When the Chinese landed on Malaysia’s shores, they brought with them a pantry of spices, a cache of recipes and a deep knowledge of the culinary arts. The Chinese immigrants settled predominantly in Melacca, an important port at the time and Penang, a thriving city. Cooking was in their blood and every street and every corner of these cities became home to a Chinese-run restaurant. In the following years, this first band of immigrants married with the local Malay people and thus, the Nyonyans were born. Nyonyan cuisine swiftly followed. The Chines began to use local herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables in their dishes, which also become much more richly spiced, influenced by spice-loving Malaysians.
Here, we explore two very different styles of Nyonya cooking, visiting two excellent restaurants; one serving the food of the Penang Nyonyans, the other that of the Melaccans.
First up; an unexpected pleasure at Sri Nyonya in Petaling Jaya. Not only was the food amazing, but the hospitality was phenomenal.
Driving up to the restaurant, my heart sank. A completely empty dining room, lights dimly lit and locked doors; it was surely closed. However, a sign on the door said otherwise, therefore I tried the bell. From the depths of the dining room came a lady in casual clothing. She opened up the doors and welcomed us in, as if ushering friends into her home.
In fact, it was truly as if we had been invited round for dinner with a Chinese family. The restaurant resembled the dining room of a Chinese house, with photo frames hung from the white walls, coffee making equipment stores haphazardly in one corner, a tea-set display cabinet in another and bare tables surrounded by wicker, cushioned chairs.
This home-style vibe did not, however, reflect in the food, which could have been served in a fine-dining venue. Dishes were extraordinarily pretty; served in traditional crockery with elegant flourishes adorning the plates.
As I often do, instead of blindly ordering dishes from the menu, I turned to the advice of our lovely waitress, who gave us a quick background of Penang Nyonyan food, then recommended some house favourites. With only one tea on the menu, simply labeled Chinese Tea, I took a stab in the dark and to my delight it turned out to be my favourite Chinese tea; Oolong. I love its slightly sweet and woody flavour. The hot honey-lemon tea here is also wonderful; very zesty, slightly sharp and not overly sweet but deepened with glossy honey.
After a few minutes, the owner and culinary master, Mr James Kuok, behind Sri Nyonya emerged from the back of the restaurant and casually pulled up a chair at our table, then offered us a round of beers on-the-house; a kind gesture we couldn’t refuse. He remained with us throughout the meal, reeling off stories form his extraordinary life, much like my grandfather would do over a family Sunday lunch. I was surprised to hear that he had lived for many years in the UK and had family in high places. Now his heart lay in this restaurant; it was James who taught all the chefs how to prepare the wonderful dishes we would be eating.
Onto the food-portions were generous and therefore the waitress had explained that 4 dishes would be plenty enough to feed three hungry mouthes. The main event was a Fish Curry. There was the choice between a hot-and-sour sauce or one creamy with coconut; we settled upon the latter. A large, painted pot arrived filling with a golden curry gravy, enlivened with a house-blend curry powder made to a family recipe. The curry was brimming with chunks of meaty fish, okra, green beans, aubergine, fresh sliced tomato and chillies and adorned with a fern shoot salad.
Our second dish was another seafood sensation, this time a prawn dish called sambal petai udang. Rosey-pink prawns were coated in a sweet-and-spicy glaze and married with slightly bitter petai beans to counter the sweet sauce. Their bright green colour nicely broke up the scarlet mass. Shells and legs were left on the prawns – I generally prefer de-shelled prawns, but the shells were a thin, glass-like skin that added a far from distasteful scent of the sea.
For our vegetable side, we went for another house favourite; fern shoot salad coated in a belechan and coconut paste and speckled with finely dived onion, red chilli, dried prawns, something pink and some bean thing?
White rice would probably have been the ideal accompaniment to these heavily flavoured dishes, however, I couldn’t resist the nasi ulam; a traditional cold steamed rice dish, abundant with mixed shredded herbs and flavoured with sambal belecan and dried prawns. The heaped pot of rice was stunning, flecked with green, pink, red, white and gold. The rice was loose and light and each mouthful exploded with herbal-spiced goodness. An intriguing fermented background taste from the sambal lingered at the black of my palette and with every bite, I discovered another layer of seasoning.
Sri Nyonya’s cendol is rumoured to be the best in town. Despite not having space for dessert, I don’t doubt this, as everything that we tried couldn’t have been improved upon. I will certainly be back, where hopefully I will save room for some sweet, icy cendol bliss.
Restoran Sri Nyonya
14, Jalan 22/49
Open Tues-Sun 12:00-14:30 & 18:00-21:30
Now over to Baba Low’s 486 in Bangsar; where dishes hail from the “The Historic State”: Melacca. The main branch of this now infamous restaurant is in Melacca itself. Kuala Lumpur’s chain is friendly local eatery, with a strong crowd of regular diners popping in for a quick and tasty bite. Service is speedy, but dishes seem freshly cooked and are impeccably assembled.
The menu is succinct, but will all the necessary components for a fine meal; there are meat and fish dishes, rice and noodles, vegetables, light bites and desserts. Here they do a select few dishes and do them well, rather than offering up a long list of poorly prepared food. Don’t miss the daily specials, written on their blackboard menu.
Baba Low’s curry laksa is a bowl of authenticity, enriched with silky coconut milk and spiced with turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, chillies and belecan (shrimp paste). The golden broth hides soft noodles, crisp beansprouts, fish balls, shrimps, tofu puffs and hard-boiled egg, topped with shredded cucumber and herbs. It is not an overly spicy dish and can stand a dousing of Baba Low’s home-made chilli sambal.
Popiah are a popular Nyonyan snack. Here, the skins are a little thicker than usual, but not unpleasant-soft and stretchy, more like a french crepe. The soft rolls are stuffed generously with juicy, lightly fried turnip, shredded carrot, lettuce, and cucumber, egg strips, bean sprouts, spring onion and a palm sugar-sweetened sauce. Delicious dipped into chilli sauce for a spicy kick.
The ayam pongteh, a traditional Nyonyan chicken and potato stew, was sensational. The flavour of the gravy was sweet and meaty, with a hint of onion and enhanced with plenty of minced chicken. The pieces of one-the-bone chicken were moist and the potato was well-cooked and stained with gravy flavour.
To my surprise, I loved the fried chicken dish, which was dry and crisp on the outside, not horribly oily, but moist in the middle and with a lovely coating of aromatic turmeric, cumin and ground coriander.
The vegetable mix, chop chai, was not described in detail on the menu. It turned out to be a sweet-and-salty ginger-rich stir-fry of bouncy wood-ear mushrooms, wilted cabbage and rice vermicelli noodles.
Finally, I sampled the otak-otak, a dish I had been wanted to try for a long time. Otak-Otak usually comes as a ‘fish mousse’, wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed or grilled, to be spread onto toast. Baba Low’s version chooses to keep the fish whole, encasing whole mackered (minus the head) in a thick spice-and-coconut paste, before grilling until charred. Flavours were reminiscent of Indonesian cooking; strong with lemongrass and galangal, complimented by rich and slightly sweet spices such as clove, star anise and turmeric. Eaten with a slice of cooling cucumber and soft white bread, it’s the perfect light bite.
Baba Low’s 486 is another spot for cendol, but once again, I am yet to venture past the savoury selection.
Baba Low’s 486
11, Lorong Kurau
Taman Bukit Pantai
Open daily 7:00-19:00