The birth of Nyonya culture and the resulting Nyonya dishes and cuisine associated with this culture took place during the Ming Dynasty. This was during the 15th century when the port of Malacca blossomed and grew prosperous and rich due to its strategic location in the Straits of Malacca - it was located at the crossroads of Asia, between India and China, and under the guidance of the Sultan of Malacca, quickly became the richest and most powerful port in Southeast Asia. The Sultan of Malacca, knowing the strength of China, had sent tribute to the Emperor of China. As a diplomatic gesture to strengthen the ties between China and the Malacca Sultanate, the Emperor of China betrothed his daughter, Princess Hang Li Po to the Sultan of Malacca.
The princess and her royal entourage of 500 formed the first permanent Chinese settlement in Malacca, at China Hill. These early Chinese settlers wed into the local Malay community and thus gave rise to the very first generation of mixed Chinese-Malays, known as Peranakan, or Baba Nyonya. The latter was due to the fact that the men were known as Baba while the women were referred to as Nyonya. The latter is pronounced as Nyor-Nyar, and sometimes spelt as Nonya.
Nyonya dishes are native to Penang, Malacca and Singapore. However, over the years, distinct differences have evolved in the Nyonya cuisine found in Penang and Singapore as compared to that of Malacca's. The proximity of Malacca and Singapore to Indonesia has resulted in the influx of Indonesian influences on the Nyonya dishes there. The Nyonya community in Malacca prepare Nyonya dishes that are generally sweeter and richer in coconut milk, with the addition of spices that are more commonly used in Malay cooking, like coriander and cumin. Meanwhile, the Penang Nyonyas drew inspiration from north of the border, from the Thais. They were influenced by the Thai culinary techniques, and a preference for sour flavors, hot chilies, fragrant herbs and pungent toasted prawn paste. (a.k.a belacan)
Nyonya dishes are all about the subtle blending of spices, making use of pungent roots like galangal, turmeric and ginger. Then you have the aromatic leaves like pandan leaf, fragrant lime leaf and laksa leaf. Other ingredients that are commonly used in Nyonya dishes are candlenuts, shallots, shrimp paste and chilies. Lemon, tamarind, belimbing (a type of fruit, known also as starfruit or carambola) and green mangoes are also used to add a tangy taste to many of the dishes.
Kapitan Chicken is a distinctly Nyonya flavored chicken curry dish that makes use of tamarind juice, candlenut, fresh turmeric root and belacan (also spelt belachan or belacan). Belacan is a type of toasted shrimp paste, usually red or black in color. It's spicy and savory and adds a lot of flavor to any dish. The curry is a bit redder compared to normal Chicken curries; this is due the higher chili content in the dish, and hence, kapitan chicken curry will be a tad spicier than normal chicken curries. Plain steamed white rice is perfect for this dish as it readily absorbs all the awesome flavor that the curry provides.
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