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A Chinese Princess and a magic well
December 24, 2012 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Historically, the city states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to regional kingdoms such as those of China and Siam. Closer relations with China were established in the early 15th century during the reign of Parameswara, founder of Melaka, when Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) sailed through the Straits of Malacca. Impressed by the tribute, the Yongle Emperor of China is said to have presented Princess Hang Li Po* as a gift to Mansur Shah, then Sultan of Malacca (+/-1459 AD). Tradition claims the courtiers and servants who accompanied the princess settled in Bukit Cina, intermarried with the locals and grew into a community known as the Peranakan. Colloquially known as Baba-Nyonya, the Peranakan or Straits Chinese, they retained many of their ethnic and religious customs, but assimilated the language and clothing of the Malays. They developed a unique culture and distinct foods. Nyonya cuisine is one of the most highly rated in the South East Asian region, considered some of the most difficult to master but very easy to love and enjoy.
posted by infini (25 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
...and i'm just in the mood for some assam laksa. </3 /foreign grad student
posted by cendawanita at 11:48 AM on December 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Malacca was my favourite part of Malaysia when I lived there ten years ago, due in no small part to the food. I wish I could try my hand at cooking Nyonya food, but I would have to substitute so many ingredients it wouldn't be worth the effort.

Great post!
posted by arcticwoman at 11:56 AM on December 24, 2012


...and might I add: oh nom nom.

My Christmas dinner for tomorrow now seems so...ordinary.
posted by digitalprimate at 12:04 PM on December 24, 2012


never knew about it, but now i want to try nyonya food. thanks for the links!
posted by fuzzypantalones at 12:07 PM on December 24, 2012


I would have to substitute so many ingredients it wouldn't be worth the effort.

Apparently not, according to the author of the rasamalaysia nyonya section (distinct foods link). For example,

If you can’t find candlenuts at your local Asian stores, you can use macadamia nuts as a substitute as they have a similarly high oil content and texture when pounded.
posted by infini at 1:51 PM on December 24, 2012


Great post!

2nd
posted by Smedleyman at 2:34 PM on December 24, 2012


If you want more on SE Asian food, one of the best is food writer Robyn Eckhardt who, with her photographer husband David Hagerman, has one of the best food blogs of Asia: EatingAsia.

e.g. EatingAsia - Malaysia
posted by gen at 3:18 PM on December 24, 2012


EatingAsia - Malacca
posted by gen at 3:19 PM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yum yum! Great post.

My Christmas dinner for tomorrow now seems so...ordinary.

We'll have the turkey etc. tomorrow, but tonight my family is getting ready to devour a traditional Christmas Eve kari ayam. Heh.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:02 PM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two of the flavours from home that I miss the most are tamarind and pandan. I can get passable assam laksa if I care to drive for 40 minutes, but I would seriously sell my soul for a plate of nyonya kuih right now. T_T

My favourite food destination in Malaysia is still Penang though. Malacca's kind of kitschy in a bad way.
posted by peripathetic at 5:30 PM on December 24, 2012


Ah Penang. I swear they put crack in the water. It's the only explanation.
posted by cendawanita at 6:04 PM on December 24, 2012


I am from Malacca and here is the recipe for the greatest Peranakan dish of them all, courtesy of my mom.

Pongteh
--------------
1/2 kg pork
1 chicken - medium size cut into smaller pieces
potatoes - 1 kg or more
shallots -10 to 15 pips
garlic- 4 pips
tauchew paste (soy bean paste) - 4-5 tablespoons
brown sugar - 2 -3 tablespoons
black thick sauce (caramel sauce, the Asian kind), just omit this if you can't find it. still tastes as good - 2-3 tablespoons
dried chillies - 2-3

Method

Blend shallots, garlic
Heat some oil in a deep saucepan
Fry shallots and garlic until fragrant . Add the tauchew and the dried chillies. Continue frying
Put in the pork and chicken pieces. Then add the potatoes. Add the black sauce and sugar. Keep stirring. Pour in a little hot water. Let it simmer for a bit. Then add some more water. Simmer for at least 2 hours over low heat until the meat is tender and the potatoes crumbly. Check the water level. Add water when necessary.
Serve with rice or bread.
posted by ianK at 7:18 PM on December 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


infini I have flagged your post here as fantastic. If the menu had a "this post fucking rocks" item I would have selected that one.
posted by bukvich at 8:29 PM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great post! I'm glad I'm reading this when I'm back home and not far away from all the deliciousness!

peripathetic: Two of the flavours from home that I miss the most are tamarind and pandan. I can get passable assam laksa if I care to drive for 40 minutes, but I would seriously sell my soul for a plate of nyonya kuih right now. T_T

I'm pretty sure you should be able to find pandan and tamarind in the local asian grocery... we did when we were living in Pittsburgh, which has a pretty small Asian population. The Chinese shops don't have it but a dodgy dingy hole run by some Vietnamese/Burmese folks had frozen pandan leaves in the freezer section. Alternatively you could use pandan essence too.

We once made kueh salat before for a college event, so you can try your hand at making kuih kuihs wherever you are; for kueh salat all you need is the pandan essence, everything else is easily sourceable.

Pongteh

Yeah babi pongteh rocks. The ones I'm used to have green chilli as well though, which I think makes a big difference. I made an ang moh-ified version here.
posted by destrius at 9:08 PM on December 24, 2012


Nyonyan food is the bomb. We ate our way across Malaysia a few years ago and the Nyonyan cuisine was the outlier on the OMFG Good axis.
posted by benzenedream at 9:46 PM on December 24, 2012


Well, shit. I am in Malaysia but might as well be on Mars. The food in Kelantan sucks big time. They get all excited about "steamboat", basically glorified ramen. Other than that the choice is mainly chicken with rice or rice with chicken.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:17 PM on December 24, 2012


Hmm... steamboat == hot pot == this awesomeness, afaik... how did it become ramen?
posted by destrius at 11:07 PM on December 24, 2012


I made an ang moh-ified version here.

Looks great. That's actually the first time I have seen that variation of the dish. I imagine the green chilli vinaigrette would serve as a wonderful counterpoint to the sweetness.
posted by ianK at 12:01 AM on December 25, 2012


I'm pretty sure you should be able to find pandan and tamarind in the local asian grocery...

I actually have both in my pantry! Tamarind paste from Indonesia and frozen pandan leaves from the Philippines. But I bought them during a bout of homesickness and never used them: my cooking skills are pretty basic and I think these flavours are hard to get right.

As for making kuih... when I was in college, I actually attempted to make onde-onde and agar-agar for an international food fair. The onde-onde was a disaster and the agar-agar did not set. There was no Malaysian stall that year, and I've yet to get over it even though it's been more than ten years.
posted by peripathetic at 12:08 AM on December 25, 2012


Just like the first article suggested, the legend of Hang Po Li is most likely just a legend. There no mention of Hang Po Li in Chinese historical records. It was considered to be deeply humiliating by the Chinese to marry off an imperial princess to a foreign country. For 276 years of Ming dynasty, there wasn't a single mention of marriage of any princess to any country. It was unlikely that a reigning Ming emperor would be impressed enough by a small kingdom to send an imperial princess in marriage.

According to Hang Li Po wikipedia article, she was sent by Ming emperor to Sultan Mansur Shah in 1459 AD. The reigning Ming emperor at that time was Zhengtong emperor, who recently just regained his throne in 1457 AD after seven years of house arrest and one year of been a Mongol prisoner of war. Furthermore, ten years before 1459 AD, over 200,000 of most experienced Ming soldiers, generals and ministers were killed by the Mongol in Tumu Crisis. The northern defense of the entire country was severely weaken. With this much at his plate, I can assure you that last thing Zhengtong emperor would do is to send his daughter in marriage to a distant and unimportant prince.

Zhengtong emperor had ten daughters of which two of them died young. The other eight were clearly not Hang Po Li. The previous emperor had two daughters, it was clear that they were not Hang Po Li.

Further more, Admiral Zheng He died in 1433 AD. Yongle Emperor died in 1424 AD. There no way they can be still alive in 1459 AD to send Hang Po Li to Sultan of Malacca.

Most likely scenario was that palace women were sent from China and Sultan of Malacca was lied to about the origin of the Chinese "princess".

The Hang Po Li legend also serve nice political purpose in modern Malaysia by promoting unity of the races, in an unjust political system. Unfortunately, this legend has no basis in historical facts.
posted by Carius at 12:08 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, shit. I am in Malaysia but might as well be on Mars. The food in Kelantan sucks big time.

Really? I actually have very good food memories from Kota Bahru. Kelantan laksa! Ayam perchik! Some of the best Thai food to be had in Malaysia!
posted by peripathetic at 12:09 AM on December 25, 2012


I am sad for Meatbomb and his no-good steamboat. Steamboat, when done well, is delicious.

Re: kueh. My grandmother used to make the most amazing kueh lapis. I remember being very impressed when I found out how it was made. Soooo time-consuming. I haven't had any since she passed away, because no one else in my family is willing to make it. I guess I could give it a try one day.

The kari ayam was awesome btw.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:19 AM on December 25, 2012


Meatbomb needs a meetup to introduce him to the pleasures of makan.
posted by infini at 1:08 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great post! Today is my tenth anniversary of moving to Malaysia. The food really is among the best things about living here. The ramadan pounds I shed always come back on during fruit season especially. Durians have just peaked in Kuching; my stocks of tempoyak are replenished for the year. Ikan masak tempoyak! Sambal belacan tempoyak with ulam-ulam! Off to dinner...
posted by BinGregory at 2:32 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


BinGregory, congratulations! According to the keeper of family history mom, we moved to Malaysia on 24th December 1970.
posted by infini at 6:41 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


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