Friday, January 1, 2016

YummY! - Authentic Nyonya Food @ Moh Teng Pheow (莫定標娘惹粿)

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Authentic Nyonya Food @ Moh Teng Pheow  (莫定標娘惹粿)
George Town, Penang, Malaysia
George Town, Penang, Malaysia - December 2015
Coming from Nyonya-Baba roots (... see the Khoo Kongsi blog for elaboration), I have had always been interested in things Nyonya-ish, be it the culture or the food. So what attracted me to this place called Moh Teng Pheow (MTP for short) was its mixture of both..... some rather good Nyonya food in a setting that's unlike most Nyonya foodie places. It's a place that's not all dressed up to put up a show, but one that presents patrons with a peep of the Nyonya kueh cooking culture.

MTP is centrally located within George Town's UNESCO Heritage Zone, yet it is not a place that's easy to find. Why so? Well, it's located within a very large colonial house which through ancestral complexities have been subdivided into different independent sections. Getting into MTP is through a back door of this huge house and that makes it all the more interesting. Coming in from Jalan Masjid off Chulia Street notice the Sky Hotel (opposite Jalan Pintal Tali); MTP is that Dutch Red building at the end of the road. Some parking spaces are available.
MTP or its predecessor has been around for ages, I could recall this place, where as a young boy I would notice those Indian kueh vendors going there to collect their stock and then carrying it out on a couple of baskets balanced on the ends of their kandar stick. It's unfortunate though, MTP does not supply to these traditional vendors anymore... those Indian kueh vendors were one of the best promoters of Nyonya kueh and Nyonya laksa.

We were welcomed by Lily, a buddy from our Facebook group the Makan Club (where foodies madly chat and keenly share their gastronomic experiences). She took us through an old yellow timber door, walking below and being blessed by a welcoming traditional red Chinese banner and....

..... into the kitchen! Yup, the kitchen; which save for a few modern appliances and gas stoves, brought memories of my time with my late grandmother. She was a widow who stayed at an attap house in Tanjung Tokong. She made ends meet by making and selling Nyonya kueh. During school holidays, we often stayed with her and helped her in her preparations and cooking. This was a much-looked forward to little adventure for us; a good break from our normal life to learn something new.

Memories rekindled, I took a short walk-around this kitchen, the large red brick-stove and big cast iron kualis (woks) reminded me of how harsh a life it was back then, facing the heat from the hot oil while deep frying rempah udangs in a giant wok. It was almost something like a scene from one of those Shaolin temples, with a long wooden paddle stirring the watery rice flour mix in a giant kuali slowly and continuously until it became thicker and thicker and harder to stir.

Back then most things were done by hand, but these days it's different. In one corner is this large stove with a electric stirrer, this certainly does away with the Shaolin experience. At the back is an electric coconut grater in lieu of the traditional sit-down horse-type manual grater (... click here to see a sketch of this traditional grater).

This kitchen is not just for show, it IS a working kitchen. Most of the preparation work had already been done in the early morning, but to a side I met one of Lily's relatives who was busy frying Assam Prawns for the Nasi Lemak. At another end, some workers were cleaning up the utensils and the machines.
Patrons should have a quick look around of this kitchen to get the feel of how a Nyonya kitchen is like.

Beyond the kitchen is the first dining area with counter displaying the different types of kueh. A door from here led to another dining area under a covered air-well, we opted for air-well one. From a tick-off list we made our orders, and it came fairly fast as most of the food was already pre-cooked.

First to come were a couple of plates of kueh. Overall, they looked good... but apologies Lily, my fussy Nyonya-ness is kicking in, so do excuse some criticisms ... 
The Pulut Tai Tai (Kaya Kueh) was a mixed of white and purple pulut rice. I would have preferred the rich blue from the Blue Pea Flower (Bunga Telang), a colour that would have gone well with the Blue Ming plate that the kueh were served on. The kaya (coconut-egg jam) that came with it was smooth and not overly sweet.
The Chai Tau Kueh (radish cake) was a tad whitish in colour, instead of the slight yellow. This must because the did not use lard in preparation of this kueh or perhaps there should have been more radish added as it lacked that bitey tang.
The Kueh Talam, my favourite, was perfect with a dark pandan green bottom layer that have that bouncy bite and a top white santan layer that looked firm but was nicely soft and slurpy creamy.
Despite my fussiness, we finished off the kueh and ordered seconds... heh heh...

The Nasi Lemak came, now this is Nyonya style, one that looked spartan with some deep fried assam prawns and assam fish, slices of cucumber and a small patty of sambal belacan. But the kids who were not familiar with this style remarked, "Hey, where's the curry?"
But true aficionados will love this dish, the secret being in the rice (which need to have a strong santan flavour), and the sambal belacan with that musky belacan taste.
Stir pieces of the fish and prawns together with the sambal into the rice and it's a wonderful dish!

The Penang Laksa, was not up to par though. the vegetable cuts and bouncy noodles were alright. It's the soup that's lacking in some spiciness and could do with more fish. I do hope they can improve on this.

Next was a dish that was worth coming all the way here; the Nasi Ulam! Bits of chopped up fresh shallots, bunga kantan, and greens with thin slices of cooked carrots together with kerisik (pounded dry-fried grated coconut) were stirred into cooked rice with a pinch of tumeric.
This is one Nyonya specialty that is hard to find, very few places serve them as it takes a lot of work in preparation. MTP have done theirs very well, the vegetables are crunchily fresh and the kerisik adds their flavour and powderiness to the rice. Mmmmm... YummY!

Below are some of the kueh the MTP sells, for a description of the type of kueh, click on the name. Prices are at time of this blog:
Kueh Talam. Nicely done with a rich green pandan bottom layer and a soft santan top layer.

Seri Muka.
This kueh is almost the reverse of the Kueh Talam, with a pandan green top layer and a pulut bottom layer. Instead of a dark pandan green, MTP's version has the top layer a pastel green colour and softer pulut rice.

Kueh Lapis (Nyonya Layered Cake)
In Hokkien, this is called Kau Chan Kueh, translated to "9-tiered Cake". Fussy old me really counted the layers. MTP has done it well with the layers almost of uniform colour, except the top red colour was a bit orangish and the pink layers light pink instead of a darker pink.

Rempah Udang.
MTP maintained the authenticity by using wooden pins to hold the banana leaf together; many other take a short cut by stapling them. Back in my grannie's days, she use a pin made out from the dried out stalk of coconut leaves. 

Kueh Bengka.
MTP version is a light violet colour, others have it a richer darker purple. There is also a white version.

Kueh Bengka Ubi.
This is Kueh Bengka with shredded tapioca mixed in with the pastry. MTP has done this well, one that still maintained a the honey-brown burnt crust.

Pulut Inti.
Pulut rice steamed with santan then wrapped with coconut leaves. A small ball of Inti (caramel grated coconut) is put on top of the rice, the left top-most shows the inti peeping out.

Chai Tau Kueh.
Grated or chopped radish is included in the cooking of this kueh, and it is served with a sprinkling of grounded ground nuts. Original version uses lard to give it a better aroma which also brings out the slight muskiness of the radish.

Pulut Tai Tai (Kaya Kueh).
A favourite among patrons, served with a dab of kaya at the side or spread on top.
Making this is not easy, if the rice is steamed too long, the pulut becmes to sticky.

This is one kueh that is not easy to find, not many vendors sells this.

Kari Pop.
The Nyonya version of curry puffs, deep-fried instead of baked.

Popiah Chee.
Deep fried spring rolls, usually eaten dipped into the vinegar-chilli-sugar sauce. Many these days dip it into the Penang Laksa soup.

Huat Kueh.
Usually this comes in white or pink. MTP's version is beautifully done: white with streaks of colour on top. I recall that some toddy is used when mixing the watery pastry together before steaming; the toddy reacts with the sugar in the pastry mix to give it that rise/fluffiness when cooked.

Nasi Kunyit.
The key to this dish is that the pulut rice (that is cooked with tumeric) must not be to soft and must maintain a certain individual grain hardness. The curry too must have a strong spiciness with a generous amount of reddish curry oil.

Pai Tee.

After the good meal, I popped back into the kitchen to observe more... like this tray of Kueh Lapis already steamed cooked and waiting for it to cool down before being cut into smaller pieces.

Kueh Bengka Ubi being cut. The traditional way is to bake this kueh with charcoal cinders below and above so that the top and bottom are burnt. The overly burnt crust is sliced off while retaining a layer of slightly burnt brown crust. Many make the mistake of slicing the whole crust off, which is unfortunate as it is in this caramelized crust that the aroma of burn tapioca comes through best.

The rempah-inti with cuts of shrimps, ready to be wrapped with pulut rice for the making of Rempah Udang. A bit of crushed peppercorns are used to give it some spiciness.

Rempah Udang, all lined up waiting their turn to be deep-fried.

A slab of Pulut Tai Tai which will be cut into slices for serving.
MTP still makes this the traditional way: Blue and white pulut is mixed and then put into a deep deep box lined with banana leaves. A thick timber cover goes over the whole thing and a heavy person steps on the cover to compress the pulut. Heavy stones are then placed on top top for a few hours to further compress the pulut.

Short of a few things, Moh Teng Pheow had done a great job in delivering good, authentic Nyonya Cuisine, one that many will definitely enjoy. I believe they have done it better than Baba Charlie down in Malacca.
Jalan Masjid (off Lebuh Chulia), George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
Tel: +604-2615832     Mobile: +6012-4152677 (Mook Hian Beng) / +6012-4221151
Hours: 10:30am to 5:00pm (Closed on Mondays)
GPS: 5.419366, 100.335514
(Click here for Google Street View)

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