting Penang as the second best destination in the world for food in 2009.

This, coupled with the UNESCO Heritage status awarded to Penang in 2008, is bringing in a new breed of tourists who are more interested in the heritage architecture and the Nyonya Cuisine than they are in the tropical climate and the beaches, although these features sure do not harm the tourists desire to be here.

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion (Museum) is a fine example of the affluent Babas and Nyonyas household and the finery that they could afford and is most certainly worth a visit when you are next in George Town, Penang.

In particular it is of interest to foodies wanting to really get authentic recipes to see an original kitchen set-up and the kitchen layout at Pinang Peranakan Mansion is well worth the visit.

We will be featuring heritage and boutique Hotels in our May edition so do make sure you register at to secure your copy of ‘What’s On Penang’.

Bee Lee Tan’s – Penang Authentic Nyonya Cuisine (Mother’s Recipes) is available to buy – just send us an email for details.


Nnonya Food on Penang
Nnonya Food on Penang

When was your first recollection of Penang Laksa?

When I was about 6 yrs old, I used to walk home from school in the midday sun. One day, as I was approaching home I could smell fish curry permeating in the air and saw many people queuing at our back door. I hurried my footsteps and followed the smell of curry home.

Who taught you how to make Laksa?

My mother and servant- Ah Mooi used to make fresh rice noodles by grinding rice and cooking rice flour. When it is cooked, the mixture would go in to a mould and long strand of noodles will be pressed out in a bucket of cold water. I was fascinated to soak my hands in the water and I volunteered to twirl into figure 8 shape and drained on a bamboo basket. Kitchen was regarded as an unsafe place for a child, but I stood up on a stool from the dining room and watched what was added in the curry. I watched her grinding the ingredients and asked a lot of questions until she ignored me but she promised to let me stir the curry when my mother was out of the room! Ah Mooi was a great teacher and taught me many dishes ever since.

Where is your favourite Laksa store?

My favourite Laksa would be in Ayer Itam market, they use fresh rice noodles which is nostalgic to childhood memories and they operate daily in the late afternoon.

is Laksa available in Australia and how close to the original?

Unfortunately, in Australia, fish is not so readily available as in Penang, herring fish could be caught on the coast line but they do not have it often in the fish market and fish is very expensive here. But for those who have travelled to Penang, they will always salivate about delicious Penang Laksa!