Nonya refers to a culture that has evolved out of the marriages of Malay women to Chinese trading men, prior to the major immigrations of Chinese people into Malaysia. Nonya food developed as a mash-up of Chinese and Malay foods, as these women cooked the food they knew and adapted them to the tastes of their husbands.
According to The Food of Malaysia, Nonya cuisine almost died-out, as Straits-born Chinese women (as Nonya women are called) marry non-Straits-born Chinese men and cook more traditionally Chinese food to suit them.
There are two main groupings of Nonya food: Malacca and Penang. Penang food is sour and hot, Malacca food is creamier and sweeter. This is easily seen in the two versions of Laksa, the most well-known Nonya dish. Laksa Lemak (the Malaca version) is the rich coconut milk and noodle dish we know so well here in Australia. Asam Laksa (the Penang version) is little known here – it is sour and fragrant, made without the coconut, and with herbs, tamarind, ginger, and chillies.
For my Nonya feast I decided to try my hand at the Asam Laksa, having eaten it in Penang and been impressed by its full-on sour flavour. I used a recipe out of the book, however I had to make some adjustments, as it usually relies on mackerel and black prawn paste. The recipe below is almost entirely from the book, The Food of Malaysia by Wendy Hutton, and credit should go to her. My changes are in italics.
Vegan Asam Laksa
- 1.5 L water
- 2-4 large pieces of wakame, not pre-soaked
- 5 tbs of tamarind pulp
- 3 cms ginger, sliced
- 3 sprigs laksa leaf (I used the big version of Vietnamese mint (not the little leaves from my garden), as it claims to be the same thing)
- up to 1 Tbs sugar (I left this out because my tamarind was too sweet)
- 3 tbs lime juice
- 1-2 tbs soy sauce
- 1-2 tbs vinegar
- Fresh rice noodles
- For the Spice Paste
- 5 shallots
- 2 stalks lemon grass
- 2.5 cm fresh tumeric
- 3 dried chillies, soaked
- 6 fresh red chillies
- 1 cucumber, sliced
- 6 sprigs laksa leaf
- 2 springs mint
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 3 red chillies, sliced
- some fresh pineapple
Simmer the wakame in the water for about 15 minutes. This gets a bit of a fishy taste, and its the closest thing I’ve found so far to actual fish sauce (once you add lime juice). Strain the mixture back into a saucepan and set the wakame aside. Add the tamraind pulp, ginger, sugar and laksa leaf. Blend of mash the spice paste ingredients together, and add these to the saucepan as well. Simmer for another 20-30 minutes. Blanch the noodles in hot water, then divide into bowls. Add the lime juice, soy sauce and vinegar to the soup. Pour the soup over the noodles, then add the garnish. Yum!
This worked well, but it still wasn’t as sour or as fishy as the version I had at a veg stall in Penang. I think they used fermented salty soy bean paste.
I paired the Laksa with some Nonya wedding rice, which is rice cooked with spices such as star anise, cinnamon, coriander seed and cardamon, and with Sambal Terong (eggplant with basil and spice paste).
I used brown rice, to add a bit of whole grain goodness, and I thought the rice was really good, loving the rich, warm, spices. Mr wasn’t that keen on it, he thought it was a bit too sweet, which is funny, because I forgot to add the raisins, which would have made it sweeter.
The eggplant was a hit with both of us. It was a good mix of spicy and sweet, using chilli, soy bean paste, garlic, sugar and lots and lots of fresh Thai basil. Its not very traditional, but I have found you can add a tiny bit of olive to make up for the little salty fish and dried prawns that are usually used.
It was a huge and very yummy meal. The laksa could have used more sour – my tamarind was really sweet! – but it was still a fun and different flavour.
Making Tamarind Pulp
Just as an aside, I made my own tamarind pulp for this recipe. This is mainly because a) I didn’t realise how much work it would be, and b) I couldn’t find the canned variety.
To make the pulp, you first shell the tamarind. You end up with squishy brown bits and left over shells. You then add some water, and squeeze the squishy brown bits in your hands, squishing the mush through your fingers until all that is left in your hand are the seeds and strings. You continue until you are left with a bowl of plain squishy brown, and a bowl o stringy, almost squishy brown. Its a lot of fun and very messy, and more than a little odd-looking (ok, its fecal).
If you want to have some fun, make a mess, or get the kids involved in something that will make them laugh, I suggest you try it 🙂 If you’re after convenience, go for the pre-squished version.