Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen is an ode to author Sharon Wee’s mother. In it she shares her memories of growing up in a Peranakan Chinese family in Singapore, and a meticulously researched collection of recipes and cooking advice learned not only in her mother’s kitchen but from older relatives and experts in the cuisine. Peranakans are the descendants of local women who had families with the earliest Chinese settlers to this region of Southeast Asia, and Sharon is herself a fifth generation Nonya (the honorific used for female Peranakans). Many of these recipes were handed down orally, and it was a labour of love for Sharon to tweak and transcribe these into easy-to-follow written recipes for the modern-day cook.
I came across Sharon Wee’s Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen because of a rather unpleasant affair in 2021 when a successful UK restaurateur stole some of the content from the book to include word-for-word in her own book (which was withdrawn by the publisher after the theft was reported).
I’d reviewed that book very positively on Kavey Eats and felt cheated to learn that key parts of it were plagiarised not only from Sharon’s book but from a range of other authors too. Imagine how these authors felt, if I, a mere reader and reviewer was so upset! I immediately removed the plagiarised book’s review from my site and reached out to ask Sharon how I might buy a copy of hers so that I could review it here instead.
The book was out of print, so initially Sharon’s plan was to liaise with the publisher on a reprint. But the 10th anniversary of Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen (which fell in 2022) seemed the perfect opportunity to take things a step further. Learning that I was a long-time cookery book addict and reviewer, Sharon told me she was working on a revised, expanded and improved new edition of the book, and suggested she send me a copy of the first edition so that I could send feedback.
As the book had originally been produced for a more local audience, some of my feedback involved reviewing from a UK reader and cook’s perspective. This included questions and thoughts about the personal narrative, about recipes (their names, summary descriptions, and instructions, and the names of ingredients within them), about chapter titles and contents, and so on. We talked about the cover design too–whilst the original cover is both charming and nostalgic, it doesn’t reflect modern cover trends in the UK market so I sent over a collection of my personal favourites published in the last year, and what I loved about each one. I also suggested Sharon rename a spice blend titled Curry Powder to reference her mother’s name as an extra way to honour Polly.
The new edition was published by Marshall Cavendish in May 2023, coinciding with Sharon’s visit to the London Book Fair, where she was interviewed by Jenny Linford. I went to London to meet up with her (though I couldn’t make the book fair), and was beyond thrilled to accept her gift of the new edition, along with a beautiful memorial tea towel she commissioned to showcase the book’s cover.
Sharon has revised the book from cover to cover, not only adding extra information and guidance for an international audience but including whole new sections too. There are also additional essays contributed by subject experts about the heritage and beautiful cultural legacy of the Peranakans.
This new edition, even more so than the first, is a comprehensive guide to Peranakan cuisine. From the very first page, which briefly defines Peranakan food and provides definitions for terms such as Nonya and Baba, reading the book is a journey of discovery and understanding.
As well as the huge body of knowledge Sharon has amassed and shared, throughout the book there are essays from other experts in Peranakan culture and history including Colin Chee, Roger Foo, Genevieve Peggy Jeffs, Peter Lee, Khir Johari, William Gwee, and Norman Cho on topics such as The Peranakan Kitchen, Peranakan Chinese Porcelain, Malay Gastronomy in the Nonya Kitchen, the Baba Malay Language, and Peranakan Jewellery. Each of these adds an extra facet to the richness of knowledge throughout the book. Violet Oon, a renowned expert and ambassador for Peranakan food provides the foreword.
There is a real sense of Sharon’s ancestry in the book which comes to life in the many references to Sharon’s childhood and the memories of her mother’s cooking, in the recipe introductions, many of which share anecdotes and memories of family life, and in the references to earlier ancestors, such as the striking photograph of Sharon’s great great grandfather Cheang Hong Lim, dressed as a mandarin of fourth rank.
The Preface tells the story of how Sharon came to write the book, first gathering her mother’s recipes to pass on to the next generation before deciding on a more ambitious project for publishing these recipes and the food knowledge within. It was during her early research that she became reacquainted with the Nonya heritage she had previously taken for granted. She reached out to interview older relatives and family friends, and started to research recipes and techniques in more detail. All of this fed into a book created in memory of her mother, and as an ode to Peranakan culture and cuisine.
After the first two guest essays (about Peranakan Chinese Food, and Peranakan Heritage from a Genetic Viewpoint), we come to Halcyon Days in which Sharon tells the story of her mother’s childhood, in the days before the Japanese invaded Singapore. As Sharon tells us about Polly Wee’s life and family, we also learn more of the history of the Peranakans people through the lens of Sharon’s mother. Next come two more of the contributed essays (the first about the education and progress of Nonya women, the second a short note on the importance of the Nonya legacy).
In A Married Woman’s Life, we follow Polly’s story of how she she was matched for marriage to Sharon’s father as a 17 year old girl, and her subsequent experiences of married life, no doubt a shock since Polly had not learned any housekeeping or cooking skills during her childhood. She learned from her grandmother-in-law in what was no doubt enormously daunting circumstances. And yet Polly settled well in to her married life, taking on new hobbies such as sewing and baking, and running a household which grew quite large as she gave birth to six daughters, of whom Sharon is the youngest. Over the years cooking became a true passion for Polly, and she (like Sharon, and me too) became an avid learner and collector of cookbooks, not to mention a clipper and filer of recipes from papers and magazines.
As Sharon says in Memories of Our Old Kitchen, her mother’s kitchen was the centre of her universe, and much of Polly’s life revolved around cooking, prepping, baking, planning meals, chatting to the grocer, nagging the helper, and even greeting neighbours and relatives who would visit – in the kitchen. Sharon describes the chaos, the noise, and the propensity to gossip! In fact, like many houses of the period, there were actually two kitchens, an indoor dry kitchen and an outdoor wet one, where most of the prep and cooking took place. Modern Singapore homes today rarely have the space that Polly did in her kitchens, nor are they quite the same focus of life and culture as they used to be.
Fundamental’s of Nonya Cooking covers essential ingredients, cooking utensils and equipment, techniques and the agak agak philosophy (cooking by estimation and instinct). Useful Tips and Principles are shared between recipes, and include such gems as General Principles of Baking Cookies According to Aunt Paddy, How I Prepare for My Tok Panjang, Popiah Wrapping Steps, Setting up a Steamer and several more. They are listed in a dedicated table within the Contents.
Recipes are divided into chapters for The Housewives’ Baking Club (recipes shared by local housewives who came together over the shared hobby of baking, and cookie recipes that Polly and her sister Paddy would make to sell in their home-run business), Chinese New Year (in which we learn about the epic preparation and cooking Polly carried out for the family’s celebration of the new year), Life of the Party (where Sharon shares recipes her mother loved to serve during her many dinner parties for friends, as well as parties for birthday parties and weddings), Sunday Family Gatherings (dishes Polly served to the family when they came together on Sundays), Learning from Friends (in which we discover the recipes Polly gleaned from Arab, Malay and Indonesian friends), Our Daily Fare (the more simple dishes that were eaten for regular meals – a chapter in which Sharon includes a number of no-recipe dishes – the kind of food that is quick and easy to make, and for which you don’t need exact ingredients lists and measures), A Very Festive Family (full of recipes associated with various festivals celebrated through the year), and finally Sweet Rewards (featuring all manner of sweet treats). I appreciate how the Contents page at the front of the book lists each individual recipe, making it easy to find what you’re looking for.
Many recipes have photographs; rich, vibrant, and tempting. These are supplemented by photos from Sharon’s family albums, as well as photos chosen to illustrate specialist topic essays.
At the end of the book, Sharon shares several Suggested Menus, a list of Recipes by Ingredient / Type (which is a handy extra to the contents recipe list and the Index), a Glossary of Ingredients, and for those planning a trip, I love the list of Heritage Restaurants in Singapore. There’s also an excellent list of Recommended Books on the Peranakan Heritage, for anyone who want to delve into such a topic more deeply.
As far as cooking goes, we’ve made a few dishes so far, all of which have been delicious.
For Ayam Panggang (Spicy Grilled Chicken) we used chicken thighs rather than a whole chicken jointed as we had thighs in the freezer, and dialled down the chilli content just a touch for my sensitive palate! We loved the rich flavours and how moist the chicken remained.
Our Ayam Tempra (Chicken in Tangy Soy Sauce) didn’t have the dark colour of Sharon’s but was a full-flavoured comfort dish and one we’ll make again, trying different types of soy to recreate the intended depth of colour. Great for a simple midweek meal.
Chicken Rendang (Chicken Simmered in Spicy Coconut Gravy) was beautifully aromatic a cross between an Indian-style chicken curry and a Singapore rendang.
Next we made chcken and potato Curry Puffs which came out really well. The pastry was light and crumbly, and the filling simple. We found it easier to form and seal the individual puffs by rolling the portions of pastry out a little thinner and larger than instructed, but otherwise followed the instructions pretty accurately. A few of the puffs came a little open during baking – we think we’d be able to avoid that next time now we know the process. Best of all, these lasted very well in the fridge for 3 days making for some delicious lunches during the week.
Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen is a Cookery Book Addict‘s cookbook; not only does it contain a wide-ranging collection of utterly delicious recipes, it is the doorway to understanding a fascinating culture and its cuisine, through the eyes of a keen cook and proud Peranakan.
Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen by Sharon Wee is published by Marshall Cavendish. With thanks to Sharon Wee for giving us access and permission to share photos from the book.