The Baba-Nyonyas or Peranakans are descendants of the early Chinese immigrants to Malaysia (then known as Malaya), Singapore, and Indonesia. They intermarried with the local population. Many were traders from the province of Fujian, China, attracted by the bustling spice trade. They started arriving as early as the 15th century. As time went by, their population grew. When the British established the Straits Settlement of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore in the early 19th century, the Peranakans in these places became known as the Straits Chinese. Today, Peranakans are considered ethnic Chinese. Most marry within their own community and assimilate back into mainstream Chinese culture.
While the early Chinese intermarried with the Malays, they retain most of their ethnic and religious (ancestral worship) origins. They did however assimilate the local language and customs. They developed their own patois, corrupting the use of Hokkien (Fujianese), Malay, and subsequently English. Their clothing, the Baju Panjang or Baju Kebaya Nyonya was adapted from the Malay Baju Kurung. It is worn with keronsang (brooches), batik sarong (wrap), and kasut manik (beaded slippers). Their food developed into a unique cuisine with influences from neighboring countries.
Nyonya cuisine is a blending of Chinese ingredients with the spices used by the Malay community. The food is aromatic, tangy, spicy, and herbal. Key ingredients include coconut milk, candle nuts, belachan (shrimp paste), cincaluk (pickled baby shrimp), tamarind juice, turmeric, galangal (similar to ginger), asam gelugor (asam keping), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, pandan leaves, mint leaves, daun kesum (polygonum), and torch ginger. Like all cuisines, there are regional differences. Dishes from the island of Penang and the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia are more spicy and tangy. They draw their inspiration from Thailand. Dishes from Malacca and Singapore show more influence from Indonesia. They are sweeter and rich in coconut milk.
This Chicken Curry with Kaffir Lime Leaves is very much a part of the Nyonya Cuisine. It is rich and creamy, yet spicy and tangy. The addition of kaffir lime leaves gives it a wonderful fragrance. Kaffir lime leaves are highly aromatic and are a great addition to spicy soups and curries. Fresh, tender young leaves can be sliced and used in salads. I have seen one or two Asian grocery stores here in the US carry the fresh leaves but they are not a regular item on the shelves. Fortunately, they are also sold dried, and this is really convenient. The tangy taste of the curry comes from asam gelugor which are slices of dried fruit of the asam gelugor tree indigenous to Malaysia. I have not seen them being sold here but they can be substituted with lime juice.
- 20 oz boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 3 small Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 5 kaffir lime leaves
- ½ cup coconut cream **
- ½ cup water **
- 2 tbsp lime juice or 2 pieces assam gelugor
- 3 tbsp oil
- salt to taste
- 5 fresh red chilies, cut into small pieces
- 6 shallots or 1 medium sized onion, peeled, and cut into small pieces
- 1 stalk lemon grass, sliced bottom third into rings
- 1½ in galangal or ginger root
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled, and halved
- ½ tsp tumeric powder
Grind spice paste ingredients in a blender or food processor with 2 tablespoons of water.
Heat oil in a medium sized pot and stir fry ground spice paste until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add chicken and stir till chicken turns opaque, about 3 minutes.
Pour in coconut cream and water**. Add kaffir lime leaves and assam gelugor, if using. When it comes to a boil, season with salt. Reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes.
Add cubed potatoes and continue to cook for another 15 minutes, until potatoes are tender, and gravy has thicken.
If you did not use assam gelugor, stir in lime juice now. Turn off heat and allow curry to sit for 15 minutes before serving.
**Instead of ½ cup coconut cream and ½ cup water, you can simply use 1 cup coconut milk.
More recipes for you to try
Nyonya ware is porcelain found among the Straits Chinese of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore. It has distinctive colors of green, pink, and yellow. Kitchen Ching are the common household pottery, often decorated in blue and white. The pictures above show the curry in a Kitchen Ching bowl.
NOTE: This post was updated on October 30th, 2011 with new write-up and pictures. No changes were made to the recipe.
Enjoy…..and have a wonderful day!