Monday, December 6, 2010

A dash of Baba Nyonya

Think pineapple tarts. Think beaded shoes. Think antiques. Think Nyonya kuihs (cakes) and pastries. Where do we think when we think of these things? We think of Melaka, of course! After a somewhat underwhelming eating sojourn in Singapore, we made our way into Malaysia with the promise of good, cheap street food. Melaka is known for its Portuguese ruins and promises an interesting historical past. I never paid too much attention when I was in school in Malaysia but I do recall tidbits of Melakan history. Melaka was a thriving port in the early 15th century. It was an important trading route with China being one of its biggest traders. To cut the history lesson short: Chinese merchants and families intermarried with local Malays over the ensuing generations, and as a result, we have a very unique group called the Peranakans. Or baba and nyonyas as they are so often called. Their cuisine is unique and is a fusion of Chinese and Malay flavours. You don’t find much representation of this subgenre of Malaysian food in restaurants overseas so we were very excited to see there were lots of Nyonya restaurants to choose from while we were in Melaka. Alas, Monday evenings, we discovered, is not conducive to dining in restaurants in town. Most interesting Nyonya restaurants we’d walked past in the day, and made mental notes to visit later were all shut. Our hotel concierge had recommended two well-reputed restaurants but they were all shut. After much disappointment and a lot more walking around we found one restaurant that was open – just. We had to ask the proprietor to open the doors for us – they were closing up for the night. They very kindly took pity on us and our loud, rumbling stomachs helped a bit. We tried to order some dishes but many of them had sold out so these were our picks.

Itik Tim soup here consists of salty duck pieces with preserved salted mustard leaves. My grandmother does a fabulous Teo Chew version of this preserved vegetable and duck soup for my father (but with leftover roast duck, salted mustard, fresh mustard, dried whole chillies, tamarind peel and tomatoes). It’s his favourite soup and he can drink gallons of this rich, hot, sour and salty broth.

(our dinner at Anak Nyonya Restoran)

The cubes of spongy-looking custard is otak otak Melaka-style. The otak otak I’m used to are usually wrapped up in banana leaves and either steamed or grilled. These cubes were an onslaught of flavours, chilli, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves punch through and the texture was a good mixture of smooth and slightly coarse fish meal. Think spicy fish mousse for those of you who haven’t yet tried it.

Ayam masak merah or red chilli chicken is a favourite dish with many Malaysians, and is usually eaten with mounds of rice. This version had some fiery chilli heat for extra kick. The sauce was very rich and had an almost caramelized/treacley consistency.

Cincaluk omelette is another popular Nyonya dish. Fermented tiny shrimps are beaten into the egg mix and shallow-fried – the texture is springy and very light. Delicious!

Our last dish, chap chye is a typical vegetarian dish you’ll find in many households on the first and fifteenth days of the month. Devout Buddhists observe vegetarian days on the first and fifteenth days of the month and this dish features heavily on the menu. It’s a comforting dish of braised cabbage, wood ear fungus, lily buds, mung bean vermicelli and bean curd skin.
Here are other food ramblings in Melaka town.

The Jonker Street markets offer a mix of touristy offerings and locally-made products. You’ll find this gentleman who runs a mobile popiah stall at the markets. Popiah fillings can be as economical or as luxurious as you want. Typical fillings consist of shredded yam bean, carrots, firm bean curd, pork and a heap of shallots and finely shredded lettuce. Some more upmarket popiah makers fill their thin skin wrappers with crab and other such indulgent fillings!

This Jonker Street Market popiah seller’s fillings (from memory) were very tasty despite lacking in luxurious ingredients, and made extra tasty by a dash of hoisin and chilli sauce. The guy handled dirty notes and coins – all the while preparing these parcels! Maybe that’s why they tasted so good!

Here is another memorable meal. Lunch at Hoe Kee for Melaka’s famous chicken rice balls. Imagine Hainan chicken rice packed up and rolled in giant golf ball-sized morsels. Call me boring but I think I preferred the normal chicken rice. The chicken was super smooth and tender and the accompanying sticky soy and gingery chilli sauce went down a treat. I didn’t think I’d get excited about cabbage but the stir-fried cabbage here is the goods! I could’ve eaten a whole plate of it if I weren’t with other people and had to share!

The soup was very tasty if you can get past the chopped up bits of chicken feet. Boil pork bones, black beans (also called turtle beans), ginger and lots of chicken feet for hours and you have a really tasty broth. My grandmother makes a version of black bean soup but with lamb shanks, ginger and honey dates. This makes the perfect winter pick-me-up.

(Hainan chicken rice balls in close up)

Melaka is a touristy town but with a bit of heart and soul and we had a great time walking around town looking at the old Chinese shop houses with their intricate carvings and plasterwork. The hotel we stayed at, Hotel Puri is a beautiful space to relax in. It’s a heritage Nyonya house with lots of interesting nooks and crannies filled with antique artifacts, kitchen and cooking utensils.

Here is a demonstration setup of a typical old-fashioned Malay kuih-making kitchen. !

(Such interesting kuih moulds)

The hotel is so ambient and relaxing even the swallows have found their way in and made comfortable homes in one of the foyers! It’s the most magical thing to walk into this room in the late evening and have these birds fly in and out encircling the room in search of a perch stop. The concierge told us that the owner of the hotel harvests the birds’ nests for soups every now and again. Birds nest can costs up to several thousand ringgit per kilo so this is a good omen indeed! There is a huge market for birds nest we discovered in Malaysia’s east coast (post of this later down the track!).

(There must be several generations of birds in the one room - oh the noise!)

Restaurants featured are:

Anak Nyonya Restoran, 88 Jalan Tokong, Melaka (closed Wednesdays) from 10:30am - 9:30pm

Hoe Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice Ball, 4-8 Jalan Hang Jebat, Melaka

Jonker Street night markets from 6pm - 12 midnight Saturdays and Sundays.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pass the mush, we're in hospital now

Last week I had my first taste of hospital food. How did I come by hospital food? My grandmother was admitted to hospital and her condition was looking critical so I flew down to Sydney to visit her. Her lunch arrived – she didn’t have any appetite (the woman had an appetite that would shame us all in her younger years) so I ate some of it. I thought at the time, this isn’t as bad as people say it is. Then I changed my mind when I saw what she was served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hospital food is, at best, tolerable, for a day or two. Stretch it out three times a day, five , six, seven days in a row and you start to see a pattern – a very repetitive one. I was there for four days and was already bored with the menu. Yes, I know hospital food is not meant to be palatable but patients have to eat in order to regain their strength, surely. In my research about hospital food, I came across a couple of articles about vulnerable patients in hospitals suffering from malnutrition. Read about malnutrition in hospitals.

I didn’t think it was polite to take photographs of my grandmother’s hospital meals do I didn’t. Readers out there will have to use their imaginations. I was surprised to see the number of non-nutritious food items that is being served up in our hospitals. The next time you're visiting someone in hospital - look around you - sugary juices, syrupy fruits and spongey white bread abound. On the menu featured items like two fruits, chicken and gravy, lamb and gravy, seasonal vegetables, tuna pasta bake, mashed potato, rice pudding and apple or orange juice. What they mean by fruit is individual servings of fruit in syrup – the kind you peel off a plastic tab and dig a spoon in. Fresh fruit is an apple (not so appropriate when the patient can’t really eat and has dentures). Chicken is an anaemic rubber ball, potatoes dry, sweet potato water logged, beans leathery and tough as old boots. This is what I suspect lies in wait for most public hospital patients. Perhaps readers who have been in private hospitals have a different experience?

My grandmother gathered up her strength to screw up her face when I lifted the lid of her lunch. A plate of indeterminate meat slathered in packet gravy, surrounded by hunks of sweet potato, potato and beans. She turned away and said feebly, I can’t eat that. A Caucasian woman who was sharing my grandmother’s ward; when I asked her what she was having for lunch – she stopped chewing and stopped for several seconds then said, rather embarrassedly, I don’t know what meat this is.

You have to eat, I said, to get better. Deep down, I wouldn’t have wanted to eat that either to tell the truth. She managed about a quarter of a potato and a mouthful of sweet potato. My mother and I ended up making her some thin fish congee and some vegetarian noodles the next couple of days. Her lunches and dinners continued to arrive – they sat untouched.

Cultural diversity must be a pain to address in public health settings. We often forget that Australia is becoming so much more multicultural these days; as a result, we end up alienating a large part of the population that end up in hospitals don’t eat the Anglo-Saxon way. Yes, it’s convenient and easy to roast a hunk of meat, chuck a heap of beans and potatoes in a big pot and forget about it. I can appreciate the logistical nightmare of cooking for a niche group but some considerations for menu planning would be so much appreciated by patients. If hospitals presented better quality, better thought-out food, patients will eat more and faster, regain their strength a lot quicker and hopefully leave these dire places pronto. This youtube clip about hospital food pretty much sums it up!

While I write this, my grandmother is still in hospital, no doubt wanting to get better faster but very likely refusing another round of chicken in gravy and two fruits. Maybe Jamie Oliver should start a Ministry of Better Hospital Food for All Vulnerable Patients?