As you saw from our previous posts, Nyonyas had a difficult life. The pressure of competition between wives was constant. Bear in mind that cooking for a mixed culture in that era wasn't an easy task. Today with globalization in full swing, someone from, let's say Japan, will eat almost anything. Now he or she is used to other flavors than just the domestic cuisine, but in Nyonyas' time, it was a different story. In their age, ladies were masters of cooking and their recipes are outstanding to this day.
I did some research looking for where in Penang can we could eat good Nyonya food and found this gem – Little Nyonya. It is open only for dinners and for small groups, that is why I recommend making a reservation as there are just four or five tables. We showed up at the door around lunchtime, and boy, we were lucky. JJ, the owner of that place was there, and he had some free time to talk to us. We talked for a few hours while he shared a bit of Peranakan history, the story of his ancestors, and explained the Nyonya cuisine to us.
You can tell how amazing it will be by the entrance
When we entered his home/restaurant, we stepped into the dining room. My first thought was that the house looks like a museum. It's in Peranakan style and most of the furniture is originally from his grandparents. The house itself is about 100 years old and was built by his grandfather, who was a contractor and businessman. He was rich and like all Babas, he wanted to show off his success. There were a few well-known ways to show your wealth. First, they had tiles on the wall. Then there were the ornaments around windows and doors and the quality materials used in the construction. After that was all done, but still not enough, the writing on the wall came in handy to make a statement that they are rich and educated. We saw all these wealth indications and more. He didn't stop at luxurious building materials, he also made his house bigger than neighboring ones. His father was an interesting man with an interesting way of looking at the world. He married three times and every time under a different religion. Because the Buddist religion allows only one wife, he married his second wife under Taoist principals. The third wife was JJ's grandmother, and he married her under Christian oath. A life with three wives was a prolific one resulting in a big family.
Dining room or museum?
JJ's grandmother was the kitchen queen and she is the reason for today's restaurant. As we said before, between Nyonas there were always some schemes and competitions going on. Cooking was important for the reputation of the house, which wasn't all up to the furniture and decor. Can you imagine cooking for Chinese, Thai, English, and Malay guests in the same meal? And don't forget that all the other wives are waiting for something to go wrong so they can report how incompetent you are! Trying to accommodate all tastes and preferences in one meal and only one kitchen was just part of the pressure.
Birds nest for healthy soup
As if it were still the old days where shops weren't that common, we headed to the family garden. He guided us from one herb to the other and all of us enjoyed the herb smelling, feeling and of course picking. He was even a little surprised that we knew some plants, but there was no way we could know about all of the flavors for the cuisine. And if you want to know about some flavors and cuisine, it's crucial to start with its origin, history, and the ingredients which are used in that kitchen.
Herbs in the yard
His grandmother was the best cook in the house and she had a secret weapon, which brought her fame – rice salad. With this salad, she impressed JJ grandfather's guests and also us. Vivi had the honor to make the salad by herself and it wasn't an easy work. Pre-cooked rice is the main ingredient in the salad, but in Nyonya cuisine nothing is simple and there is a trick to make sure that the rice grains don't stick together. The seasoning of this salad is very well thought out as it is supposed to bring out the color and enrich the taste. The thin cuts have to be executed with precision so the texture of the herbs doesn't get in the way of the rice. She sliced the seasonings 100 times to make a statement that she made that dish with all of her heart and put 100% of effort in the making of it. It sure is difficult to thinly slice the kaffir lime leaf roll 100 times!
What I liked the most at this genuine restaurant was that it is based on real traditional recipes and local ingredients without any substitutes. They are preparing the food just like his grandmother did. This way her legacy is secure. We found that there is something in old-school cooking that the modern approach can't replace.
Rice Salad - Nyonya Style
Mr. JJ and his family are extremely nice and warm. Spending a few hours with them made it clear that the profit is not their priority, the natural spices and quality ingredients have that spot. The idea is to keep the Peranakan culture alive and to show what the Nyonyas were actually cooking. This is not a restaurant where you go for a quick meal. Here you leave with a view of the bigger picture and a full tummy. That educational and delicious meal is worth spending some time off the streets because when you leave, you feel more connected to the place and its history. I heartily recommend visiting if you want to taste authentic Nyonya cuisine and to chat with a kind Baba. In the next blog post, we will review this amazing meal we had there and share it with you.
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