There is something about Nyonya cuisine that entices the palate. It’s because of the distinct taste created by the array of spices and undoubtly from the rich history it hails from. Aishah Azali sat down with one of the last ‘Baba’ this side of Malaysia for a walk down memory lane and some interesting facts about the much loved Nyonya cuisine.
If you really think about it, Nyonya cuisine came to be thanks to cultural borrowing with a sprinkle of innovation as the Chinese brought their cooking methods and blending them with the flavours and spices of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is a type of cuisine dating back when the Chinese (mostly from Hokkien ancestry) came to the Malay Archipelago and married the locals.
Nowadays it is a much-loved cuisine thanks to its piquant flavours and in order to get the best input on Nyonya cuisine, I had to track down a ‘Baba’ from Peranakan descent to get to the bottom of what makes these dishes so tantalizing to the palate. Truthfully, it was not so hard to find Baba John of Baba Can Cook and Limapulo restaurant because his eatery in the heart of Kuala Lumpur is on the list of top places to eat au1thentic Nyonya food in the city.
The little cups made of rice flour and stuffed with vegetables looks similar to a top hat and is an exceptional Nyonya appetiser. It is a finger food best eaten once served so you can savour the crunchiness of the shell. Baba John even advised to take it in one bite.
From the stories passed down from his grandfather and his father, the word pai tee derives from the Hokkien translation of ‘prayers to the Jade Emperor’ where ‘tee’ is a short form for Thien Kong, the Jade Emperor. It’s an old tale, historian might dispute it but I was more than happy to hear Baba’s colourful side of the story.
This quintessential Nyonya dish is a bestseller at Limapulo, evident from the many bowls ordered by the lunch crowd. The bowl of goodness consists of thin mee hoon drowning in a pool of fragrant broth and topped with an array of colourful condiments.
The complexity of flavours actually derives from a meticulous cooking process as Baba John told me in all seriousness that the dish takes 9 hours to complete. Those 9 hours include preparing all the ingredients and spices, blending and cooking them before simmering it into a broth of tasty perfection.
Common Malay ingredients like turmeric, galangal, lemongrass and candlenut are blended with onions, dried chillies and shrimp paste for an herbaceous broth base. Mix in the noodles and toppings like fried tofu, a boiled egg and a dollop of sambal for a dish bursting with flavour.
Baba John went as far as to tell me a tale of the origins of the term ‘laksa’. It started with a number 63 shop in Melaka, selling a noodle dish that no one knew the name. So, they called the dish based on the number of the shop where in the Hokkien language, 6 is ‘lak’ and 3 is ‘sa’. Combine them to3gether and you get laksa.
Petai Prawns in Sambal
Sambal is good with everything, the Asian Tabasco sauce we dip and cook into a lot of our foods. Nyonya cuisine is no different and a delicious combination is when they cook sambal with fresh prawns and petai.
Petai or bitter beans (sometimes stink beans) is a humble legume that is an acquired taste. Malaysians know it as the bean where your body emits a slight odor after consumption (like it ever deterred Malaysians from eating it anyway) but Baba told me about its underrated health benefits. The vegetable helps flush out the kidneys, expelling toxins and what not. Punchy flavours and a body detox? Somebody bring me a plate of rice because you do not simply turn down petai prawns.
Sago Gula Melaka
When you think of Nyonya desserts, gula Melaka or palm sugar always come to mind. Add that to the pearly translucent sago topped with coconut milk and you have got yourself a traditional Nyonya delicacy. Baba did emphasize that the gula Melaka makes or breaks the dish. Using other forms of sugar just won’t cut it with a tip to add a little bit of water when melting it down. Though traditionally it is eaten with coconut milk on top, Limapulo does have a modern version where they drench the sago with evaporated milk.
The historical colonial shophouses at Jalan Doraisamy have revamped itself from a seedy row of clubs to sophisticated food establishments for casual lunches, coffee evenings and cocktail nights. Limapulo is nestled in between, a gem of a restaurant with a funky almost junkyard interior of steel and cement that feels like you have travelled back in time.
Their menu includes Nyonya dishes passed down from Baba John’s family where he learned how to cook by first observing and eventually helping out his mother in the kitchen. Besides the food mentioned in the article, other dishes include chicken pongteh, roti jala and mee siam.
If you plan to taste their delectable laksa, well laksa days are only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Trust me when I write that those bowls of noodles sell like hot cakes among the lunch crowd so do come early.
50, Jalan Doraisamy 50300 Kuala Lumpur | Monday – Saturday | 12pm till 3pm | 6pm till 10pm