Nyonya Salad

Have you eaten so much for Chinese New Year that you feel jelak or overindulged? Here is a salad dish that is light but not short of flavor, like all Nyonya dishes (however not necessarily light sometimes).

A simple salad can be found in many cuisines, but the difference in this recipe lies in the sauce and the combination of ingredients. Just like the bedak sejuk, the rice powder cooling facial paste worn by Nyonyas and children (I still remember this on my face), this salad is cooling and refreshing, and it pairs very well with many spicy dishes. However, the Peranakans are unable to omit a quintessential element from their diet, thus the inclusion of chili in this dish.

In Nyonya cuisine, salads or cold dishes are never eaten separately as a course; they are integrated as part of the whole meal. However, you can serve it any way you choose. The crispy lettuce and cucumber slices contrast pleasingly with the softer tomato and egg slices. The pieces of peanut in the spicy sauce add a further textural element with their crunchiness. Although this is a very simple dish to prepare, it immediately commands attention from the diner due to the bold and wonderful flavors found in the sauce, which surprisingly seem to complement the mild fresh vegetables. Mamah made this dish often when she felt it was time to add some variety to our large dinners and to include a lighter dish in the meal, especially after days of consuming richly sauced dishes. As usual, she would call me into the kitchen at the very last moment, asking me to check the balance of sweet, sour, and salty in the sauce before pouring it on the salad. 

You may want to make the presentation a bit fancier by folding the lettuce into large squares or using a small-leaf lettuce in order to place the cut vegetables and egg slices on top of it. Spoon the sauce on the salad only just before serving it, otherwise the lettuce will turn soggy. 

½ head green leaf or 1 head Boston or Bibb lettuce, washed and drained well

1 medium cucumber, peeled and cut into quite thin coins

1 large tomato, cut into round slices, or to fit

2 eggs, hardboiled, peeled and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon chili cuka (link) or sambal oelek

5 tablespoons rice vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

50 grams (1¾ ounces) Chinese peanut-and-sesame brittle (or 3 tablespoons roasted peeled peanuts, ½ teaspoon toasted sesame seed, and ½ teaspoon sugar), crushed but not too finely

Sugar (optional)

  1. Tear the lettuce into fairly large pieces onto a plate (they can be folded into large squares). Place a slice of cucumber, followed by a slice of tomato, and finally an egg slice in a stack on each piece of lettuce.
  2. Mix the chili cuka with the rice vinegar, salt, and the crushed peanut brittle. Add some sugar to the sauce if it is too spicy—the sauce should already be a bit sweet from the peanut brittle. (This sauce can be substituted with Thai sweet chili sauce mixed with some crushed peanuts.)
  3. Pour the sauce onto the salad just before serving.
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