Thursday, August 31, 2017

Mum's Nyonya Cuisine, Penang

For a Peranakan haven like Penang, it can be surprisingly difficult to get good Peranakan food.  As my uncle said, "home food is best".
So Penang Peranakan families don't go out that much and it is not so easy to find a good Peranakan restaurant in Penang!  Last year, we visited this interesting restaurant near our hotel, in Nordin Street with its unique home environment, genial host and personal demonstration by his mother.  This time round, we were fortunate to have a good, authentic nyonya meal at Mum's Nyonya Cuisine which my relatives took us to.

This is my third food post out of the three posts on this Penang trip, and actually I could go on since I've not really completely covered my hawker food experience (aside from the "Balik Pulau" laksa mention). But then, I've a few earlier posts on this subject from previous visits too, and it is getting a little bit same-same.  I have however put up the shots on my Penang album on Flickr - so if you are interested, do hop over to take a look for what I ate at Jelutong Market, Kimberly Street and the eternal favourite,  New Lane Coffee Shop.

But since I haven't that many restaurant reviews, I'm pleased to devote this post all to Mum's Nyonya Restaurant.  Many Singaporeans are confused by Penang nyonya food because it has marked differences from the Singapore-Malacca brand of Peranakan cuisine.  For example, the use of "assam" flavours rather than "lemak" flavours (its a question of degree; of course Penang food has coconut as well just less so) and the more extensive variety of herbs used.  The influences are Thai, rather than Indonesian (so buah keluak lovers, I am afraid that your favourite dish is not so common here), although some all time favourites like beef rendang find their way everywhere!

Anyway, this is a good place to enjoy the Penang specialities, such as the acar fish (see the recipe here) which is a deep fried fish in a vinegary sauce (which pickles it, hence the name "acar"), and Ju Hu Cha (Cuttlefish strips fried with turnip/carrot/mushroom and rolled in a lettuce leaf) etc.  I also was introduced to a new dish, ikan purut or a fish belly dish cooked with lots of herbs and vegetables.  It is a Penang specialty, which is rather fiddly to cook so it is not surprising that many restaurants don't serve it.  ( See a recipe for ikan purut here.)  These are indeed unique dishes which are not really served in the Singapore Nonya restaurants here, so please do give them a try when in Penang.  After all, what's the point of going to Penang and then trying to look for all the Singapore-style dishes!
Ju Hu Cha

Achar Fish

Ikan Purut

But every dish was yummy and I truly enjoyed the meal.  The slight let down was dessert - not much choice and quite unmemorable (I don't remember what I had and didn't take a photo, which just goes to show how unmemorable I found it).

Better than the food was the company.  The Singapore delegation and our Penang relatives filled two large tables of the little restaurant.  One of my Penang uncles told us little stories about our family during the meal.  How our distant relative, who had been expelled from Indonesia during Confrontation and went back to China, managed to find his way to Penang and to our family home in Malay Street.  Although it had been so many years since his last visit, he remembered the name of the street in Hokkien (apparently, it is called "Thai Gu Hang") and once there, he recognised the house.  He waited outside for some time till my uncle returned and finally he was able to reunite with this branch of the family.  Since then, my Penang relatives hosted a family reunion in Penang and also visited their family members in China.  Because some used to live in Indonesia, they speak some Bahasa and still retain their Hokkien (in addition to Mandarin).  So they are able to communicate with my relatives (who don't speak Mandarin, only English, Bahasa and Hokkien!)  According to my uncle, they remember his great-grandfather (my great-grandfather) very fondly due to the assistance he had rendered them in their times of need.

After dinner, we went back to the family house.  My sister and brother-in-law had never visited before so for them, it was indeed a special experience.  My uncle showed us the improvements he had made since his last visit (he is a self-taught home restorer) and it is indeed impressive to see the progress he makes each time we visit.  Indeed it is the chance to reconnect with our Penang relatives which make each visit back so special.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Not such a slow durian season

As was the case last year, our visit to Penang was timed to coincide with what we hoped would be the peak of the durian season.  Unfortunately, as related my previous post, the lack of rainfall had caused a late and small durian harvest. This had prevented us from feasting on Orh Chi or "Black Thorn" durians when we visited Nibong Tebal.  Does this mean however that we were totally deprived of durians?  The answer, fortunately, is no.

It was a slow start.  We found a roadside stall on our way back from Nibong Tebal which sold "kampong" durian and a small selection of other durian varieties, which we brought back to my uncle's place for a light snack. The "kampong" durian is really from one of those wild roadside durian trees which people then pick up to sell.   They were not the creamiest nor richest in flavour.  But nonetheless we dug in enthusiastically and within minutes the durians were all gone amongst our large group.

We also had the chance to savour other yummy goodies as well, including the fermented rice snack called tapeh.  It's not easy to get in Singapore (unless you go to the Katong Antique House on East Coast Road which sometimes sells this on a Sunday morning) and is also not that common in Malaysia these days.  But of course my relatives know where to find it in Penang.  I have to say it is an acquired taste, but since my Father has been buying it off and on for years, we have somehow acquired it.  (My sister remembers him feeding it to her as a little girl!).

I also did not mention earlier that the other motivation behind our trip to Balik Pulau was of course to eat durians!  The hills behind the town apparently provide a conducive environment and geography for durians - the right amount of sunshine, drainage, etc.  Here, we could forget all about the late and small harvest.  The durian trees grow in the wild on either side of the road, as it wound through the hills.  My aunts kept telling me that there were durians all around but obviously you need to develop an eye since I only saw the very obvious ones where they were clearly visible against the sky behind.

The durian plantations on the hill typically have their own little stalls on the roadside where customers can sit and eat.  This is what we did last year.  This year, we ended up in the Bao Shang Wang durian plantation stall because my uncle's cousin's Friend owns it. We drove down this really steep road to get to the sheltered terrace where we would eat our durians.  Wow!  It was the first time I've ever eaten durians with such a gorgeous view in front of me!

View from Bao Sheng
Khun Po durian
What was truly very different, however, was the clientele.   Here, in the hills on the other side of Penang, a long car journey from the nearest town, was a bunch of skinny, tanned, Ang Moh Lang dressed like hippies!  Helping sort and clean durians, eating the durians, helping clear away the durian skins and seeds!   Apparently the Bao Sheng durian folk also do some homestay and somehow these chaps found out about it and come to stay.  It was a strange, somewhat surreal experience as I would never have expected to see so many non-Asians so far away from the main tourist spots and eating durians to boot!  It certainly bust the stereotype of the Ang Moh who can't abide the sight nor smell of durian.

Besides human beings, there were a number of dogs wandering around the place.  One or two were the "house dogs"; collared, sleek, plump. Others were strays; skinny, dirty.  Somehow they seemed fairly tame too.

So what did we eat?  We ate (in order of ascending sweetness) : D604; Xiao Hong (a rather orangey colour rather than red); and Khun Po (named after the gentleman who first cultivated it).  The folks who didn't eat durian (yes there were some in our party) were given watermelon and bananas.  We washed down everything with tea.

More durian sampling
And that was not all.  Apparently my uncle's cousin went somewhat overboard and arranged for us to visit a second plantation.  Ummm.... instead we got him to deliver the durians back to my uncle's place and he took them to our family home in Georgetown.  Where we ate them the next day!  Washed down with Chinese tea, to cleanse and refresh the palate, to better savour the next different durian variety.  Alongside, for the non-durian eaters were chiku, pomelo, and other tropical fruits.  Plus another unusual Penang kueh-kueh called "Ee yah kueh".   

So small harvest aside, we still managed to have a most satisfying durian holiday.


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