This is an excerpt from the new edition of Vegetarian Asia: A Travel Guide, which I’m hoping to have ready as an ebook around the beginning of 2012. Malaysian food expert Bee Yinn Low helped me out with my research.
Baba Nyonya is a Malaysian fusion cuisine. Back in the 15th century, when the Portuguese ruled, Chinese traders settled in Malaysia and married Malay women. Out of these unions, a cooking style was born. The name comes from the bapak, the Malay word for “grandfather,” and nyona, the Portuguese word for “grandmother.” The cuisine uses mostly Chinese ingredients, but adds Southeast Asian flavors like lemongrass, chilies, screwpine leaves, coconut milk and chilies.
According to Bee Yinn Low, author of Easy Chinese Recipes and publisher of the Rasa Malaysia website. Baba Nyonya main dishes aren’t usually vegetarian, but the salad dishes are. She recommends trying acar vegetables, which are pickled vegetables and fruits like pineapples and chilies.
Meatless versions of Baba Nyonya food are made for religious festivals, such as kau ong ea, the Nine Emperor God festival during the ninth month of the lunar calendar. This Taoist commemoration of gods returning to the earth from heaven is widely celebrated in Penang, where vegetarian food stalls spring up all over town for the festival’s nine days. You can recognize them by yellow banners and tablecloths. Low said that people can choose to go meatless for the whole nine days, or for five, three or one day. This is a time and place where you can feel very confident about your pure diet, as people are extra careful to not let their utensils be tainted by meat. Low told me in an email interview, “We have a separate set of utensils and serving ware for the festival, which are used only once a year. We would eat delicious vegetarian dishes such as vegetarian roast duck, vegetables fried vermicelli, and many delicious tofu and vegetables dishes. I love them all.”
The only downside is that during the festival, vegetarian restaurants will be crowded.