With the faint scent of pandan leaves lingering in the air, Caroline Lim gingerly retrieves several small balls of green dough from a pot of boiling water.
Still warm to the touch, she rolls each one in freshly-grated coconut and places them on glossy banana leaves, which she has carefully oiled and cut to size.
“Not many people are willing to invest the time and energy that goes into making nyonya kueh, so they find shortcuts which alter the taste,” the 42-year-old says with some dismay.
It is indeed a laborious art. To make the dough for the onde-onde, Caroline has to steam white sweet potato, then mix it with flour, and add juice from the pandan leaves.
They are then rolled into small bit-sized balls and filled with a gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup, before being boiled and tossed in the fresh coconut shavings. Not one to leave out any minor detail, she then delicately places crushed peanuts on top of each individual serving.
Each step of the way, Caroline has measured and appraised every single element of the onde-onde, to ensure it would meet her grandmother’s exacting standards.
“Baking is in my genes. As a young girl, from the age of seven or eight, my grandma made me work in the kitchen because she was selling kueh at the time,” says the mum-of-two, who still uses the antique cake molds passed down from her grandmother.
“She is now 87. She felt it’s time she passed on the recipes because she’s forgetting some of them.”
Caroline’s nenek learnt to make kueh from her great-grandmother in Limbang, inheriting generations-old family recipes, and despite my best attempts at prying, I was unable to elicit the tightly-held secrets from her lips.
An avid baker for most of her life, Caroline only started to make nyonya kueh around six years ago, following a trend of young patissiers in Southeast Asia keen on reviving Peranakan culture through renewed interest in its cuisine.
“Nyonya cuisine is a fusion of Chinese and Malay influences, one that evolved after Chinese people settled in the Straits, and they couldn’t find certain ingredients, so they substituted with whatever they could find locally such as Malay or Indian spices,” she explains.
‘Nyonya’ refers to the female descendants of intermarriage between Malay women and Chinese (mostly Hokkien) men, who settled in Straits of Melaka in the 15th century.
The kitchen was the dominion of Peranakan women, who created a cuisine famous for its painstaking and lengthy preparations. It is also an early example of fusion cooking, with the food evolving to take on the colonial influences of the Portuguese, Dutch and English.
Among the recipes passed down through generations, some are in danger of disappearing,
“Nowadays there are too many activities in one day and people can’t find time for making nyonya kueh anymore,” says Caroline. “But I was brought up with it, and it’s become a heritage of mine so I want to continue it. I hope my daughter or son will do the same.”
After the destruction that came with World War II, preservation of Peranakan heritage in the Straits became an afterthought. The renewed interest in preserving this centuries-old culture only began in the 1980s, mainly through immense interest in its cuisine.
The cities of Melaka and Georgetown were made UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008. And in Singapore, the government began gazetting many old Peranakan shophouses as ‘heritage buildings’. The island-state even boasts the first Michelin-starred restaurant serving Peranakan cuisine, called Candlenut Kitchen.
“My grandma has been selling kueh since she was a girl. She makes about 13 different types and she showed me how to make each one — just one time,” says Caroline, who now has her own kueh-making business, selling around 3,000 pieces a month.
“Old people don’t have a lot of patience,” she laughs. “She didn’t really have any processes written down, it was just figures, so I took videos and wrote it down for myself.”
Nyonya food has now become synonymous with the culture of the Straits and to a extent, the wider Malay archipelago. Its flavours have been borrowed by hawker stalls and kopitiams, to Michelin-starred restaurants.
“It’s the different textures, different tastes — the fresh pandan, coconut, gula melaka. I’ve had customers tell me as soon as you open the box, the aroma is just there.”
Watch our video of Caroline preparing some of her delicious nyonya kueh: