October 2, 2013
After my visit to Sri Lanka earlier this year to see my parents, we stopped off in Kuala Lumpur to meet up with my sister’s family for a few days of shopping and serious eating. The last time I was in KL, I was one year old and my mum was bringing me home to Colombo from Japan where I was born, so naturally my memories are pretty much non-existent. But Malaysian food has always been a favourite and I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy it as a part of my usual diet here in London as my brother-in-law’s family is from Malaysia – and his mum is an incredible cook.
I met up with Ling, one of my school friends whom I’ve known for 25 years and who is a KL girl through and through. She took us to Chinatown at our request, navigated us through the fake bags, beautiful Chinese temples hazy with incense, and into this little gem of a restaurant called Old China. This restaurant specializes in Nonya (or Peranakan) cuisine, beloved of the Straits Chinese from Penang and Melaka, blending together Chinese and Malay flavours. The Straits Chinese are the educated elite who were the backbone of colonial Dutch and British rule, themselves transformed through inter-marriage with the local Malay population. Their culture, just like their cuisine, is a wonderful mixture of the two traditions.
Although Ling is of Hokkien origin, she had been wanting to try this place as her mother is a big fan of their sister branch, Precious Old China in Central Market, which has been around for many years. I love the way that the cuisine is a strong glue that holds together the different fabrics of ethnicity and race in this country.
The interior of Old China Cafe is quaint and decorated with lots of sepia photos of traditional Chinese Malays and antique-like furniture.
We started with coconut juice which were all from Thailand; unbelievably sweet and you could scoop and eat the young flesh. We were, however, disappointed to learn that Malaysian coconuts aren’t sweet enough and of a different species.
Ling had the salty plum drink which was surprisingly refreshing in the heat. Note the dark plum which tasted like the dried sweet and sour plums you get in Chinese supermarkets.
Ling ordered us an array of dishes, many of which we were already familiar.
We started with deep-fried tofu stuffed with thinly-sliced, raw vegetables and doused with chilli sauce.
This is one of my favourite dishes; the crunchy tofu balanced by the freshness of the carrots, cucumber and bean sprouts bound together by the hot sauce.
Kankung (morning glory) fried with belachan (shrimp paste).
Beef rendang, a rich, dry curry made with lots of coconut milk.
And a pork stew with a Portuguese influence. This tasted quite sweet and reminded me of niku jaga.
I loved the coconut rice with cow pea flowers staining it blue, a traditional Nonya way of making rice. It didn’t add to the flavour but was very pretty.
Although the food was well-prepared, it was surprisingly not all that spicy and I would have liked a little more heat.
And for dessert we had chilled sago with gula melaka (dark palm sugar syrup).
Unlike Sri Lankan jaggery, the gula melaka was a little more caramelly and smoky, undercutting the richness of the coconut cream. The tapioca was firm and bouncy — I would love to give a medal to the person who came up with this incredibly moreish combination. I could eat this all day.
Although I knew nothing of Old China Cafe, it seems to be a highlight for most tourists and was packed with people carrying guidebooks, including the Japanese Chikyu no Arukikata. We saw lots of Japanese tourists as well as people from other countries. But Ling did say Chinatown was pretty touristy.
There were a lot more dishes I wanted to try but not enough space in my stomach. But Nonya cuisine is definitely a keeper.
OLD CHINA CAFE
No.11, Jalan Balai Polis
50000 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 603-2072 5915