The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 20, 2008


Going to our local Malaysian restaurant in Hoboken was always a happy event because their chicken-in-coconut-gravy starter served to cheer me up even on the most miserable day in the armpit of New York. While the main courses weren't great, they were cheap and filling. An added pleasure was to practise my rusty Bahasa Indonesia on their one cute waitress. Invariably she'd gasp, smile, and respond with a torrent of Malay. In about a minute, I'd get out of my depth, not understanding the idiomatic differences between Indonesian and her language. I would start to grin vapidly, whereupon she'd smile even more widely and ensure that my starter was larger than usual.

Worked every time. Hot damn.

In London, I'm sorry to say, the quality of Malaysian cuisine is mediocre. I haven't tried too many restaurants serving the stuff, and the ones I went to don't stick in my mind. As I say - mediocre. The usual suspects were ladled out in dollops in all of them. Sundry satays, some a bit stringy. Peanut sauce, too dry. Basmati rice, which should fill any genuine Southeast Asian with horror. The proprietors, too, were usually Malaysian Chinese and they would serve generic Malay food, neither particularly Chinese nor especially ethnic Malay. A sort of melange, don't you know.

All this changed after I read a little note in the Economist about Nyonya, an authentic outpost of Peranakan cooking, that subtle and innovative blend of Sino-Malay traditions and cuisine. The word Nyonya is Malay for 'Madame' and also for the ethnic Chinese dwellers of the country; likewise, their food, termed Peranakan, stems from the assimilation of Hokkien immigrants in the Malay peninsula.

Our first visit, five years ago, was a triumph. Our last visit, not too long ago, was no disappointment either. The restaurant, established over two storeys at a crossroads in Notting Hill, has a simple decor. Communal seating inspired by the long tables of Peranakan tradition occupies the ground floor. More private dining can be had upstairs. They have one high-chair for kids, but the clientele doesn't appreciate little tykes, and the one time we were there with the boy, we had to take turns walking out of the restaurant to calm him down.

The menu, as you can see, is fairly eclectic. The Otak Otak - steamed fish in banana leaf - is delicious, as is the Singapore Laksa. The various Rendangs are worth attempting: spicy and dry.

But it's the wondrous dessert named Kuih-Kuih that makes my day every time I go to Nyonya. Check out the very mouthwatering and evocative photos here. These are delicately flavoured thinly layered cakes, reminiscent of halwa, with tinges of sago or tea or peanut, or any of a litany of ingredients that even Malaysians find difficult to identify.

So what y'all waitin' for? G'wan, g'wan, check it out!


Veena said...

Good good. Never managed to find decent Malaysian food in london. Looks like next Sat night is taken care of now. Thanks!

Fëanor said...

Veena: hope you like it! Now I'm maha-tense. Do let me know how it goes after you visit.

Sunil said...

this is the second time you're talking about this place. Since there's no way i'm going to be visiting london (or Malaysia for that matter) in the near future, I now have to look for a decent malaysian restaurant in Texas.

That might be harder than finding a chicken in Antarctica. :-(

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