Sunday, August 28, 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.

Tuesday, August 09, 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!

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