Fusion and the Blended Family
“Peranakan Chinese, or Straits-born Chinese, are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago including British Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore, where they are called Baba-Nyonya) and Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia; where they are known as Kiau-Seng) and southern Thailand, between the 15th and 17th centuries. Nyonya is the term for women and Baba for men.”
“The Peranakan retained most of their Chinese ethnic and religious origins but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. The nonya’s clothing, Baju Panjang (Long Dress) was adapted from the native Malay couture. It is worn with a batik sarong and 3 kerosang (silver brooches).”
In Indonesia, the Peranakans develop their own ‘kebaya’, most notably ‘kebaya enchim’. It has smaller and finer embroidery, lighter fabrics and more vibrant colours. They also developed their own batik patterns, which incorporate symbols from China.”
Peranakan families also re-migrated from Indonesia to the port city of Penang (Pearl of the Orient) in Malaysia to join other overseas Chinese. One such overseas luminary was Cheong Fatt Tze who built the famous Blue Mansion. He was a powerful Nanyang industrialist and a first-class Mandarin in the Manchu government; he was made Consul-General in Singapore and economic advisor to the Empress Dowager.
Why this introduction?
I am descended from Nyonya-Baba stock, ergo, I am Baba on both sides of the family.
Like any self-respecting baba, I come with ingrained foodie tendencies and memories of Grandma’s authentic nonya cuisine. To whit, I may be a tad hypercritical about nyonya fare. The last time that I was in Penang, I stumbled upon the ‘Kebaya Dining Room’ ranked 3rd by TripAdvisor in that city.
The top-two ranked eateries are mid-priced Asian café and sushi places; Kebaya Dining Room is the highest rated fine dining restaurant in Penang. The intriguing but scary part was their assertion about a ‘modern twist’ to their menu. No Baba likes people messing with heritage food.
Kebaya Dining Room
Address: 14A, Stewart Lane, Georgetown, Penang, 10200 Malaysia
Located in the renovated heritage buildings of the Seven Terraces Hotel, the Kebaya Dining Room is also a restaurant open to walk-in guests. Despite heavy rescue renovation of dilapidated buildings in a terrace street, there is still a Peranakan vibe.
DRINK: CANTINA ZACCAGNINI TRALCETTO MONTEPULCIANO D’ABRUZZO
I always start by ordering the wine first before the food for that is the standard operating procedure for Grazing…
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a classic, well-rounded, plum-scented Italian red made from Montepulciano grapes grown in the Abruzzo region of Italy. It is not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is a Sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany. The Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC appelation was created in 1968.
The Montepulciano grape typically provides deeply coloured juice, which varies from ruby to purple with low acidity and soft, unobtrusive tannins. Our example is the higher grade DOCG Cantina Zaccagnini Tralcetto Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with 12.5% Vol alcohol content. It is an intense ruby red colour with hints of violet; intense, characteristic bouquet of plums and earth; fruity on the tongue, full-bodied and robust, well-balanced with tannin and oak.
Although most experts advice a cold, gewürztraminer, white wine with oriental food, I find the robust spices of Nonya dishes match well with a robust red.
TO BEGIN: OTAK OTAK
Red snapper cooked with garlic & turmeric and baked in a crispy pastry.
I was initially puzzled when my Starter arrived. To all intents and purposes, this looked like a fish-filled flaky pastry vol-au-vent with a turmeric sauce on the side.
Here is what a traditional otak otak looks like. It’s a grilled fish mousse with tapioca starch, chili, curry powder and turmeric, served inside a banana leaf.
My scepticism was assuaged when I broke into the light crispy pastry to reveal succulent fish flakes. The sauce was delicious and reminiscent of “otak otak”. It was definitely not my grandma’s otak otak but still pleasant. I was now primed for more surprises.
Lulled by the wine and live piano music, I contemplated the décor.
RICE AS STANDARD
Rice was served from a traditional Peranakan ‘Kam Cheng’ pot and I noted that the’ Kam Cheng’ that I inherited from Grandma is similar to the illustration on the menu. Finally, I got to see one in action!
PROTEIN: ORGANIC ROAST PORK
Tender and succulent sous vide 3-layer pork belly, organically raised, and served with a hoisin balsamic reduction dipping sauce.
Well, I was surprised at first introduction. It looked just like a plate of sliced meat with a dark soy sauce; nothing special and much like hundreds of char siew or roast meat stalls across the island serve. I was wrong as I had not accounted for that most un-Nyonya technique of ‘sous-vide’ (French for “under vacuum”), a method of cooking food sealed in a plastic pouch or glass jar and cooked in a water bath. Cooking temperature is lower than normal at 55 to 60 °C (131 to 140 °F) for meat but for longer than normal (usually 1 to 7 hours and up to 48 hours or more). The pork is cooked evenly but not overcooked thus, retaining moistness.
Additionally, they must have finished the pork with intense roasting or grilling for a superb crackling. The dark sauce was not soy sauce but a hoisin balsamic reduction. The Swiss-trained Chinese chef was showing his cooking heritage. In keeping with the modern vernacular, it was “delish”.
GREENS: WING BEAN KERABU
Salad of wing beans, toasted coconut, calamansi lime and sambal belachan.
Finally, something that I almost recognised: the winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), also called Goa bean, four-angled bean, four-cornered bean, Manila bean, and dragon bean, is a tropical legume plant found in the hot, humid equatorial countries of Southeast Asia. It is usually stir fried or served as a (kerabu) salad. The key flavouring here was sambal belachan.
Belachan (also spelt as ‘belacan’), a Malay variety of shrimp paste, is prepared from small shrimp or krill that are steamed and ground into a paste before fermenting for several months. The fermented shrimp is then fried and hard-pressed into cakes of belachan.
William Marsden, an English writer, included the word in his “A Dictionary of the Malayan Language” published in 1812: Belachan is used as an ingredient in many dishes. A common preparation is sambal belachan, made by mixing toasted belachan with chilli peppers, minced garlic, shallot paste and sugar and then fried.
The toasted belachan has a strong, distinctive odour but to a Baba, it is umami heaven…. Maybe I’m nostalgic after decades away from Penang, but this was my favourite dish of the evening.
DESSERT: TANG YUEN
Home-made glutinous ‘onde onde’ rice balls stuffed with coconut simmered in Melaka palm sugar and served with a warm coconut broth.
Good grief! Surely not another nostalgic recreation?
The rice is pounded into a paste and coloured with the blue pea flower before steaming and served in sweet coconut milk. The final magic is the onde onde burst when you bite to reveal Melaka palm sugar syrup for that traditional sweet flavour.
Remembering my Thai Nyonya heritage, it was a warm, sweet and happy ending….
AlphaLuxe Three-Tongues Rating
Although listed as a $$$$ price restaurant, bear in mind that the prix fixe 4-course menu for (Malaysian $) MYR168 is only US$40 plus whatever cost of wine that you consume. For context, a plate of fried noodles and a can of cola in Penang costs MYR 8.50 (US$2).
Overall, considering the ambience and heritage location, I had no reference point to judge “Peranakan Cuisine with a Twist”. It certainly was not Grandma’s cooking but in a land of nyonyas, it doesn’t have to be. There are many establishments serving traditional nyonya food but certainly only one that does ‘Kebaya Dining Room’ style.
The personnel are mostly from Sri Lanka, where the owner, Christopher Ong, a 5th generation baba, founded the Galle Fort Hotel. He worked with Chefs Zac and Kent to produce the menu.
Remember that Penang is a port city with a tradition of Asian fusion cuisine from Chinese, Malay, Thai and Indian influences. The British influence came later and this restaurant revels in introducing contemporary Peranakan food as a reinterpretation of Peranakan food; taking nyonya food from home-cooking to a fusion cuisine.
The wait-staff were friendly and accommodating but perhaps, not quite at “fine dining” standards of formal service. The catering manager told me that the house style is meant to be informal and rustic. Don’t get me wrong; I was satisfied with the evening but awarded my rating accordingly.
Without hesitation, an AlphaLuxe Three-Tongues award.
Other Nyonya Food Reviews
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web-zine.
He was former CEO of PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).