Savour the titillating essence of Nyonya cooking at Nyonya Breeze Desire
Penang is synonymous with Nyonya cuisine and many locals would have Chinese Peranakan parentage. This means they would have tasted exquisite Nyonya cooking prepared by their grandmothers, mothers and aunties, and for some, even uncles. With this in mind, it would be quite impossible to please their palate simply because they would always compare similar dishes served elsewhere to those prepared at home. Any Nyonya restaurants that intends to out-gun grandma's recipes would be engaged in a challenging endeavour.
Growing up in a Nyonya kitchen, I am able to cook many Nyonya dishes without breaking a sweat. Cooking comes second nature to me. When a friend asks for a recipe, I find it difficult to explain as seasoning and timing are all very instinctive. I seldom frequent Nyonya restaurants in Penang unless I have guests from overseas who crave for Nyonya cuisine. One of my favourite Nyonya restaurants to savour authentic Nyonya dishes in Penang is Nyonya Breeze Desire.
Rosie Yew, who I fondly call Aunty Rosie, is a brilliant cook. Her cooking technique and balance of flavours are masterful. I enjoy her cooking very much. Nyonya Breeze was formerly located at Abu Siti Lane location before it extended a branch to Straits Quay in 2011. In July 2014, Aunty Rosie closed that branch at Abu Siti Lane and focused on the restaurant at Straits Quay. Through the years, she has trained her godson Ken Thong who now runs the kitchen.
Unlike many Nyonyas who will guard their recipes with their lives, Auntie Rose is generous in divulging Nyonya cooking secrets. She even held cooking demonstrations at the Little Penang Street Market and was always obliging when I invited her to participate. I am always grateful to Auntie Rosie for her time and generosity.
Nyonya dishes should always be savoured with plain white rich since each dish offers a very distinct set of textures and tastes. When deciding what to order, study the menu and pick a selection of dishes with different flavours – something crispy, something refreshing, something spicy, something sourish and something sweet. Let us take a look at some offerings at Nyonya Breeze Desire.
For the crispy element, opt for the deep-fried golden choon peah. The skin encases a meatier stuffing of julienned cabbage, carrots, yam bean, onions and minced meat. On the side, a dipping sauce is served – “ang mo tau eu” (Worcestershire sauce). The malt vinegar in the sauce adds a new dimension to the flavours.
Although choon peah has a Hainanese origin, I am glad it is on the menu. When I make this dish at home, I would add minced prawns and crab meat to the filling. However if the chef were to add crab meat, I am sure the cost would be double and Penangites would scream murder.
Another dish to order is loh bak. It is made from pork strips seasoned with aromatic five spice powder and other ingredients, then wrapped with beancurd skin and deep-fried till cooked. Using the correct type of pork is essential to obtain a soft and delicious texture. Loh bak is served with some chilly sauce on the side.
By itself, loh bak is already delicious. Having it with some classic Tupai chilli sauce (Squirrel brand) is even better. However, at home, to lift the taste further, I would make a special spicy, tangy and silky smooth dipping sauce with fresh chilli, shallots, garlic, ginger, plump sauce, sugar, salt and vinegar, thickened with tapioca flour.
Two salads I would recommend are kerabu kacang botol and kerabu bok nee. Kerabu kacang botol is a spicy cold salad. The crunchy slices of raw winged beans are tossed with shallots, prawns, roasted grated coconut, lime juice and sambal belacan.
Kerabu bok nee, on the other hand, uses wood ear mushrooms tossed with shredded chicken, shallots, bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), lime and sambal belacan. I am a huge fan of such appetising salads.
For vegetables, opt for the jiu hu char – a scrumptious mix of thinly sliced cuttlefish and pork, julienned yam bean, carrot, cabbage, onions and mushrooms. It is one of my favourite Nyonya dishes. The flavoursome stir-fried dish is served with fresh lettuce and the all-important sambal belacan. I cannot imagine enjoying jiu hu char without lip-smacking sambal belacan.
Another must-order dish at Nyonya Breeze is sambal goreng. Deshelled prawns and eggplant are cooked in a savoury tangy sauce, topped with cashew nuts and crispy garlic flakes. Do not be confused by the name which literally means "fried sambal”. The gravy is not spicy and has no chilli, except for pieces sprinkled as garnishing. The creamy gravy is flavoured by lemongrass and belacan (shrimp paste), thickened with the richness of santan (coconut milk). This dish is ridiculously addictive and truly delicious with steamed white rice.
Another prawn dish I would order is the assam prawns. Although the look of the pan-fried tamarind-pulp-marinated prawns are somewhat unattractive, it is actually delicious in taste.
Mum makes a mean kari kapitan, a recipe I have mastered and cook quite often at home. Topped with croutons and thin strands of kaffir lime leaves, this aromatic delight is no ordinary chicken curry! Thus at a restaurant, I would always opt for other chicken dishes on the menu. Having said that, I have tasted the kari kapitan here and it is very good. Do order it unless grandma makes an awesome kari kapitan as well.
A wonderful option to consider is "Rosie's Special", a delectable dish of deep-fried chicken lathered in a spicy, tangy reduction. This signature dish was created by Auntie Rosis and is only available at Nyonya Breeze. This dish is top of my list when dining here.
Inche kabin, an aromatic deep-fried chicken offering, is served with prawn crackers and a dipping sauce on the side. Devour it piping hot – as soon as it arrives at the table – and do not allow it to cool. The texture and juicy flesh will change drastically within a short frame of time.
For fish dishes, try the asam pedas, a fragrant, sourish curry with sweet pineapple topped with local herbs. Always ask what kind of fish is available and order when the fish is very fresh. Opt for the fleshy kim chiau (golden pomfret) if available.
Try not to have too many sourish dishes. If you skip the asam pedas, go for the perut ikan. It is a curry-based vegetable dish with plenty of aromatic herbs and fermented fish stomach. This is one dish that can truly whet the appetite.
Another fish dish is acar hu – deep-fried fish flesh marinated in a vinegary turmeric sauce topped with fried ginger and garlic. I make this pickled dish quite often, especially when chia ya hu (silver mullet) is in season.
Let us now look at some pork dishes for e.g., hong bak – braised pork belly and potatoes in a soy bean paste sauce (taucheo). Coriander and cekur roots spice up the gravy brilliantly providing a distinct flavour to this dish. The buttery fatty pork belly (also known as "five layers of Heaven" to the Chinese) is succulently smooth and rich.
Another lovely pork dish is tau eu bak – braised pork in dark soy sauce. Lean meat will not work well for this dish so indulge in the fatty pieces and enjoy them with some fiery sambal belacan.
Stir-fried pork slices with cincalok (fermented small shrimps or krill) has a unique and distinct taste. Order a serving and discover its savoury delight.
Huan chu heok masak lemak uses young sweet potato leaves cooked in a coconut milk curry with prawns and sweet potato. The "lemak-ness" of the gravy is rich and wonderful.
To the Nyonyas, even a simple fried egg can be given an interesting twist. Try egg belanda – delicious fried eggs in a sweet and sour tamarind gravy. This is easily one of my favourite egg recipes.
After feasting on all the popular dishes above, sample a serving of the fragrant nasi ulam – cooked rice tossed with finely chopped fresh herbs and turmeric, toasted grated coconut, toasted belacan (dried shrimp paste) powder and fried salted fish. The colourful rice is full of character, echoing the culinary prowess of the Nyonyas.
Conclude the meal with bee koh moy – black glutinous rice porridge cooked with dried longans, infused with the sweet aroma of pandan leaves and a topping of thick coconut milk. Or pengat, a classic Nyonya dessert of diced sweet potato, taro, tapioca and banana covered in coconut milk gravy sweetened with palm sugar. In my household, good knife work is important and all potatoes must be cut into uniform, diamond shaped pieces. Presentation is key as we first feast with our eyes.
Nyonya Breeze Desire prepares each dish with great attention to detail, balancing flavours and tastes. Most dishes came in two sizes. Choose dishes that complement each other well and come back another day to sample other combinations.
Nyonya Breeze Desire is located on the first floor of Straits Quay, overlooking the marina. Do make reservations especially on weekends and public holidays.
Nyonya Breeze Desire (non-halal)
3A-1-7 Straits Quay, Tanjung Tokong, Penang
Tel: +604 899 9058
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
Updated 25 May 2022