I’m not one of those people whose first meal in a foreign country is at McDonalds. Some tourists’ first instinct is to check whether the fries are the same as the ones back home (one friend was even excited to taste if the French did it better!). When I’m touring with a local, I beg him to take me to a place that serves the best local fare. For me, trying out strange foods is more fun than a day in a theme park.
In Penang, I loved Char kway teow (stir-fried ricecake strips; the secret ingredient seems to be the intense fire that gives the noodles a yummy smokey flavour) and Lor Bak (marinated minced pork, rolled in thin soybean sheets and then deep fried; more like our kikiam). But my most unforgettable meal was at Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine.
Nyonya is mestizo to us: hybrid, mixed. Nyonya cuisine came about with Malay-Chinese inter-marriages. The dishes may look somewhat Chinese but the taste is unique, in a realm all its own. Unlike Pinoy food where one could easily identify what specific ingredients went into the preparation, Nyonya has a complex taste. As you bite into the Kapitan Chicken Curry, everything’s happening all at once in your mouth. There’s turmeric, shallots, belachan (shrimp paste), red chili, lemongrass, mint, coconut milk, lime, sugar and everything else imaginably zesty and aromatic. It was so good that our group ordered a second round of Kapitan.
I’ve tried grilled stingray before in Singapore’s Chinatown but the Nyonya stewed version was heavenly. It had the same explosion of spices, plus tamarind juice, I think, that also made the difference.
I’ve been told by my Malaysian friends that the key tools to Nyonya’s wonderful cookery are a granite mortar and pestle. It’s couture. Everything’s done by hand. No shortcuts. Curry in powder form is a no-no. Then the stuff is marinated well and cooked very slowly.
So when in George Town Penang, check out Ivy’s. You’re in for an amazing treat, the thrill of the unknown.