The cuisine only women can master

Nyonya cooking is matriarchal, with each family's jealously guarded recipes passed down orally from generation to generation.

When Lee Su Pei met a charming gentleman by the name of Jerry Kong in their hometown of Penang, Malaysia, her cooking skills were limited at best.

When she realised Jerry came from a family skilled in Nyonya cuisine, she knew a long, hard road lay ahead if she wanted to keep dating him and eventually be part of his family.

In the 16th Century, the intermarriage of Chinese immigrants and local Malays resulted in the distinctive culture of Straits Chinese Peranakan, whose language, clothing, art and cooking are celebrated to this day.

Their unique fusion food - a wonderful combination of Chinese cuisine with influences from Malays, Indians, Thais, Indonesians, Dutch, Portuguese and English - is concocted using spices like chillies, turmeric, ginger, star anise and cloves, and local leaves such as daun kesum, daun kaduk and daun cekok.

But while the deep and varied flavours are undeniable, it's the incredibly precise techniques required to create them that gives Nyonya cooking its celebrated status within Peranakan communities.

Peranakan men address themselves as Baba (uncle), while women are called Nyonya (auntie) - and it's no coincidence that the spicy, piquant cuisine is named after the females.

The matriarchal recipes are passed down from generation to generation, and are expected to be mastered by the women in the family.

"All our recipes are from memory," the now Nyonya Su Pei told me. "The recipes are passed down orally, so when you cook beside a matriarch they will basically tell you the recipe on the spot."

"The Nyonyas can spontaneously replicate recipes taught by matriarchs whenever they step into the kitchen," Baba Jerry, her husband and business partner, added.

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