Peranakan/Nyonya Dinner 1

_6004614.jpgIn the last few blogs, I posted about traditional Chinese dinners and banquets, meals that exude a level of refinement and a level of cooking that is indicative of top-quality Far Eastern cuisine.  However, in this blog, I will be writing about a Peranakan or Nyonya meal that my family members and I enjoyed during our brief reunion in Malaysia, while on a side trip to the beautiful northern island of Penang.

Penang was part of the Straits Settlement, a trio of port-cities that were run by the British for a couple centuries beginning in the late 18th century.  One of the settlements is the port of Malacca, which my father hails from.  In all three ports, Singapore being the last, Chinese immigrants moved to this part of Southeast Asia for commercial opportunities beginning in the early 15th.  Before then, these men were transient and returned to China, but in time, Chinese traders decided to set up homes in the tropics and some married the local womenfolk, producing the germinal stage for the Peranakan or Baba/Nyonya culture.  At a certain point in history, China issued edicts that prohibited the movement of traders between the two countries, thus forcing them to claim these Southeast Asian ports as their home.  In my estimation, the Peranakan culture is probably the first hybrid cultures in the world, before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas and before the existence of the Mestizo culture.  In this posting, I will be describing dishes from my subculture, eaten at Ivy’s Place, located in Georgetown, Penang, while pointing out its differences to pure Chinese cuisine, and the various influences to the cuisine derived from a new Southeast Asian environment.

Loh Bak/Nyonya Meat Rolls

1) Lo Bak: Very few dishes in the cuisine qualify as appetizers but only one in particular can claim such reputation, Kueh Pie Tee (see blog).  However, Lo Bak is close to being called one since it is a light bite.  Soybean skin have been stuffed with a minced pork mixture, mixed with crunchy water chestnuts, and seasoned with aromatic 5-spice powder (cinnamon, coriander seed, star-anise, bay leaf, and allspice).  The side of sour chili sauce. a non-Chinese condiment, is the perfect accompaniment to these fragrant meaty bites.  This dish brought back memories of enjoying these tasty morsels in local coffee shops for breakfast or lunch.

Otak-Otak/Steamed Fish Cake2) Otak-Otak: This quintessential Nyonya dish is found in all Peranakan communities.  Minced Spanish Mackerel is mixed with rich coconut milk, aromatic root herbs like galangal, turmeric root, and lemongrass, and made fragrant with Kaffir lime leaves and turmeric leaves.  This mixture is spooned into fresh banana leaves and steamed until slightly firm.  Here we see the use of purely Southeast Asian ingredients and seasonings.  This concoction was a favorite of ours made by my paternal grandmother, and eating it was definitely a trip down gastronomic memory lane.  However, the kitchen ran out of these parcels and all we got was a small but delicious taste – what a pity.




Itek Tim/Sour Duck Soup3) Itek Tim:  This is one of the few clear soups found in a cuisine which tends to have heavier sauces instead.  Pieces of duck and Chinese Pickled Mustard Green have been boiled together to produce a slightly sour soup enriched by the strong-flavored poultry.  I remember this dish being served on auspicious days like marriages and Lunar New Year.  Unfortunately, this version was not as good as grandma’s (we compare dishes to the home version like Italians do) who used Tamarind slices to add more of a sour punch, a few chilis for some heat (Southeast Asian sensibility here), and a shot of brandy to counteract any strong fowl flavor (excuse the pun).  No doubt, the latter version was a hit in our household. Note:  Soups are not considered a separate course, thus it is savored continuously throughout the meal.



Inchi Kabin/Nyonya Fried Chicken

4) Inchi Kabin:  The peculiar name of this dish is perhaps derived when the cook in the ships would call the sailor or Captain (Encik/Inchi) from the cabin (Kabin) down for the meal when the chicken was ready.  It is basically a twice-fried chicken seasoned with mild aromatics and matched with a sauce that includes Worcestershire sauce.  Its mild nature and the use of the English seasoning are telltale signs that this dish is an adaptation for the Western palate, most likely British since they ran Penang island for a long period of time.

Ayam Kapitan/Nyonya Braised Chicken

5) Ayam Kapitan: This aromatic chicken stew is much milder than the local chicken curries, but not short in flavor.  The interesting name (Kapitan meaning Captain) and its mild flavor again points to locals modifying the nature of typical dishes to suit the taste needs of  Westerners that employed them in their households.  Many Peranakan men and women worked for the British in their offices or as part of the house staff.  This is more of a Penang Nyonya dish, thus a bit of a novelty for my family during the meal.

Sengkuang Goreng/Stif-fried Jicama

6) Sengkuang Goreng:  Here we have Jicama stir-fried with dried shrimps and Chinese mushrooms, seasoned with some light soy and darkened with some dark soy.  Jicama is indigenous to Mexico and it was brought to Southeast Asia by the Spanish conquistadores  when they arrived in the Philippine islands.  This northern dish was new for me, and I enjoyed savoring it as a wrap with lettuce leaves.

Asam Ikan/Hot and Sour Fish Stew

7) Asam Ikan:  It would be amiss to savor Peranakan cuisine without ordering this quintessential dish.  Fish steaks have been poached in a soup made aromatic from lemongrass and galangal, spicy from some chili, and sour from tamarind.  The topping of fresh mint and torch ginger flower (Bunga Kantan) adds a level of herbaceousness that makes this fish stew completely irresistible.  The pieces of fresh tomato added to the soup’s sour quality, and the al dente okra added some textural contrast.  This stew brought back memories of home dinners when it was served weekly during the 8 to 10 dish dinners that we grew up on.

Asam Udang/Tamarind Shrimp

8) Asam Udang:  Whole prawns have been marinated in tamarind paste and some sugar, providing a slightly sweet and sour element to the mild sweet shrimp meat.  Although I am used to the stewed version that we grew up on, I enjoyed this grilled version that made the shells crispy and completely edible.  Similar treatment to pork belly was also a favorite in our family meals while growing up.

Bubur Pulut Hitam/Purple Rice Pudding & Coconut Milk9) Bubur Pulut Hitam:  This rice pudding is made with purple glutinous rice cooked with Pandan leaf (“Asian Vanilla”) and topped with a tropical touch of salty coconut cream.  This was always a favorite of my family, and it was eaten both hot or cold at anytime of the day or night.  A great end to this meal.

The dishes in this meal represent the essence of the Peranakan culture pointing to the assimilation of Southeast Asian ingredients and seasonings with a Chinese taste palate.  This is evident from the use of coconut milk, tropical root aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric,  the use of spicy chili peppers and sour tamarind, the use of herbs like mint, pandan leaf and torch ginger flower, the affinity for Jicama/Sengkuang (although originally from Mexico), and the balance of flavors mixing the sour, spicy, sweet, and salty.  Yes, this food is indeed very complex in its flavor profile and equally time-consuming in cooking and realizing the final product; I know this too well since I used to watch both my grandmothers prepare the all-important large dinners starting in the wee hours of the morning.  But this meal sitting was very rewarding on many levels, and we must have attacked the dishes like wandering gastronomes returning to something familiar and extremely soul-stirring.  Despite all the culinary wanderlust within, this meal was the much needed homecoming for me and my family members, food wise and location.  We just cannot get enough of this wonderful yet little-known cuisine.  Hopefully, you will get to try some of its dishes, and then you will understand.

Watch a brief video on Peranakan Culture.

Ristorante Piccolo

After spending nearly a week on the West Coast (see blog on LA/Pasadena) and battling an excruciating sinus infection on the way back on the plane the night before, I mustered enough energy on a beautiful spring day to trek down to Georgetown in order to use an online coupon for an Italian restaurant before it would expire a few days later.  Having such an affinity for Italian cuisine, I could not help myself but purchase another coupon to sample the different eateries that could offer dishes as authentic as those I savored in the Tuscan region last summer, much like searching for a definitive interpretation and recording of a piece of music.

Visiting Georgetown has some serious challenges, mainly finding and paying for parking.  Ideally, street parking is the best since they are much more reasonable (free on Sundays) than the flat-rate garages that jack their rates up knowing that the public will have some serious challenges finding a space.  Since Georgetown is not metro accessible, one has no choice but to drive and park there, wishing that the Parking Gods are working to his favor.  And they were when I paid my visit.  I had to make one circle around the area before a pedestrian waved his keys to me before getting in his stretch limo and pulling out.  Even better, the restaurant was just the next street over.

DSC_7044.jpgRistorante Piccolo is the sister restaurant of Tuscana West (see blog), and it occupies a quaint converted row house along with many other restaurants on that row.  Immediately, you notice the upstairs balcony with a few tables jammed in that rather narrow space. Upon entering, I was told that by the young hostess that there were no tables available, except for those in a dark cavernous back room.  I requested a table close to the window so I could take some decent shots.  An older man, in chef’s garb, told me that the upstairs was only for reservations.  Being Easter Sunday, I did not protest and made my way to the bar as the holding area.  After 30 minutes, the young hostess told me that a table on the balcony was available – Yay! While I was waiting for the table to be cleared, the same older gentleman started to interrogate me on why would I want to take pictures in his restaurant stating that customers were already complaining about my photo-taking – I was puzzled as I had only taken a shot of an inner dining room with no-one in it.  After explaining that I wrote a food blog, he relented and showed me to my table.


After waiting for quite some time, I placed my order, which was taken by Mr. Chef himself.  I decided to start with a plate of Italian cold cuts and cheese.  When it arrived, slices of Prosciutto ham, Sopressata, and Salami decked the plate along with a few unpitted olives (which I prefer than pitted), a couple of slivers of pickled peppers, and a couple of slices of Pecorino cheese.  The Prosciutto was a bit too thick, dry, and past its prime judging by the slight brown coloration on the meat, whereas the rest of the meatcuts were fine but nothing extraordinary.  The Pecorino was a bit too dry and perhaps has been sitting around a bit too long.  Nothing beats fresh pieces of sliced dried ham and sheep cheese that retain a fair amount of moistness along with its flavor.  A request for another piece of tasty sourdough bread never materialized, nor did I see much of my waiter. An OK Opening Act but I was not feeling too optimistic, and I was still reeling after “the interrogation.”


DSC_7056.jpgFor the next course, I decided to try out the restaurant’s signature dish – Porcini Agnolotti.  These are Northern Italian style raviolis that have been stuffed with chopped Porcini mushrooms that exude a rich woodsiness while having a meaty texture in each bite.  The covering pasta was a light semi-translucent sheet that was more akin to wanton skins than fresh pasta.  The sage butter sauce provided the slight resin-like mintiness and the light creaminess in the sauce.  A hint of pecorino cheese added the further richness along with some nuttiness to these light heavenly pillows.  I must admit that four of these agnolottis for $18 was short on value for money but they were worth every bite.   Better Second Act.


Seafood Pasta in Parchment Paper arrived as my main course, which was served by Mr. Chef himself.  Strands of al dente Spaghettini were covered by a tomato sauce that was made aromatic by fresh basil leaves, spiked with dried chili peppers, and enriched by seafood stock.  My dish had pieces of juicy and plump seafood – scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams.  This Sicilian classic is usually baked in a parchment paper until the pasta has absorbed the sauce and the seafood cooked.  I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this restaurant’s rendition with its tasty sauce and fresh seafood.  However, the parchment paper lacked any burnt marks thus making this critic wonder if the dish ever made it to the oven.  Good Third Act, no doubt.

Mr. Chef came up and took my plate away and asked me for my dessert order.  Since the restaurant offers the ever-present Tiramisu in half orders also, I decided to try a small portion of it.  He came back later apologizing that it had sold out, and he was really being super nice with me – hmmmm.  Using my newly found trusty Yelp application on the smart phone, I decided to order the Mango Mousse cake that many reviewers had raved about.  And rightfully so.  It was a light mousse that was still slightly wobbly (not too much gelatine), and it packed that rich yet unmistakable exotic mango flavor sitting on a layer of sponge cake.  Not being much of a sweet-tooth person, I was uncharacteristically diving into this with full gusto and savoring every forkful and morsel.   I feel that most desserts do not warrant my attention unless the calories are worth eating, and at this point I was not counting a single one.  Great Finale – Bravo.

Despite a faulty start and slow service, I enjoyed the dishes that I had savored at Ristorante Piccolo that day. Just like any relationship, if you can overlook an overbearing personality and slow response to one’s needs, things can warm up and get better with time or in this case, with subsequent courses. If you are patient enough, the experience may result in hitting the jackpot, like the Mango Mousse that won me over at this Italian Tratorria. If I happen to be strolling in Georgetown and battling hunger pangs, I will make another stopover to savor some of their tasty and well-made dishes, making sure I have room for that heavenly dessert.

Ristorante Piccolo on Urbanspoon