2-16 Stewart Lane, Georgetown,
10200 Penang, MALAYSIA
Tel: +60 4-264 2333
Food type: Modern Nyonya (Peranakan)
During my Hong Kong/ Macau trip earlier this year, we decided to include Malaysia as part of our itinerary. Part of it was so we could get some sun. I mean, seriously, we are at the tail-end of June now and the weather in England is still pretty grey. My fiancée was keen on a beach holiday and she had never been to the island of Penang, so the decision of where to go was an easy one.
Now as great as Malaysia is as a place to visit, the food scene in Malaysia is not that great despite how much Malaysians will try to convince you otherwise. Sure, at a cheap and cheerful level, street food is great but at a mid-tier or fine dining level it is depressing. This is completely different just across both borders as both Thailand and Singapore have an impressive list of fine dining restaurants. Tellingly Malaysia does not have a single entry in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
There are multiple reasons why the food scene in Malaysia is dire. There is an over-reliance on imported produce to recreate European cuisine (which in itself is not a problem since places like Singapore and Hong Kong import pretty much all their products). But rather it is because there are a lot of limitations placed on importation of food products such as having to be halal certified. When I was speaking to Chef Daniel at Sage, he voiced his frustration of how difficult it is for him to import good ingredients and trying to source from local producers was equally tricky with the animal husbandry standards in Malaysia so poor. This is not helped by the general Malaysian perception of ‘cheap = good’ meaning that unlike their Singaporean counterparts, they are not willing to pay top dollar for the best ingredients. At the same time, there has been very little effort to elevate the local cuisine to a higher level.
As such, I was not expecting much when looking to dine out in Penang. Kebaya was recommended to me by my uncle who had recently been to Penang and really enjoyed his time there. Kebaya is located at the Seven Terraces Boutique Hotel, a restored 1900s Anglo-Chinese townhouse in the UNESCO World Heritage portion of Georgetown. This is a perfect setting for a restaurant which aims to bring a modern twist to classical Nyonya/ Peranakan cuisine.
Nyonya? Perankan cuisine? When you ask a Gweilo what they think Malaysian cuisine is you will often get replies of Beef Rendang, Satay or Laksa. While that is correct, it is in fact only a small part of what Malaysian cuisine is. This is a nation consisting of 3 main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian each with their individual unique cuisine. Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine is an entirely different cuisine altogether, which was derived during the 1400s with the intermarriage of the Chinese (who came over to Malaysia during the spice trade) and the local Malay people. The cuisine itself is essentially a fusion of Malay and Chinese. If you are keen to try nyonya cuisine in England, Guan from the boywhoatetheworld.com runs an excellent Nyonya supper club.
The menu at Kebaya is simple 4 courses for RM100 (roughly £20). You get a choice of starters, mains, side dish and dessert. It is best to go with a couple of dining companions because these dishes are best shared with a few people so you get to enjoy a wider variety of dishes.
What Kebaya is trying to do is to modernise Nyonya cuisine and make it more accessible to the masses. Take for example their version of Otak-otak. The dish traditionally consists of fish mousse mixed with various spices which is then wrapped inside a banana leaf before being grilled or steamed. This is a local favourite, which may not appeal to tourists due to its texture and look. Here, they have reinterpreted the dish by encasing slow cooked red snapper in a puff pastry. A dipping sauce made from all the spices that is traditionally used to make the original version. If you closed your eyes, you could instinctively tell that you are eating otak-otak.
The chef here also embraces modern techniques in his cooking. Take for example their version of Roast Pork Belly – here they sous vide the pork to ensure all the moisture of the pork is locked in. The pork is then quickly finished off to ensure crispy crackling. The dipping sauces combines hoisin and balsamic vinegar which provides the necessary acidity to cut through the fatty pork.
Not all of the new techniques are successful however – Lor Ark is a classic dish of duck braised in a spiced soy based mixture. The duck is slow cooked for a long period of time to ensure the meat is falling off the bone and that all the spice mixture has had time to be absorbed. The version instead uses confit duck served with spiced plums. Unfortunately this means that although the duck was tender it did not have the same intensity of flavour as it would have if slow cooked in the spiced mixture.
Kebaya is without a doubt a very enjoyable restaurant and its popularity was evident as it was fully packed when we visited. It is clear that this is not just another cynical opening aimed at tourists given its stunning location, but that the chef here is trying to make Nyonya cuisine more appealing to the masses. In some ways he has been successful in doing so although certain dishes are in need of some fine-tuning. It would be interesting to see whether the kitchen continues to push themselves and elevate the food that they serve here to another level.