Food is almost always inspired by history. While the flavour is a driving force in any dish’s enjoyability, heritage is the reason for a cuisine’s evolution. And when it comes to cuisine in Malaysia, what’s most exciting about our local food scene is the representation of the individual cultures that make up the unique mix of people who identify as Malaysians.
But there’s one type of food in particular that in itself is a cultural mosaic — Peranakan cuisine.
Also known as the Straits-born Chinese, Peranakans are unique people with equally amazing food (think Chinese fare with a special twist you won’t find anywhere else). The descendants of early Chinese who settled down in Melaka, the Peranakans have adopted bits of Malay custom and dressing, which is why you’ll see the ladies, Nyonyas, dressed in their style of the Malay Kebaya.
But more than this, you’ll see plenty of Malay influence in Peranakan cooking that’s Chinese at heart — along with a dash of Indonesian, Indian, Portuguese, and British inspiration or techniques. These influences reflect the hundreds of years spent in Malaysia since the 13th century. In other words, Peranakan food is history served with a side of sambal.
Many of the dishes are spicy, unlike a lot of traditional Chinese fare, and are eaten by hand (Malay influence) or with a spoon and fork (British influence). But hey, even if you decide to go to town on the food laid out in front of you with chopsticks, anything goes. Just be sure you head to one of these restaurants that have preserved the essence of Baba-Nyonya cooking (Baba is what Peranakan men are called).
Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery, Penang
Peranakan food abounds on the tiny island of Penang, but being a Malaysian destination famous for hella good eats, expect the real deal with a meal at Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery. Replete with old-school mementoes that takes you down a Malaysian time tunnel, don’t be distracted from the food. Everything from their cucur udang (prawn fritters) to their curry chicken kapitan (a signature dish that’s mild in spiciness but heavy on tenderness and flavour) is delish.
PS: It’s important to note that the nickname ‘kapitan’ is a title the Portuguese gave to the head of Chinese clans in Melaka during the 15th century. This makes the chicken kapitan a significant Peranakan dish, a marriage between Indian and Malay cooking.
Address: 1, Bishop St, Georgetown, 10200 George Town, Penang
Sarang Cookery, Bukit Bintang, KL
Sarang Cookery prides itself on making everything from scratch — from their kuihs (small, often bite-sized traditional cakes) to their Chicken Sioh (non-spicy Peranakan stew cooked with tamarind juice). You’ll also find other Malaysian favourites, like Assam Laksa (noodles in tangy fish broth topped with strips of cucumber, onions, and pineapple) and Nasi Goreng Kampung (fried rice with anchovies and kangkung). Flavour-wise, everything comes from the raw ingredients used to whip up the dishes; no MSG is used at Sarang Cookery.
Address: 8, Jalan Galloway, Bukit Bintang, 50150 Kuala Lumpur
Limapulo: Baba Can Cook, Heritage Row, KL
Come for the food, stay for the hospitality. A popular choice amongst KL-ites for hearty Nyonya fare, Limapulo offers honest-to-goodness family recipes that taste as if they came right out of your Nyonya grandma’s kitchen. The same can be said for the hospitality, as the late Uncle John (purveyor of the restaurant and the Baba who can cook) played host with the most to his patrons.
But we’re happy to see his legacy of good food and great company live on at the restaurant. Must-try dishes include the Nyonya Laksa and Sambal Petai Prawns. You can count on recipes handed down generations being at the core of their food.
Address: 50, Jalan Doraisamy, Chow Kit, 50300 Kuala Lumpur
Aunty Nat, Sri Hartamas, KL
Another favourite amongst KL-ites, Aunty Nat’s, is practically an institution! While their lunch sets serve as a cheap and cheerful option for a quick meal, we do recommend going all out with a group of friends when dining here.
Expect quality eats and consistency of good food that won’t let you down. Our favourite viands to have with a steaming heap of white rice when here are the kangkung belacan, deep-friend salted egg squid, pong teh chicken, ayam buah keluak (black fruit), and otak-otak. Yum.
Address: 7, Jalan Sri Hartamas 7, Taman Sri Hartamas, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Anak Baba, Brickfields, KL
Having started as a stall in Melaka selling the family’s cendol (shaved ice dessert with santan (coconut milk), gula Melaka and pandan ‘noodles’), restauranteur Victor Low has helped his father’s post-retirement business into one quite literally serving up his family’s legacy on a plate. This once humble stall is now a thriving restaurant, just a stone’s throw from KL’s boujie Bangsar neighbourhood.
Sink your teeth into favourites such as the Nyonya laksa — the restaurant’s signature. Victor laments that when they first opened the doors of Anak Baba in the early naughties, they had to explain to patrons that Nyonya laksa isn’t at all like curry laksa. Instead of curry powder, its broth is a decadent blend of spices with serai, lengkuas, turmeric, and onions, melded together with santan and served with prawns, cockles, and fish cakes.
Address: 159, Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, Brickfields, 50470 Kuala Lumpur
Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine, Melaka
A restaurant with food so good, we had to come back twice! Located smack bang in Melaka town, Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine is a favourite among locals and tourists. Pricing is decent too, and the menu stays focused on Peranakan fare. Favourites here include the ayam pong teh, pai tee, fried squid, sambal udang petai, otak-otak, Amy’s fried chicken wings, and their unique kangkung kobis keledek masak titik lemak (a vegetable dish Madam Amy herself says is her own unique recipe not to be found anywhere else).
Address: 75, Jalan Melaka Raya 24, Taman Melaka Raya, 75000 Melaka
Jonker 88, Melaka
This popular little joint is located right off Melaka’s famed Jonker Street. They may have a limited menu, but what little they offer is made to perfection — just how it ought to be. Choose from three main types of laksa here — Baba Laksa (spicy coconut-based broth), Nyonya Asam Laksa (Sour and spicy broth), and the Nyonya Asam Laksa Kahwin Baba Laksa (a marriage of the two as the name suggests, resulting in a sour and spicy coconut mix).
Of course, there are other dishes to try, too, like the fully-loaded cendol that they top off with yummy, pungent durian. Also, give their rojak (mixed veggie and fruit salad with spicy sauce) a go. Their dressing is so popular that you can even buy jars to bring back.
Address: 88, Jalan Hang Jebat, 75200 Melaka
Peranakan Place, Melaka
A three-minute walk from the Jonker Street Night Market (with plenty of good eats, too), this spot is hard to miss! From its vibrant yellow facade with rainbow-like detail featuring Old Malayan-style window panes and elaborate architecture to the inner trimmings of patterned Peranakan tiles, the original Peranakan Place in Melaka is a stunner.
Now a franchise (there are three branches in KL), this is the perfect place for a quick fix. There’s a wide array of authentic Nyonya food on offer here, including nasi pandan kukus and multiple fried rice variants. For mains, the Pineapple Lemak Prawn, Honey Sotong, and Gerang Asam Fish (a spicy, sweet, and sour concoction) come up tops!
Address: Jonker Street, 54, Jalan Hang Jebat, 75200 Melaka
Baba Charlie Cafe, Melaka
Much like Penang and Ipoh, Melaka is known for having really good food. This is the go-to for any and all things kuih-related. You’ll find all the kuih-muih you could want here, including kuih abu sagu, seri muka pandan, kuih Portugal ubi, kuih talam, and heaps more. There are also savoury options, such as the Creamy Laksa and Sour Asam Rebus. As their tagline suggests, it’s a taste of tradition.
Address: 631, Jalan Siantan 1/5, Taman Siantan Seksyen 1, 75200 Melaka