Regular readers of AlphaLuxe will recall a “Grazing” report about ‘modern’ Nyonya or Peranakan cooking at Kebaya Dining Room in Penang.
“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.” [Reference Wikipedia CLICK]
As I stated in that previous report, “No Baba likes people messing with heritage food.”
Hence, I had to try a more traditional interpretation of Nyonya cooking after being away from Penang for decades.
Penang is a melting pot of immigrants: Chinese, Indian and Further Afield mixed together with the local Malays. So it is perfectly normal to see different styles of architecture on the same street.
Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery
1, Bishop Street, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Located at a restored colonial-period shophouse that used to be a jeweller’s in the business district of Georgetown, Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery has a glass frontage so you can see inside. Conversely, sitting at your table, you can also look out onto the narrow street.
Nostalgia governed my choice of freshly squeezed nutmeg juice. Penang used to abound with nutmeg orchards. Remember that it was spices like nutmeg that attracted colonial expeditions by the Portuguese, Dutch and British to this part of the world. The freshly squeezed, flocculent juice clears after a while.
Nyonya meals are served family style usually with steamed white rice as the carbohydrate filler.
I preface my report with the fact that my dining companion is a “pescetarian”, thus our selections were mostly vegetarian with perhaps, a few prawns that acted as sources of ‘umami’. So, many of the classic Nonya dishes were missing such as Babi Pongteh (stewed pork belly), Ayam Buah Keluak (chicken with “Pangium edule black nuts”) and Itek Sioh (braised duck). However, Auntie Gaik Lean’s is famous for the Nyonya vegetarian staple – Nasi Ulam.
Nasi Ulam (Mixed Herb Rice)
Nasi ulam is a rice dish mixed with various herbs, typically the pegagan leaf (Asiatic pennywort) or kemangi (Lemon Basil) leaf, vegetables and spices with a final sprinkling of dry-toasted shredded coconut (kerisik).
Clockwise from Top Left: Pegagan (Asiatic pennywort), Kemamgi (Lemon basil), Kaduk (Wild betel leaf) and Bunga Kantan (Torch ginger flower).
The herb leaf combinations are infinite and sliced including kaduk (wild betel leaf), kesom (Vietnamese mint leaf), kunyit (turmeric leaf), bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), kaffir lime leaf, mint etc.
The Torch ginger flower is an important staple herb for Malay, Nyonya and Indian cooking. Together with galangal, it is THE distinctive aroma of Nyonya cuisine.
Truth be told and rather ironically, my favourite dish of the night is the first one to arrive. Nasi ulam can be ordered as a stand-alone meal of its own. The skill of the chef was evident and the rice was plump and tasty with a melange of herby textures and aromas.
Char Kachang Botol (Fried Wing Bean in Chilli)
Just like in the previous Nyonya restaurant report, Wing Beans featured here too but as a stir-fry in chilli sauce. The beans were still slightly crunchy although fully cooked. The freshness of the beans was a counterpoint to the heat of the chilli.
Sambal Belachan Char Kangkong (Belanchan-flavoured Fried Morning Glory)
Morning Glory is one of my favourite vegetables with fibrous hollow stems and soft green leaves that take on the flavour of whatever it is cooked with. Here, a few prawns and the belachan (fermented shrimp paste) exude all the umami-ness required to tickle the tastebuds and massage the gastric juices.
Sambal Buah Petai (Sambal-fried stink bean)
The petai (Parkia speciosa) is also known as bitter bean, twisted cluster bean or stink bean. The latter is most apt as there is a distinctive odour. Even more distinctive is the smell that is concentrated in the urine and even more pungent two days later! But we live in the present and it is a most delicious accompaniment to sambal belachan. The few prawns only added to the umami symphony.
Assam Hae (Tamarind Prawns)
With all the fermented belachan and prawns appearing before as flavourings to the dishes, finally a dish with “hae” (prawns) as the main ingredient. The large prawns are marinated in tamarind, soy-sauce and chili before frying at searing heat to produce an unctuous sticky coat. We thought the example here was not up to usual Nyonya standards. The prawns were cooked well but the assam (tamarind) flavour was thin and sour. We could have left it off the menu.
Here is what the meal looks like “family style” with a side order of plain white rice…..
Bubur Cha Cha: Sweet Ending
Bubur cha-cha is a Peranakan or Malay sweet porridge dish eaten as dessert or breakfast; made with pearl sago, sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, black-eyed peas, coconut milk, pandan leaves, palm sugar and salt.
AlphaLuxe Two-Tongues Rating
As I said at the beginning, “No Baba likes people messing with heritage food.”
Here, the cooking is authentic and classical so I am satisfied with the raison d’être of the restaurant’s name: “Old School Eatery”. It is far from ‘fine dining’ but we expected that and we are glad for a simple eatery.
However, the taste profile is not “grandmother worthy”. I guess that in the 21st century, we have lost much of the magic that was Nyonya cuisine. We are grateful for any semblance of it to award a competent AlphaLuxe Two-Tongues rating.
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web magazine. 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).