Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Penang Nonya Meal

Little Kitchen@Noordin Street
Surprising as it may seem, I have never had a meal at a good Nonya restaurant in Penang.  One reason is because of our insistence of chasing down every single lead we have on yummy hawker food.  Another reason is that my Penang relatives keep on talking about how "home cooking" beats all the restaurants hollow.  So they don't really have good suggestions for us.  Lastly, there are other good Chinese restaurants in Penang (eg the time I had a simple, tasty Hainanese meal).

So this time round we made special efforts to find a good Nonya restaurant to host dinner for our relatives.  After consultations/online research etc etc we finally found "Little Kitchen@Nyonya" which was located just behind our hotel.  The sheer convenience sold it for us.  

Lucky Bat
Having said that, there are a good number of reviews of the Little Kitchen online, such as this one. Set in a residential area, the restaurant is a family-run business and they run it from their own home.  All the restaurant "staff" are family members, with the host/owner Mr Loh taking the orders, his mother, wife and other family members doing the cooking and serving of the food.

The restaurant is actually the front reception room of the family home.  The family used to run a bird's nest business and there are samples of the nests on the walls and in big jars standing on the tops of the cabinets in the home.  Evidently the business did well, as this is a beautiful home - large, ornately decorated in the Peranakan style.  Cast-iron grilles adorn the windows and doors, and the rooms are decorated with beautiful plaster mouldings and with lucky symbols such as the bat (which represents the five fortunes of good health, wealth, longevity, virtuousness and a peaceful death) on the pillars. The furniture looks mostly antique - from the old carved cabinets, the massive dark wooden chairs, the wood-and-marble day bed, etc etc.  It looks and feels like what it is - a traditional family home.

Family dining table, also used when the diners overflow
restaurant area
An ornate screen separates the restaurant area from the family area. Whilst the restaurant is meant to be confined in the front reception room, on busy nights, it overflows into the family dining area behind.  The kitchen is traditionally located at the back of a peranakan house but in this case, they moved it to the adjacent garage/driveway to be nearer to the dining area.  Not many households would have had a car in those days, so you can tell that this was indeed a well-off family!

There is a set dinner of about 8 dishes (a soup, vegetables, chicken, prawns, fish, curry, meat, rice) for RM128 per person.  There's a 5 dish set as well, and a more expensive set but this is the one we chose.  Food is traditional Penang nonya, cooked by the women of the family.  According to the owner, Mr Loh, they decided to start up the restaurant because his mother was lonely and bored after her husband died and she had no one to cook for.  She's now in her eighties and still going strong!

Mrs Loh senior preparing Nasi Ulam
The food also comes with free flow of drinks - nutmeg (hot and cold), longan tea and green tea.  Prepared in advance, you can help yourself from the large thermos flasks on the sideboard.  There's kueh kueh to start off with, and dessert to end up with.  After our kueh kueh, dinner proper started off a traditional nasi ulam, the mixture of rice and finely chopped herbs and dried prawns which I've written about in an earlier post.  This is indeed the highlight of the meal, where Mrs Loh senior slices and dices the herbs finely whilst we watch and admire her knife skills.  Mr Loh explains the dish and presents the herbs which are used in the dish.  He even gives a little quiz and hands out a prize to my aunt, who gave the right answer.  Together, they give a polished performance.  Mr Loh admits that his mother still won't let him wield the knife as she says his knife skills just aren't good enough.  Light, fresh and tasty, the nasi ulam doesn't last long as we eat it with gusto.

The other dishes come quick and fast - pig's trotted soup, chincalok pork, prawn and pineapple curry, my favourite four-angled beans and lady's fingers with sambal, kari kapitan (chicken curry),  and the tangy ikan belanda.  We finished off with pulot hitam, the black glutinous rice porridge served with coconut milk.  The food won't win any prizes for presentation ("plating" is certainly not a concept known in the Peranakan kitchen), but for good, hearty traditional home-cooked nyonya food - this is a winner.  

More photos on Flickr.

Monday, September 12, 2016

We're all going on a durian holiday

Durians in my uncle's house in Georgetown
Durians, durians!   For a number of years now, the ambition was to go on a family holiday to Penang to eat durians.  Finally (after some shoving from my cousin) we fixed the dates at Christmas, bought tickets in February and made it down at end July.  As always, it was our opportunity to catch up with family members and also find new places to eat.

But first, our main target: the durians.  My cousin was all for pre-planning, identifying the best durian stalls/farm.  Which we did, somewhat.  But at the end it was not really necessary.  My Penang Uncle said that the stalls in town were "not good value", his code phrase for "too expensive" and bought our first batch of durians for us on Day 1 (a friend of a friend brought them in from the farm).

Durian cultivars, Malay names
On Day 2, our MPV driver (we hired an MPV) drove us to a roadside stall somewhere near Balik Pulau where we ate durians fresh off the farm.  Don't ask me where - I have no idea.  One road in the hills looks much like another. 

What's the big deal about durians in Penang, the uninitiated might ask.  First, obviously it is the freshness of the durians - just off the farm.  Second, the sheer range and variety of durians available.  And I'm not talking about the standard D24 or Mao Shan Wang (although these are definitely available).  Penang durian farmers take pride in cultivating new and unique durians, with names such as  "Ang Hae", "Cheh Pui", "Or Chih", "Capri" and many others (the first two are Hokkien phrases meaning "red prawn", "green skin" and "black thorn"). The names are also translated into Malay (literal translations).  See more information here and here.

Our roadside stall
A true connoisseur would probably have a good time sampling each durian as though it were a rare wine and recording tasting notes to better recall the distinctive texture, flavour and colour of each cultivar.  Alas, my family members are clearly not true connoisseurs as our only instinct was to eat as fast as we could in order to get our (un)fair share of durians before the flies got on them and the other members of our greedy group got to them.  Nonetheless, it was indeed a truly memorable gastronomic experience up there in the cool hilltops of Penang, enjoying the rich flavours and yummy goodness of the King of Fruit.

Sadly, there was no Day 3 feasting as we were due to return to Singapore.  We'll have to wait till durian season comes around next year.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Makeover Time!

Yes, I've refreshed the background and colours and font for this blog.  Was getting a little tired of the old look.  Hope you like it!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Historical Malacca

I've visited Malacca so many times over the years, but (I'm sorry to say) I've never been that good at visiting its museums.  Aside from the Baba and Nonya Museum and the Jewellery Museum of course :-).  This last visit was different and we spent a few hours at the Malacca Historical and Ethnography Museum.  Located in the Stadhuys - the centre of Government under the Dutch - the history museum covers the history of Malacca, up to the Independence of Malaysia, and the ethnography museum covers the rich culture of the different ethnic groups which live in the little melting pot in this corner of Malaysia.

I'm certainly glad that we made the effort to visit.  It is first and foremost such a relief to find a cool refuge from the heat of our tropical weather.  More importantly, the museum really explains well how the historical developments over the years have created the vibrant culture of its people today.  The two are indeed inseparably linked.  

As I learnt in my Secondary school history lessons, Malacca started off, when Prince Parameswara left Sumatra and found himself a refuge and opportunity to start a new town off the coast of Malaysia.

Admiral Cheng Ho 
 Over time, the town became an important centre of trade in the region, with the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho helping to establish trade links with China.  Indeed, a gigantic statue of Cheng Ho stands proud just outside the museum where he can presumably oversee the activities around him. Relations with China were so good that a Chinese princess, Hang Li Po, eventually came to Malacca as the bride of the Sultan.   The museum traces, through paintings and dioramas, much of this early history of Malacca.  The heroes of this time - Hang Tuah and his "brothers" - are brought to life, as is the tragic tale of how the Sultanate eventually lost its fight against the Portuguese invaders.

The Portuguese of course gave way to the Dutch, and then the British came and took over Malacca.  Malacca became part of the Straits Settlements, together with Penang and Singapore.  Malacca subsequently played an important role in the dawning of political consciousness in Malaysia and Singapore, producing two men who would eventually play key roles in the newly independent countries of Malaysia and SIngapore. - Tan Siew Sin, who would eventually become the Finance Minister in Malaysia, and his second cousin, Goh Keng Swee, who would take up a similar role in Singapore. 

So much for the history - but how would this shape the people and community of Malacca?  Well, Hang Li Po was accompanied by her ladies in waiting.  Intermarriages between the ladies and the local community, and with new merchants from China, led to the beginning of the baba/Nonya community in Malaysia. The coming of the Portuguese, started off the Eurasian community.  

Chitty family at their baby's first month
hair-cutting ceremony
As the Portuguese came by way of Ceylon and Goa in South Asia, the Indian community began to grow together with quite a unique group of Chitty Peranakans - the product of intermarriages between the Indian migrants and the local Malay community.  Just like the Chinese Peranakans, the Chitties also adopted the language, dress and to some extent the practices and food of the local community.  More about this community can be found here.  Other than Malacca, I don't think that this particular Peranakan community had established deep roots in either Singapore or Penang, so it was a rare opportunity to learn more about them.  I especially enjoyed the video shown on the different communities, which featured the Chitties.  Used as I am to the Chinese Peranakan community, it was so interesting to see all the Indian Chitties wearing kebaya - reminded me of Racial Harmony Day in Singapore!  

The museum also contained that "must have" for any Peranakan museum - a wedding bed.  Of course, I prefer the one in Singapore's museum :-). 

In short I would recommend that new visitors to Malacca spend some time at the history and ethnographic museum.  It also gives admission to the Governor's House Museum and the Museum of Malay Literature, and brings visitors to the foot of St Paul's Church.  It's a good way to spend a hot and humid afternoon!

Aside from making my shoes and visiting the museum, I have to admit that it was otherwise the same-old, same-old, of eating and shopping. I've written so many posts and taken so many photos of my visits to Malacca over the years, that I really don't see the need to just contribute another food/shopping related post.  But in brief, we visited "Baba Charlie's" - where knowledgable locals and Singaporean visitors go for the best Nonya kueh-kueh (and sambal belacan), and revisited places like "Eleven" and various chendol outlets around the city.  We also tried out new places and even sampled a new food creation - Baba laksa kahwin nonya Assam laksa from Jonker 88 (that's the big photo in the photo collage of my Malacca eats below) - and gave this lighter curry with sour Assam undertones our blessings for a happy marriage.  Of course we visited our favourite goldsmith and didn't go away empty handed.  

Clockwise from top left: Baba laksa kahwin Nonya assam laksa, hotel breakfast, rojak, satay and Or Chien (oysters with egg - aka Or Luak in Singapore 

If interested, my older posts are here and Flickr photos here.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Up in the clouds... My Sparkly Pink Pair of Kasut Manek

I took a trip down to Malacca last weekend. Having finished off my beading work, it was time to transform it into a pair of shoes.

My friend told me about a Singapore shoemaker. But said also that he was very busy, and as such could take some time to finish the shoes.  Impatient me, I could not wait.  And since we had this trip to Malacca lined up, I decided that I'd see if there was a shoemaker who could rush my order.  

Truth be told, I actually arranged my trip to Malacca partly also because I needed some push to finish off my shoes.  Well, it worked, didn't it?

The first shop we went to, sadly could not do it in time.  This meant that they would have to post it back to Singapore.  Not an option for someone who has spent six years beading her precious shoes and doesn't want to risk the shoes going astray.

Fortunately the next shop we found could do it in 48 hours, albeit at an express rate.  And the best part - it was in front of our hotel!  And they had this vibrant pink leather to pull the shoe together.   And the next day when we walked past the shop we saw the shoes in the process of being made.  It was an exciting moment!  

I was so pleased to pick them up the next day.  Don't they look absolutely gorgeous!

For reference, the shop is Wah Aik and it is along Heeren Street, aka Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.


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