Preserving Nyonya family recipes

Lim learnt to cook from her mother and grandmother and continues to go back to Penang to learn heritage dishes from her octogenarian mother. — Photos: ART CHEN/The Star

Growing up in Penang, Nancy Lim, 59, vividly recalls the kitchen being a wonderful place where her mother, Tan Lee Lee, 80, reigned supreme. Although Tan was initially averse to her children “disturbing” her in the kitchen, Lim and her two sisters eventually learnt to cook from watching Tan as well as being allowed to experiment in the kitchen by their indulgent Nyonya grandmother.

“My grandma is a Nyonya and she was a great cook, so when my Chinese mum married into the family, she learnt how to cook Nyonya recipes from my grandmother. And when we were growing up, my grandmother would let us help her stir or cut the ingredients, so that is how we developed an interest in cooking.

“Slowly, my sisters and I picked up cooking to help my mother. She was a school bus driver and worked odd hours. So I started cooking for the family when I was about 10 years old, but of course we made very simple food back then,” says Lim.

When Lim got married to her husband, fellow Penangite Sam Ng, 61, she resumed cooking for her family, especially when her two children came along.

Lim started cooking when she was 10 and says her mother's food forms the foundations for some of her happiest memories. — ART CHEN/The StarLim started cooking when she was 10 and says her mother's food forms the foundations for some of her happiest memories. — ART CHEN/The Star

Even though these days she lives in Kuala Lumpur and Tan continues to live in Penang, Lim says many of her happiest childhood memories are of cooking and helping her mother. And so, she continues to cook the meals she learnt from Tan, especially three dishes that hold a special significance when there are big family celebrations.

Like Tan’s signature chicken curry – a rich, creamy affair with generous chicken pieces that is redolent of old-fashioned chicken curries of yore.

“My mother makes this lovely curry chicken, which I learnt to make too. When we were young, we always asked to eat it with roti jala. So my mum would make the curry and we would make the roti jala. And I picked up the recipe by helping her peel the shallots and onions and soaking the chillies. So the chicken curry is definitely a happy memory for me,” says Lim.

Lor bak is another staple that Lim says is closely associated with her mother, because when they were children, Tan would gather her brood around and everyone would be involved in wrapping the lor bak.

“Lor bak is something that we have during festivities, because it is a lot of work – you need to slice the meat and wrap the meat and there is a technique to it.

“We started doing it together when we were teens, it was like a gotong-royong event, so those days, we had odd-sized shapes, because there were many hands making it. Some of us burst the seams because we wanted to put more filling in it!

“So now I am sharing the fun with my nephews and nieces and my kids, because they want to eat, so they have to help lah,” says Lim, laughing.

More laborious still is Tan’s joo hu char, which is essentially stir-fried jicama with cuttlefish, which is then dolloped onto lettuce leaves. In Lim’s iteration, the jicama and cuttlefish are fried until they still retain some juice but aren’t wet, while the addition of a homemade sambal belacan packs a fiery punch and adds plenty of oomph to the dish.

Tan (standing) is an accomplished home cook who has passed on her family recipes, including bak chang (pictured here), to her three daughters. — NANCY LIMTan (standing) is an accomplished home cook who has passed on her family recipes, including bak chang (pictured here), to her three daughters. — NANCY LIM

“Joo hu char tastes better when you leave it to develop over a few days. So usually I will cook this dish one or two days before, so it gets drier and tastes better,” says Lim.

Family is obviously a strong force in Lim’s bloodline as her eldest son Darren Ng, 28, now actually lives with his grandmother in Penang (along with two other cousins) to help keep an eye on Tan and make sure she is in good spirits.

This Mothers Day, Lim herself will be flying to Penang to celebrate in person with Tan. Since she has recently retired, she is now determined to spend more time with her mother and learn her recipes too in the process.

Making lor bak is a communal affair in Lim’s family and she now ropes in her children as well as her nephews and nieces to help make the dish.Making lor bak is a communal affair in Lim’s family and she now ropes in her children as well as her nephews and nieces to help make the dish.

In fact, right after Mothers Day, Lim and her two sisters will be helping Tan make her signature Nyonya bak chang, something she is looking forward to doing as a bonding exercise.

“We realise she is getting older, so we don’t want her cooking for everyone else anymore. So now that I am retired and have more time, I want to learn more recipes from her. And more than that, I want to go home and do more things for her. It is to return all the sacrifices and love she gave me since I was a child – it is gratitude.

“And I think my mother is happy that somebody is cooking for her, because she feels happy when she eats food that she loves,” says Lim.


For blending into a paste

15 dried chillies (soak in hot water, wear gloves to remove seeds)

20 shallots

3 cloves garlic

15g turmeric powder

15g coriander powder

1 tsp fennel

1 pc lemongrass

For cooking

5 tbsp cooking oil

1 star anise

1 clove

1 cm cinnamon stick

1 – 1.3 kg of chicken (legs and wings preferred)

150 – 200g potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges

½ cup water

200 ml thick coconut milk (optional or to taste)

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

Blend all the ingredients required into a fine paste and set aside.

In a wok/claypot, heat up oil to sauté star anise, clove and cinnamon, over low heat till fragrant. Add blended paste and stir-fry till fragrant and you get pecah minyak (a layer of oil emerges).

Add chicken and potatoes, stir and ensure they are well coated with the curry paste. Cook over medium heat for the first 10 – 15 mins, stirring occasionally. Lower the flame, add water and allow to simmer until chicken is tender and potatoes soften. Add salt and sugar to taste.

Add coconut cream. Stir well, simmer for a minute. Switch off flame and serve hot.


To prepare a day earlier and refrigerate

150 to 200g pork belly, boil for 15 minutes, julienne when cooled.

8 to 10 pcs of Chinese mushrooms, soaked, strain, julienne. Keep water for later

On cooking day

Enough cooking oil to stir-fry

1 tsp sesame oil

3 tbsp minced garlic

3 onions, julienned

20g dried joo-hu si (dried cuttlefish strips), soak in hot water, strain. Keep water for later

1.5 to 2kg jicama, peel, julienne, wash and drain dry

1 medium sized carrot, shredded

2 tsp fish sauce/oyster sauce

salt and pepper to taste

Serve with lettuce/ yau mak

Heat up cooking oil in a wok, add sesame oil, garlic and onions and stir-fry till fragrant. Add pork belly and stir-fry for about 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushroom and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add cuttlefish and quickly stir-fry for about 1 minute only.

Add jicama and carrots – mix well, and stir fry over medium-high heat, allow to cook in its own juice. When mixture gets dry, add water saved from joo-hu bit by bit followed by mushroom water (if still needed).

Add fish sauce, salt and pepper to taste. Continue stirring, add water if needed until jicama has softened. Once softened, in high heat, stir-fry until the whole mixture is no longer watery.

Set aside to cool, and serve with fresh lettuce leaves and sambal belacan.

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