KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 15 — Nestled in affluent Bangsar is one of KL’s best kept secrets, a laidback kedai makan that offers modest Malaccan Peranakan fare without the bank-breaking prices.
The proprietor Victor Low, a 37-year-old former bank executive and true-blue Malaccan boy, opened Baba Low’s along Lorong Kurau, part of the old neighbourhood known for its “fishy” street names (others include Tenggiri, Sepat and Bilis), to capitalise on its far from the madding crowd charm.
From Baba Low’s trademark Nyonya laksa (noodles in a light curry broth topped with julienned cucumber, prawns, hard-boiled egg, tau pok and fresh cockles) to a refreshing bowl of cendol (shaved ice and pandan-flavoured rice flour jelly strands liberally soaked with coconut milk and gula Melaka), these are simple flavours every Malaysian enjoys.
Low, himself a transplant to KL like many of the capital’s residents, knows what it’s like to have such cravings. This is food that tastes like home for many, even if they aren’t Malaccans.
What were your growing-up years like?
I was fortunate to spend all my growing-up years in Malacca. I feel bad for kids who were uprooted from place to place because of their parents’ jobs and I hope that my kids won’t have to go through it. Staying put in one place meant that I became sensitive to the place, its people, its buildings and events which happened there.
I grew up largely as a single child (as my sister was studying in Singapore) in a big old house at 486 Tranquerah Road (now Jalan Tengkera), which was right beside the Tranquerah Mosque. The seawall was only a hundred yards away but it was silted up with mud, rubbish and sewage by the time I was old enough to jump into it (which I didn’t).
As my parents were at work most of the time (my dad was a teacher in Malacca High School and my mum a nursing sister travelling the countryside of Malacca inspecting rumah-rumah bidan, recording birth rates and such), I was doted upon by my dad’s two sisters, both older than him.
I went to a small Chinese primary school (Zhong Guo Gong Xue) just down the road. I was one of the lucky ones, I suppose, as I took the beca (trishaw) to school every day.
I spent a year in Remove class (which was supposed to make sure those of us Sekolah Cina types can hack it in Form One) and I had a blast! One year of no studying! I then moved on to Malacca High School till Form Five, and Inti College Subang Jaya thereafter to prepare myself for two crazy years of studying Economics at the University of Georgia, USA.
How did Baba Low’s get started?
My dad started a stall in 1994 - with a fellow teacher and Baba - selling only cendol. This was right after my dad retired. However, my aunties (those who took care of me) were the main “consultants” for this original Baba Low’s in Malacca. Soon laksa, mee siam, popiah and nasi lemak followed, with otak otak during the weekends and don’t forget the Nyonya kueh. Our specialties then included apam berkuah, kueh cucur (Mexican hat), kueh bongkong and kueh ku itam. I was in Form Five then, and not involved with the shop save for the occasional dishwasher duty.
Given the original Baba Low’s is in Malacca, why open an outlet in KL instead of more shops in your hometown?
I tend to have strong attachment to places and Bangsar KL is one of them. It is the “town boy” phase of my life, I suppose. I started college in KL, started work in KL and started a family in KL. So it is my town now.
Also, ever since 2008 when Malacca was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, things have not been the same in Malacca. Its rapid development including the massive tourist infrastructure has somewhat decimated it. The subtle storylines, the people, the trades and more suddenly evaporated under the relentless spotlight of tourism and development.
Let’s just say that I’m a refugee of circumstances, a self-imposed exile. Will there be future expansions of Baba Low’s in my hometown? I have not seen the light yet.
Many KL folks are familiar with Penang-style Peranakan food. How is the Malaccan Peranakan food different?
Our belacan (fermented shrimp paste) is different and we use gula Melaka. Also we probably derive our cooking style and taste from southern Sumatra (Minang/Batak) and Java, whereas Penang has the Acehnese and Thai/Burmese influence.
Other than that I must admit I’m not an authority of Penang-style Nyonya food – unless you want to belanja (“give me a treat”).
Baba Low’s is now part of the Bangsar community. How did this happen?
It took some time for Baba Low’s to establish itself due to its location and the fact that Malaccan Peranakan food is not that common in KL. But it prevailed thanks to Bangsar residents, many of whom were old timers with the tastebuds of yesteryears.
Currently though, residents who patronise Baba Low’s mostly come from those who have recently moved here. Older neighbours tend to drop by to catch up with the gossip and for a free copy of The Sun.
Share some of your hard-earned experience as an F&B entrepreneur.
My advice to budding F&B entrepreneurs is to stay out of the malls if you don’t have a mountain to back you up. Also, you got to get your hands dirty and be part of the process. See, taste and feel what your customers see, taste and feel.
Be empathic. Paying someone else to do so will be simply a wasted opportunity for you to connect to others through food.
You can’t please everyone you serve but those you do make it all worth it. Most importantly, being able to witness my heritage and inheritance as a Malaccan Peranakan come alive through food is so rewarding and means a lot to me.
Baba Low’s Bangsar
11, Lorong Kurau, Off Jalan Maa’rof, 59100, Bangsar
Open daily 7am to 7pm
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 14, 2013.