KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 6 — As a Malaccan boy and one-eighth Peranakan, I often miss the dishes my late Nyonya grandmother would cook such as ayam pongteh (chicken and potato stew) or babi buah keluak (braised pork with Indonesian black nut).
Fortunately there has been a rise in the number of Malaccan Peranakan restaurants in the Klang Valley – Baba Low and The Straits Food Company in Bangsar, Limablas and Limapulo in the KL city centre, and The Tranquerah in Kota Damansara.
The latest to join these popular eateries is Big Baba in the verdant neighbourhood of Taman Desa. You can’t miss the vibrant turquoise bamboo blinds in front of the restaurant. The tagline on Big Baba’s wooden signboard declares that one may savour “Peranakan Wee Family Cuisine” behind these doors (also painted a lively turquoise). Enter and be greeted by vintage (or pseudo-vintage) Peranakan décor such as hand-painted parasols and old wooden shutters.
The Big Baba in question is a Malaccan Baba cook whom everyone affectionately calls Uncle Wee. Though he’s in his late 60s, he still runs the kitchen with a vigour that belies his age. (He reminds me of my late grandfather, who would drive around Malacca town till his eyesight deteriorated and then insisted on taking the bus rather than be ferried around by my father. Malaccan men may age but they don’t really grow old.)
What is Malaccan Peranakan cuisine anyway? It differs from its Penang counterpart thanks to a greater use of santan (coconut milk) for a moreish creaminess. Tamarind, favoured by its northern cousin, is employed less as sharp acidity is frowned upon.
Start with some aromatic Nyonya-style otak-otak. A smooth blend of fish, santan, chilli paste, galangal and spices wrapped in banana leaves, it’s the perfect appetiser. Another must-try is Uncle Wee’s specialty, ayam pongteh. This humble dish is often the main course for Malaccan Peranakan families (or part-Peranakan families like mine): sweet and savoury, belly-filling and capable of sustaining one for the entire day.
Don’t forget to have some greens — spicy lady’s fingers with dried shrimp or kangkung belacan will take care of your fibre quota for the day. Our favourite dish has to be the mouthwatering sambal petai udang (spicy prawns with stink beans); ask for another bowl of rice to mop up all the sauce.
Other Peranakan staples include telur cincaluk (fermented shrimp omelette), terung goreng (fried eggplant), and itek tim, a classic Peranakan soup made from simmering duck, tomatoes, salted vegetables and preserved sour plums together for hours.
Next to the cashier is a vintage Nyonya kuih glass display which will be filled with traditional sweet and savoury treats such as onde-onde come tea time. End your meal with a refreshing bowl of cendol or iced coffee (more Vietnamese than Malaccan, but delicious all the same).
I’m reminded of the 2000 American sitcom Big Momma’s House starring the irreverent Martin Lawrence. There’s plenty of laughter here too (a result of Uncle Wee coming from a large family of 12 children in Tranquerah, Malacca), and one could argue, much better food.
Instead of a house, drop by for a warm welcome to Big Baba’s “home”, for that’s what you’ll get here: fuss-free, home-style fare.
34, Jalan 2/109E, Desa Business Park, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Mon-Fri 11am-3pm and 6pm-9pm. Closed on weekends except for events.