Rempah in Nyonya Cooking
("Rempah" means Spice in the Malay language)
The word rempah always crops up in a recipe whenever you try to
make a nyonya dish. What is rempah?
Literally, the word means "spice" in Malay. In nyonya cuisine context, it
refers to a blend of fresh spices which are ground together. In the old
days, those spices are ground manually. Now we can use our electrical
gadgets to make rempah. Or, for convenience sake, buy ready-made
rempah in packets.
Over the Top Nyonya Recipes
I had the honor of taking a peek at a recipe in Chef Wan's
collection. Laksa Peranakan Bibik Neoh has a list of
ingredients a a mile long!
Watch the video of Chef Wan making the
laksa at the end of this page.
Typical Rempah Ingredients
Rempah ingredients vary, depending on the dish you are making.
Minimum ingredients have to be at least two different herbs or spices. Such as:
Ginger and garlic.
Onion/shallot, with ginger and garlic.
Onion/shallot, ginger, garlic and chilies (fresh or
All of the above plus galangal, fresh turmeric,
lemongrass and cekur (sand ginger).
Candlenut is also a typical rempah ingredient in
Except for lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes above, the rest of
the ingredients will make up a nice mix of rempah.
These mix are usually prepared just before cooking. For most organized cooks,
they like to blend the rempah in advance and store them in little
containers in the fridge, ready to be used. If you cook rempah with
vegetable oil, over slow fire, you can store it longer, or even freeze it.
Rempah and Sambal in the Context of Malay Cuisine
From my observation and experience, cooked rempah is sometimes
referred to as sambal by Malay cooks. Describing sambal is
another matter altogether.
Sambal ingredients must always have chilies in it. It can be
eaten raw, prepared from fresh chilies, sambal belachan is a good
example. Cooked sambal usually is referred as sambal tumis.
You probably are more familiar with sambal oelek, which
basically is an Indonesian version. The base for sambal oelek is very
simple: ground dried chilies and salt, cooked in oil. That's it. Are you
confused yet? ;-)
Rempah versus Sambal
This is prawns cooked in sambal tumis.
In short, we can conclude that we make rempah mix to cook
My students, who are mostly from abroad always ask me these questions. So I
hope my write-up on this page would shed some light on the lingo of Nyonya and
The short clip below shows how the rempah is cooked to make the gravy for
Peranakan Laksa and then a dollop of ready-made sambal is used as garnish and
add an extra oomph to the already fantastic dish!
Now, let's watch how Chef Wan used rempah in nyonya cooking to make