A taste of southern Nyonya cuisine
PETALING JAYA, May 25 — As a true-blue northern Nyonya — well, at least half of one; my dear late father always proudly proclaimed himself a “Chinaman” — I am a life-long fan of the delicious, uber-spicy flavours of this unique cuisine. And nowhere are we more proud of it than in Penang… except possibly with the exception of Malacca!
Being one of the three main Straits Chinese settlements in the (then) Malaya, Malaccans are just as mindful of their Nyonya heritage, and it’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a while, to try out their food, and see how different it is from the northern variety.
“You don’t have to go all the way down there now,” laughed the delightful Stephanie Chan, wife of one of the partners of Tranquerah, who also helps out, “we’ve brought Malacca to you!”
Based in the fairly new, red-carpeted Encorp Strand in Kota Damansara, the outlet was started in September last year, and named after a Portuguese word for palisades, stakes driven into the ground to form a protection around the town.
Stepping into the interior is like taking a trip down memory lane. Everyday items from our childhood abound, sourced for them from all corners of the country and Indonesia: empty F&N fizzy drink bottles stand neck to neck with those filled with pink cincaluk (fermented baby shrimp), one of Malacca’s most famous exports.
Old-fashioned weights, moulds, mortars and pestles decorate the bar, and wooden window frames are suspended from the ceiling, a memento to times past. Even the metal chairs which surround the alfresco tables have been fabricated from recycled storage tins.
The pork-free menu was devised for them by celebrated Nyonya cook and author Florence Tan, incidentally a fellow judge at the bi-annual Culinaire Malaysia competition’s heritage food category and Stephanie’s sister-in-law. Indeed, recipes for many of the dishes can be found in her best-selling book “Nyonya Kitchen.”
Classic starters include (Kueh) Pie Tee, popiah filling piled into crunchy little inverted “top hats” and served with a home-made chilli sauce; Otak Otak, Kerabu Bendi, and Itik Tim.
As the local Nyonya patois evolved into mainly Malay words with a sprinkling of Hokkien (as opposed to Penang where it’s the other way around), this literally translates to “simmered duck”, a spicy tart soup with kiam chai (preserved mustard greens) and sour plums.
Of course we had to try the famous Ayam Buah Keluak, a dish that is unique to southern Nyonya cooking. The black, tar-like contents of this Indonesian fruit are first scooped out of its hard shell, pounded (sometimes with minced prawns) then stuffed back.
It is then added to chicken which has been fried with a special rempah, giving it a dark, oily flavour with a slightly fruity, savoury aftertaste which some would kill for yet leave others cold. Personally, I have to admit to being in the latter camp, although I know people who will travel miles just for a taste of it.
Another well-known southern Nyonya dish is Udang Masak Lemak Nenas, large prawns in an appetising orangey-red coconut curry, but my favourite was the Kangkung Lemak Keledek, probably because it is almost exactly the same as what we have up in Penang, the leafy vegetables cooked in a creamy, tasty, spicy soup.
Almost all the food is what one would eat at home in Malacca, although some are festive dishes, cooked only for special occasions like Chinese New Year. “We often get customers who tell us that their mother used to cook this dish or their grandmother used to cook that,” Stephanie added.
As Nyonya food tends to be spicy, they have added a few like the tofu dishes for children. The aforementioned cincaluk is used in Telur Cincaluk, the salty fishy preserve a good base for the omelette.
Wash it down with a glass of homemade asam jawa drink, and follow everything with a Sago Gula Melaka… but of course!
Lot U-62A-G Jalan PJU 5/22
The Encorp Strand
Red Carpet Avenue
47810 Petaling Jaya
Tel: +603 6142 4106
Open from 11am to 11pm every day but it is advisable to book on weekends.