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.