Break in transmission

Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment on my blog. It’s been a wonderful part of my life in the past year or so; through it I’ve deepened my knowledge and love of food, and met a wonderful group of kindred souls. I’ve learned, I’ve grown, and I’ve laughed. But most of all, I’ve eaten. Boy, have I eaten!

I’ll be taking a little break from blogging, so I can focus on some other things in my life. It won’t be long, but I thought I’d just let you know. Hopefully when I return, it will be with a blog that has a bit more personality than the standard Blogger template I’ve been using up till now, too!

So look forward to a new look half-eaten blog soon. Just not quite yet.

Nyonya Breeze

50 Lorong Abu Siti, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

After an afternoon of, well, driving around and eating, Mr A and I went to pick up ‘his darling’, and the three of us headed off to dinner. Mr A told me that since I was in Penang, I must try the Nyonya cuisine. What he didn’t tell me was that he was going to introduce me to it in the form of a single meal – a Nyonya feast!

We stopped in at Nyonya Breeze, a pretty unassuming place. Modern, clean, and a little lacking in character. Not what I was expecting when being told I was going to try traditional food with a history that stretches back to the 16th century. But as usual in Asia, first impressions can often be deceiving.

We started off with an iced nutmeg tea. A unique flavour I hadn’t encountered before – slightly tangy, though mostly sweet. The nutmeg was present, but not overwhelming, and it was quite refreshing.
Otak-otak is a type of ‘fish custard’. Yeah, I know, that makes it sound gross. But it’s really not, if you don’t think of custard as a sweet dish, but rather as a consistency. Spiced with turmeric, galangal and lemongrass, the coconut milk custard is set around fish and kaffir lime leaves, and steamed. Wonderfully fragrant, this was great to mash into rice.
Ju hu char – stir fried shredded sengkuang (jicama), carrots and dried cuttlefish and mushrooms. I quite liked this. The mushrooms and the dried cuttlefish injected so much umami into the dish, and again, it kind of required some rice in each mouthful to temper the flavour. Are you beginning to see a trend here? No wonder I managed to gain four kilos on this holiday. So much rice!
When I’d previously heard of Nyonya food, I never bothered to investigate as to what it referred to. I just thought it was a subset of Malaysian food, and assumed because of the exotic sounding word ‘nyonya’ that it was probably more Malay than anything else. But it actually refers to a people – and their cuisine – who are descendants of Chinese migrants who South in the 15th and 16th centuries. So it makes sense that these Nyonya dishes seem like variations of Chinese dishes with which I’m very familiar.

Though of course, there are points of difference. Like in Chinese cooking, they’d tend to preserve a fish by salting it. In Nyonya cooking, they like to pickle things in vinegar. Like this acar hu, fish pickled in turmeric vinegar. Slightly sweet, and a little tangy, yet a bit salty – I think it was probably mackerel – a perfectly balanced dish in and of itself. I reckon you could probably just snack on this.

Choon peah – pretty much a pork and cabbage spring roll. The pastry was a bit thick, but wonderfully crunchy in that Chien Wah spring roll way (you know, the big ones you get at fish and chip shops).

And then there’s loh bak. Pretty common throughout Penang, it’s basically a spiced pork sausage, wrapped in dried bean curd skin, and deep fried. It’s another great snack food, but it always confuses me, because loh bak in Cantonese means carrot or daikon.
Next up was a salted fish and tofu soup. I didn’t catch the name. It was nice and pungent, and the tofu was silky smooth. Salted fish and tofu are always a great combination, as the neutral passivity (blandness?) of the tofu is a great foil for the sharp saltiness of the salted fish.
Another soup arrived at the table, this time an assam pedas, or tamarind fish.
Although it’s not really supposed to be a soup, more a braised fish dish with a lot of sauce. Which Mrs A expertly doled out into bowls for each of us. I just drank the sauce like a soup anyway, because it was that tasty. The fish itself was good, but a little fiddly – lots of tiny bones.
So yeah, that was my introduction to Nyonya food. I definitely liked it, though apparently some people didn’t think much of Nyonya Breeze. I don’t pretend to know any better. I’m a tourist, so hey, maybe he’s right when he says “Penang Nyonya?I think not. Cater To Tourist Nyonya… more likely I will agree.”
Caters pretty bloody well.

Lorong Selamat Char Koay Teow

Lorong Selamat, Georgetown, Penang

I have to put a caveat on this post, only because I was doing a little research to try to find a more precise address. This is not the (in)famous Lorong Selamat Char Koay Teow stand at Cafe Heng Huat, run by the allegedly abusive auntie. You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you see this guy working up a sweat in his scuba mask over a searingly hot wok. Oh, and if it helps, it’s directly opposite two garishly pastel peach apartment towers.

Mr A, my Penang food guide, took me here for CKT as Georgetown’s best CKT stand – which uses a charcoal fire – wasn’t open that day, being closed on Mondays. According to Mr A, this place is the next best, even though the vendor uses gas (apparently gas-fired woks are inferior for CKT?). Apparently he’s a second generation CKT master, and having learned from his father, whose eyesight was damaged by years of intense heat and smoke, he dons the safety goggles to protect his eyes from the constant smoke coming from the sizzling char koay teow. Wok hei is great for noodles, but not so much for eyes, it seems.

This was the first CKT I tried in Penang, and I was excited! CKT has always been one of my favourite dishes, Malaysian or otherwise, and I’m fairly sure the fact I ate it four times in four days had something to do with my holiday weight gain. But it was bloody worth it. Now Penang CKT is slightly different from the KL or Singapore styles – from what I can gather, I might be wrong – in that it uses a much thinner rice noodle, much like that of a pad Thai.

It’s stir-fried in a searingly hot wok, along with prawns, clams, bean shoots, Chinese sausage, chives, and egg. Mr A told me that what differentiates a good CKT from a great CKT, however, is the soy sauce used. Each vendor in Penang uses a different soy sauce concoction, usually a secret recipe, rather than something unadulterated off the shelf.
There’s an element of sweetness to the soy, like a kecap manis, but it’s not a sticky as that, and also there’s the matter of how much wok hei there is, which accents and changes the way the soy tastes. Then there’s the amount of chilli or sambal, which again, interacts with the soy, changing its flavour profile. Who would’ve imagined a stir-fried noodle with two sauce elements would be so complicated?

Anyway, Mr A was right. This CKT master served up a truly spectacular Char Koay Teow. The prawns were plump and juicy, and all the elements ‘popped’ flavour-wise, the bean shoots and chives bringing a freshness to what is essentially quite an oily dish. That’s the other thing: CKT should be inhaled as quickly as possible, as it can start to taste a bit greasy once it cools. Which is a guilty pleasure of an entirely different sort. In any case, I made short work of this one.

And then Mr A thought I should try the ice kachang. A traditional Malaysian dessert, it involves shaved ice mounded over a selection of not necessarily sweet ingredients – like kidney beans, corn and grass jelly – drizzled with some sort of sugar syrup – often rose, gula melaka or pandan – and coconut milk.
This one had rose and sarsaparilla syrup, and a little scoop of ice cream on top. The sarsaparilla was an interesting flavour, but to be honest, ice kachang really isn’t my cup of tea. It was definitely refreshing in the tropical heat, but there’s something about shaved ice with jelly and dairy that is a little off-putting for me.