Glorious Food: Nyonya food

Penang Nyonya food © Adrian Cheah

Nyonya cooking is peculiar only to the Chinese of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. In a nutshell, the Peranakan culture is itself a melding of two distinct groups, namely the Chinese who settled in Southeast Asia in the 19th century and the local Malays. Out of this intermixture came forth interesting customs and traditions hitherto non-existent. Much of Nyonya cooking is inspired by the rich spices of Malay cooking featuring local herbs and ingredients. However in Penang, Nyonya cooking also has a very strong Thai influence, borrowing soury and fiery flare from their neighbouring country.

Their distinct curries and spiced salads like acar and kerabu are simply delicious. Typical Nyonya savoury dishes include otak-otak, ayam pongteh, devil's curry, tauyu bak, pai tee, assam pedas, kari kapitan, inche kabin, roti babi, babi chin, kangkung belacan, assam laksa, laksa lemak, ayam buah keluak masak assam, geram asam and itik tim. Nyonya deserts and cakes are also hot favourites.


cendol © Adrian Cheah

Cendol is a favourite desert among locals. It is easily identified: green pandan-flavoured noodles, kidney beans in white coconut milk with palm sugar. Sweet heavenly stuff – super cheap and ultra good.

For good cendol (in no particular order): Teochew Chendul off Penang Road, Gurney Drive Hawker Centre, Taman Free School food court and Lorong Selamat coffee shop.


Penang laksa © Adrian Cheah

Penang laksa is extremely popular, especially among locals for its wonderful balance of spicy, sweet and sour flavours. This is strictly a hawker treat, as one is unlikely to find great laksa in a fancy restaurant. It is basically made out of coarse rice noodles in a sour fish in assam-base gravy, plus a robust combo of onions, sliced chilli, cucumber, pineapple and bunga kantan (ginger buds); topped with a swirl of thick, black shrimp paste sauce. There is also an alternative variant called Siam laksa, which has a coconut milk based soup instead of assam (tamarind).

Available at most hawker centres in Penang. For delicious laksa (in no particular order), try:

  • Ayer Itam Laksa beside the wet market | 11:00am – 8:00pm
  • Kim’s Laksa at 20, Jalan Sungai Air Putih, Bandar Baru Air Putih, 11000 Balik Pulau | +6012 428 6235 | 11.00am –5.00pm | Closed on alternate Mondays and every Tuesday
  • Café Ko Cha Bi Balik Pulau at 110, Jalan Balik Pulau | 10:00am – 6:00pm
  • Bee Hooi Restaurant at 415, Jalan Burma | 6:00pm – 10:00pm
  • Cecil Street wet market and hawker centre | 8:00am – 5:00pm
  • Gurney Drive hawker stalls in the evenings
  • Kek Seng Coffee Shop at 382 & 384, Jalan Penang | 9:00am – 5:00pm
  • Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa at 329, Jalan Burma | 10:30am – 4:30 pm
  • Laksalicious at 123, Hutton Lane, 10050 George Town | 11:30am – 7:30pm
  • Laksa Tempurung Ombak Damai at Jalan Gertak Sanggul, Kampung Suluk | (Monday –Thursday) 3:00pm – 7:30pm (Saturday & Sunday) 12:30pm – 8:00pm (closed on Fridays)
  • One Corner Cafe at 4-8, Jalan Bawasah | 7:00am – 2:00pm
  • Penang Road Famous Laksa at 5, Lebuh Keng Kwee, Off Penang Road | 9:00am – 6:00pm
  • Shell Station Laksa @ Farlim at 1-G-01, Jalan RU 1, Bandar Baru Air Itam | 11:00am – 7:00pm (closed on alternate Tuesdays)
  • Taman Emas Laksa at 1, Jalan Gottlieb | 12:00noon – 5:15pm (closed on Mondays)

Loh bak

Penang loh bak © Adrian Cheah

Loh bak is a pork roll wrapped with bean curd skin and deep-fried until crispy. The filling include strips of pork marinated in five-spice powder and various ingredients such as water chestnuts, jicama, carrot and onions. Loh bak is available at most hawker centres throughout Penang. Alongside loh bak, you would be happy to find other companions on offer too such as prawn fritters, spring rolls, fish fritters, fried bean curd, baby octopus as well as century eggs with pickled ginger. Select what you fancy and a plate of these scrumptious delight would be served with sides of freshly cut cucumber and starchy soy-flavored and chilli dipping sauces. 

For the best loh bak in town (in no particular order):

  • Kafe Ping Hooi at 179, Lebuh Carnarvon | 8:00am – 2.30pm
  • Kheng Pin Cafe at 80, Penang Road | 7:00am – 3:00pm
  • Taman Free School Food Court at 75, Jalan Trengganu | 1:00pm – 10:00pm
  • Tan Jetty Loh Bak at 90-A, Tan Jetty, Weld Quay | 8:00am – 6:00pm
  • Chulia Street Night Hawker| 6:00pm – 12:00pam
  • Joo Hooi Café at 475, Jalan Penang | 11:30am – 5:30pm
  • Hon Kei Food Corner at 45, Kampung Malabar | 9:00am – 3:00pm, 5:00pm – 12:00am
  • Kedai Kopi Seng Thor at 160, Lebuh Carnarvon | 2:00pm – 5:00pm

Nyonya kuih

Penang Nyonya kuih © Adrian Cheah

Penang Nyonya kuih © Adrian Cheah

Nyonya kuih include a wide selection of colourful, dainty bites such as angku, bee koh, kuih talam, kow chan kuih, seri muka, pulau tai tai, abuk abuk, onde onde, kuih kosui, pulut inti, rempah udang, kuih tayap, kuih koci and kuih bengka.

For the best Nyonya kuih in town (in no particular order):

  • Nyonya Kuih stalls at Ayer Itam Market, Batu Lanchang Market, Cecil Street Market
  • Kuih Nyonya Moh Teng Pheow at Jalan Masjid (off Chulia Street) | T: +6012 415 2677
  • Mama Kuih at Apollo Market, Jalan Raja Uda | T: +6012 489 8368
  • Genting Cafe at Lorong Delima 3, Taman Island Glades

Nyonya dishes

Penang Nyonya food © Adrian Cheah

Penang Nyonya food © Adrian Cheah

Must try Nyonya dishes are kiam chye boay, joo hoo char, otak-otak, sambal boreng, acar awak, perut ikan, asam prawn, asam pedas, nasi ulam, kerabu beehoon, kerabu kacang botol and curry kapitan.

To sample some of the best Nyonya dishes in town, try these restaurants: 

  • Auntie Gaik Lean’s: 1, Bishop St | T: +604 263 8121
  • Little Nyonya Kitchens: 179, Lebuh Noordin | T: +604 261 6731
  • Ivy's Kitchen: 58, Jalan Chow Thye | T: +6013 433 7878
  • Kebaya Dining Room: Seven Terraces, Lorong Stewart | T: +604 264 2333
  • Mama's Nyonya Cuisine: 31-D, Lorong Abu Siti | T: +604 229 1318
  • McNair Restaurant Nyonya Cuisine: 164,166, 168 Lebuh Mcnair | T:+604 261 0096
  • Nyonya Breeze Desire: 3A-1-7, Straits Quay | T: +604 899 9058
  • Nyonya Su Pei Private Dining: No 2, Lebuhraya Bodhi | T: +6016 410 6116
  • Perut Rumah Nyonya Cuisine: 17, Jalan Bawasah | T: +604 227 9917
  • Richard Rivalee Nyonya Cuisine Restaurant, 282, Jalan Burma, George Town, 10350 George Town | T: +604 227 4888
  • The Legend Nyonya House: 2, Gat Lebuh Chulia | T: +604 251 9598

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 18 August 2020

Colourful onde onde ubi keledek recipe from Madam Lily Wong

Onde onde © Adrian Cheah

Nyonya kuih are colourful Asian sweet cakes that are popularly served for breakfast and afternoon tea and as snacks anytime of the day. The selections are many and varied, available at morning markets and food courts throughout Penang.  One such type is the explosively delicious onde onde. 

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Savoury Or Kuih (steamed yam cake) recipe from Madam Lily Wong

Or kuih (yam cake) © Adrian Cheah

Or Kuih is a mashed steamed yam cake garnished with fried dried shrimps, shallot crisps, spring onions and diced chillies. The cake is light and flavourful, best eaten with chilli sauce or "ti ciau" (fermented sweet soy sauce). Delicious yam cake must be soft with the rich taste of yam chunks.

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Chio Hua, the golden Nyonya Jelly

Nyonya jelly © Adrian Cheah

Reminiscing about my childhood days brings back fond golden memories especially about the kitchen where I first fell in love with cooking. For me, everything that my mum shared with me will always have a special place in my heart – from cooking the most fiery sambal babi to making crunchy Nyonya jelly. Mum has definitely enriched my childhood with these experiences.

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Otak-otak, a savory parcel of fish custard

Otak-otak © Adrian Cheah

Unwrap a parcel of otak-otak and you will catch a waft of the spicy, delicious egg-like fish custard that is usually served with other dishes common in a Nyonya household. Otak-okak can also be eaten on its own or as an appetiser or even with bread. This popular dish is available at Nyonya restaurants, some food courts and wet markets, as well as a common spread in “Economy Rice” stalls.

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The art of making the perfect Kuih Kapit (love letters)

Kuih Kapit © Adrian Cheah

Some people claim that oysters are an aphrodisiac. Then there are others who say that the tomato is the food of love (from its name pomme d'amour – French for "love apple").

In Malaysia, there exists a delicacy that, despite its name, is neither an aphrodisiac nor a love potion. Yet those who have tasted it have been known to wax lyrical over the exquisite flavour. The "love letter", more commonly known as Kuih Kapit (a paper-thin crispy biscuit), is an essential feature of Chinese and Malay festivals.

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Kuih Bangkit (Tapioca cookies) – a popular Chinese New Year favourite

Kuih Bangkit © Adrian Cheah

Kuih Bangkit is one of the classic Chinese New Year cookies beside Kuih Kapit and pineapple tarts which are adored by Penangites. What makes this traditional snow-white Nyonya cookie good is the aromatic smell that welcomes you the moment you bite into the crispy outer later which then melts in your mouth to a powdery softness.

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The culinary legacy of the Nyonyas

Nyonya cooking © Adrian Cheah

Historical records suggest that when Chinese migrants arrived in then Malaya, they brought with them several culinary styles, among them Hakka, Hainan, Foochow, Canton and others. One style of cooking which metamorphosed out of these 'prototypes' is known today as Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine, a combination of Chinese and Malay flavours.

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Make your own Acar Awak (spicy mixed vegetable pickle)

Acar Awak © Adrian Cheah

A crunchy and aromatic dish concocted of mixed vegetables infused in a rich and spicy gravy garnished with crushed groundnuts. This dish acts as an appetiser in any meal. It adds zest to a plain dish of 'economy' fried bee hoon.

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Acar Chee Ya Hu (pickled mullet fish)

Acar Hu © Adrian Cheah

This is one of my mum's favourite acars. She has been making this for as long as I can remember. It is such an appetising dish when served with a bowl of steaming white rice.

Like other Nyonya acars, this dish is a combination of sweet and mostly tart flavours. However, the other ingredients, like onions and garlic still impart their individual aromas. The deep-fried fish absorbs the gravy and becomes succulent and moist.

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Kebaya – inventive pan-Asian haute cuisine

Kebaya © Adrian Cheah

The first time I sampled Christopher Ong’s cooking was at a Chinese New Year open house he held many years back. Lam Mee was on the line up and although it is an uncomplicated dish to prepare, a flavourful stock was necessary to serve up a delicious bowl. With a dollop of sambal belacan on the side, I relish the entire bowl with gusto that day. It was wonderful and had just the right combination of everything a good bowl of Lam Mee would call for. Chris also highlighted that I was eating off an authentic antique Peranakan blue and white batik bowl.

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