By Virginia Tam
TODAY, to many people, eating is not only to fill the stomach, but also a holistic experience of the culture of the country of that cuisine. This is especially true when we are travelling to an exotic country. At Old China Cafe, I tasted the love and enthusiasm that goes into Malaysian food.
The restaurant, formerly known as the Selangor Society of Laundry, is located in a two-storey old building in Chinatown. Walking into the restaurant is like traveling back in time, experiencing the Nyonya (Malaysian Chinese) life back in the ’30s.
Nyonya (also called Baba-Nyonya or Peranakan) refers to the descendants of Chinese immigrants in the Ming Dynasty (around 15th to 16th century) to the Indonesian archipelago. A unique “Nyonya” cuisine has developed combining Chinese cooking and Malay spices.
The Peranakans, also known as the Babas and Nyonyas, was a prominent community of acculturated Chinese unique to this part of the world, especially in the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore), hence its other name, the Straits Chinese. The Peranakans created a unique lifestyle and its cultural influences like cuisine and language are still evident in Penang today.
The Ming dynasty admiral Cheng Ho (or Zheng He) visited Melaka at least five times of his seven great voyages between 1405 and 1433, and set up warehouse and depot in the area. His voyages were largely diplomatic. Some of his men decided to stay in the place they landed.
In order to preserve and promote traditional Nyonya culture the owner of the restaurant, Cheng, has kept the old furniture from Selangor Society of Laundry, re-decorated it and carefully added some of his own antique furniture collection. Chinese carved-wood panels, English floor tiles and Dutch wall mirrors… in this restaurant, you can glimpse their opulent lifestyle see and feel what a rich Nyonya household was like in the old days.
We ordered a plate of Pie Tee as an appetizer. It is a common Malaysian snack, which is beautiful, crispy and easy to eat. A treat for the hot summer days.
“History is served,” says Cheng, “Malaysia was a British colony and British loved to wear high hat in the old days. Doesn’t the pie tee look like the high hat’s upside down?”
Make sure you try the blue colored nasi lemak (coconut rice). Nasi lemak is very common in Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. Locals can eat it at anytime of the day, including for breakfast. ‘Nasi’ means rice in Malay, while ‘lemak’ refers to assorted condiments. The rice is soaked in coconut milk before it is steamed with coconut milk and pandan leaves. Sometimes, other spices such as turmeric and lemongrass are put in as well to increase the flavor. Traditionally, nasi lemak is served with cucumber slices, anchovies, and roasted peanuts, stir fried water spinach, hard boiled eggs, Indian pickles and Malay Sambal sauce (hot chili paste), accompanied with chicken, octopus or beef. Cheng said when he was a little boy and lost his appetite his mother would put flower petals on top to make it more colourful and appetizing. To this day, Cheng still uses his mom’s recipe and garnishes every serving with flower petals.
Nyonya laksa is another must-try delicacy when you are in Malaysia. There are many different types of laksa in Malaysia. Each family has their own laksa recipe. The popular one that is commonly available in Kuala Lumpur is usually called curry laksa. It is like a curry soup noodles with thick and creamy gravy, on top you will find bean sprouts, prawn, hardboiled egg, fish cake, tofu puffs and sambal chili paste, complemented by the subtle fragrance of the ginger flower. The laksa here in Old China Café is absolutely delicious. My favorite ingredient is the tofu puffs, the slightly spongy fried tofu balls that soak up the prawn based laksa broth were heaven! It is indeed a testament of an excellent Nyonya meal. If you can take spicy food, try it!
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website
Virginia Tam (Hong Kong)
Author of 9 travel guide books, Virginia has been published since 2002 in leading Hong Kong newspapers and magazines including CosmoGirl!, Cosmopolitan, Metro Daily, Mingpao Daily, Hong Kong Economic Journal. With the enthusiastic of coffee, she also founded the first Hong Kong online coffee magazine and had a coffee column in Metro Daily Hong Kong. Blog: www.vigitam.com