Good Food Month is always a great time of year to explore new cuisines and cultures, but at The Malaya this year, I’m looking into something that is a little closer to home, something that I grew up with.
Peranakan – or Nonya – cuisine is borne of Chinese and Malay influences, much like the culture. They are notoriously laborious and involved, but also yielded insanely delicious and aromatic results.
To celebrate this complex cuisine, The Malaya at Darling Harbour presented a Nonya themed banquet menu for Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Month World Dinners, showcasing their interpretation of a few Peranakan classics.
Popiah – a type of Chinese spring roll popular in Southeast Asia – first begins with the skin. A supple ball of wheat-flour-based dough is bounced lightly on a hot flat griddle and the resulting ‘skin’ is like a paper thin crepe. It’s then typically filled with a variety of ingredients, including a chilli and sweet fermented shrimp paste sauce, minced garlic, peanuts, boiled eggs, stewed turnip, prawns and beansprouts.
The Malaya interprets this dish in a slightly different way – filling it with vermicelli, prawn, chicken, and bean sprouts, and covering it with the sweetened fermented shrimp paste sauce and crushed peanuts.
While delicious, I was missing the turnip – which is also usually cooked with dried shrimp, adding to the flavour – and found out that they chose to focus on the concept of a popiah rather than the specifics, since it was hard to find good mungkuang – the particular kind of turnip used for this dish – in Sydney.
Fair enough, but it really made me miss the real stuff!
The Ayam Perchik – traditionally marinaded in a spice paste – also known as rempah – cooked in a coconut and candlenut (a very common ingredient in Peranakan cooking) based sauce and then grilled on a skewer to add smokiness – at The Malaya was tender and delicious, and was delicately spiced and finished with an aromatic turmeric sauce.
Otak otak, a typical example of Peranakan cuisine and a snacktime favourite back home, is sold pretty much solely as street food. White fish meat gets minced into a paste and spices, before being put inbetween pieces of banana leaf and grilled over smoking coals, till the banana leaf is charred and has imparted a fragrance to the tender fish meat on the inside.
For tonight, The Malaya have made it into a very classy version of Otak, using blue eyed cod – a very fancy fish for something that would usually cost about $0.60 per parcel back home – and a housemade mix of spices, before barbecuing it to a black char.
Our waiter, who clearly is used to communicating with diners who aren’t too familiar with these dishes, cheekily suggests that we don’t eat the banana leaf unless we ‘want to add more fibre to the meal’. Hilarious!
The Otak here is crazy tender – a sign that the fish has been well handled and not overworked – and the spices delicate and balanced to bring out the flavour of the fish. It is delicious, though lacking a bit of punch for my Singaporean palette, and it seems almost too decadent to have such a huge chunk of Otak in a serve.
We move out of the entrée part of the mains with a trio of dishes – Chilli Kang Kung (stir fried chinese water spinach with a dried shrimp chilli), Kapitan King Prawns and a Malay Beef Curry.
This curry is another typically nonya dish – it carries a that spicy/sweet/tangy flavour, with a sauce that’s thickened with sweet candle nuts and coats the battered prawns. Served with rice, the mild curry and firm shrimp makes for a comforting bowl.
For the carnivores, the Malay Curry Beef features tender hunks of beef in a mild curry sauce, very similar to the way a wet rendang (as opposed to a dry rendang that is less commonly found) is served up in Australia.
By the time the Mee Goreng came by, I don’t know whether we were just ready for dessert, but it wasn’t all that special to me. Chewy noodles are fried with potato, tomato, bak choy and prawns, in this classic Southeast Asian stir-fried dish.
They also had an interesting take on my favourite cocktail – bloody mary! Theirs is called the Blazing Malaya, and features coriander and ginger as part of the spicy tomato juice drink.
And for a sweet touch to finish, the classic Black Rice Pudding – made with black glutinous rice and coconut cream – gets a twist with added notes of fresh fruit like tangy passionfruit to cut through the richness.
The Malaya – with its harbour views and dimmed lighting – is what I would describe as atas South East Asian food: all the old classics have been expressed in a fancier way, making it more accessible to an Australian audience. The dishes, which have been selected to be part of the banquet created for Good Food Month, are also available for lunch and dinner off the regular menu!
39 Lime St
Sydney, NSW 2000
Phone: 02 9279 1170
Insatiable Munchies dined as guests of Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Month. The banquet – specially created for Good Food Month 2014, and does not include the drink and dessert – would have cost $110 for 2 people otherwise.