Even though I’m Singaporean with a Peranakan paternal grandmother, she wasn’t much of a cook so I didn’t know much about Peranakan cuisine. But this private dinner at Little Kitchen@Nyonya in Penang was a chance to learn about it.
Peranakans are Straits-born Chinese who adopted many of cultural practices of the local Malays, and the largest Peranakan communities are found in Malacca, Penang and Singapore. At Little Kitchen@Nyonya, my husband Andrew and I got to learn more about Peranakan history, culture and cuisine from our host Baba Jay, and also discovered that Malacca, Penang and Singapore each have their own distinctive Peranakan dishes.
Experience: Little Kitchen isn’t a regular restaurant, but the home of our host Baba Jay and his family, which he opens up to guests for a home cooked meal. There are only three tables and Baba Jay says that sometimes if two tables have been booked and he’s started entertaining, he’ll just put the “closed” sign on the door, so his guests get all his attention.
Unlike other restaurant where portions are large and you leave feeling a food-coma coming on, Little Kitchen@Nyona is all about sampling as many dishes are possible and leaving pleasantly satisfied but not sick from gluttony.
The restaurant was actually closed on the Saturday night that I called to make a reservation, but Baba Jay’s sister made an exception and we were the only guests that evening.
Baba Jay told us about the house we were in, a gorgeous Straits Eclectic heritage house that he inherited from his very wealthy and influential Peranakan great grandfather. Baba Jay is a fifth generation, Penang-born Peranakan and he regaled us with tales about his somewhat eccentric great grandfather – a man who had many wives and who entertain important Chinese, Malay, Thai and British merchants and officials in this house.
He had a small cooking station in the middle of the dining hall with an assorted of potted herbs. Before the food was served, Baba Jay gave us a cooking lesson and Andrew got the chance to try his hand and making nasi ulam – an aromatic steamed rice dish with variety of different fresh herbs.
After dinner, Baba Jay gave us a tour of his living quarters, which was at the back of the dining hall and we got the chance to see a typical Peranakan style courtyard house. We said hello to his mother then proceed to the back of the house which has an outdoor kitchen. We sat and chatted with Baba Jay and were also joined by his sister who gave us good, non-touristy recommendations for street food.
When we said goodnight to Baba Jay and his family, he gave us a sarong as a gift and we felt like we not only enjoyed a delicious meal, but also made new friends and got a glimpse at what life in Penang is like for a local Peranakan family.
Food: We had two piece of Nyonya kuey – a sweet, rice-flour-based sweet dessert while the food was being prepares, then enjoyed feast of exotic flavours as we tucked into dishes that included chap chai – mixed vegetables, chicken curry kapitan, winged bean with shrimp paste and two types of fish dishes – one assam (tamarind) and one with turmeric. The price our meal included free flow or ginger tea, homemade barley water and a nutmeg drink served in vintage thermos flasks.
Ambience: The restaurant is a traditional Peranakan home in a Straits Eclectic style Penang row house, so expect to be whisked back in time as you admire the beautiful and intricate woodwork and décor in the house.
Average price per person: MYR128 per person
Address: Little Kitchen @ Nyonya. 179, Lebuh Noordin, George Town, 10300 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia, Tel (60) 4261-6731