What is Baba Nyonya culture
Baba-Nyonya and Peranakan are terms that refer to a subset of the Chinese population in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. These are the descendants of the Chinese immigrants to this area, the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago in the 15th and 16th century.
Where did these terms come from
Peranakan is a Bahasa Melayu term meaning “descendant”. It does not refer to what they are descended from, just descendant. This term is used mostly when speaking in Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Indonesia. In Indonesian, it was not often complementary. The Chinese population in Indonesia would rather be called orang Tiong Kok or Tiong Hwa. This isn’t really a term that is commonly used in English.
In English, and in Malaysia, we tend to use the terms Baba-Nyonya when referring to the people and the culture. Nyonya is the term for the women and Baba is the term for the men. The origins of these words are quite interesting too. Baba finds its roots in Sanskrit and Indian culture and language, meaning “grandfather.” Nyonya is a Javanese pronunciation of dona, an honorific for women, like Madam, probably borrowed from Italian or Portuguese.
Who in my neighborhood is Baba-Nyonya?
This is a hard one for me to nail down. I often ask my Chinese friends if they are Nyonya and most reply that they aren’t. Their mom might be, or their father might be Baba. But most don’t identify themselves as Baba-Nyonya. It doesn’t seem to pass down through any particular line, father or mother, you either are fully Baba-Nyonya or you aren’t.
I think part of it is the language used at home. It seems as though, if you speak Hokkien or Mandarin, you aren’t Baba-Nyonya.
But it seems like the culture continues through the cuisine. Nyonya cuisine is very popular and seems to be a tradition that is being preserved in kitchens around Penang and beyond in the rest of Malaysia. My friend who has a Nyonya mother, cooks Nyonya food in her own kitchen all the time.
This is going to deserve its own post another time, but I’m going to try to give my own spin on what Nyonya cuisine is. It seems to me that Nyonya cuisine is Chinese cooking that uses Malaysian herbs and spices but melds Melayu, Chinese and some Indian techniques. So the flavors differ from traditional Chinese food because of the spices. It was fusion food before fusion was a thing.
Nyonya curries tend to use all fresh ingredients from the market (rather than curry powders), and these ingredients get ground into a paste. The curry paste is the start of every Nyonya curry.
A popular Nyonya dish is called Ayam Kapitan. My wife has the recipe for it on her blog. We’ll be featuring more recipes like this soon.