While I'm sticking pretty close to home, Dave's been exploring the gustatory offerings in and around Kota Kemuning, a youngish planned town about 30 minutes from KL. With a bevvy of chowish colleagues eager to introduce him to their favorites, he needn't worry about going hungry at lunchtime. One evening he returned home raving about the fare at a small Nyonya restaurant. And repeated the raves later in the week after another visit. Tired of hearing high praise of what I wasn't eating, I corralled him into a Sunday afternoon visit.
Kota Kemuning is reminiscent of American planned communities -- wide, quiet streets; green, open space; color-coordinated, cookie-cutter apartment buildings, condo developments, and stand-alone houses; and a walkable commercial area with a sort of "village" feel where residents can eat, buy groceries, and satisfy various other daily needs. (We've been told it's also the location of a fine wet market on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- a visit is in the works.) It may be devoid of anything of touristic interest, but for a leisurely weekend lunch KK makes a nice break from big-city, sometimes gritty KL.
The restaurant previously occupying Padi Prada's space offered Thai fusion. Sharon and her co-owner sister kept the name and the decor: sleekly Thai contemporary, from brushed concrete floor to dark wood tables and chairs and the celadon green-gray walls. Outside tables catch a bit of breeze.
Nyonya dishes are the culinary expression of Peranakan (Straits Chinese) culture, which can be traced to the 15th century, when traveling merchants from southern China arrived in Melaka (in southwestern Malaysia) and married Malay women. Peranakan communities were also established in eastern Malaysia and, in the 1700s, in Singapore and Penang. The term "Nyonya" refers to the women in these communities; men were known as "Babas". (See this excellent blog to learn more about all aspects of Nyonya culture.)
Penang's proximity to Thailand (many of the Chinese merchants settling in Penang in the 17th century arrived via Phuket) is evidenced in its style of Nyonya cuisine, distinct from that of Melaka. While Melakan (southern) Nyonya food shows traces of Portugese and Indian influence, Penang's northern Nyonya dishes make liberal use of chilies and souring agents like lime juice and tamarind pulp. Other common ingredients are pungent roots like galangal, lemongrass, turmeric (the leaf is used as well) and aromatic leaves like pandan, wild pepper/betel, and laksa leaf/Vietnamese mint. Sambals (pounded chili pastes) and acars (pickles) are cornerstones of both southern and northern styles.
After enjoying a few sips of Padi Prada's avocado-green "special" juice -- squeezed from the refreshingly tart ambarella fruit -- and despairing that the two of us would be able to make only the smallest dent in Padi Prada's menu, we asked Sharon to recommend a few representative Penang Nyonya dishes. First up was jiu hoo char, a mixture of cooked, shredded vegetables (jicama, carrot, cabbage, black mushrooms) and stir-fried dried cuttlefish.
The soft, mildly seasoned mixture is eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a bit (or a blob, if you're a chili fan) of Sharon's exceptionally aromatic (and burning) sambal belacan -- making for a pleasing combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures.
We followed with lor bak, chopped lean pork combined with onion, garlic, and five-spice powder, wrapped in bean curd skin, deep-fried to a browned crisp, and served with a sweet dipping sauce.
These nuggets were exceptional, simply heads and shoulders above versions I sampled on a trip to Penang a couple of years ago -- the filling porky and aromatically spicy, the thin, crinkly bean curd skin shatteringly crisp.
Otak-otak, a steamed white fish "custard", arrived next. Mixed with eggs, coconut milk, turmeric, galangal, and lemongrass, the fish is cradled in betel leaf before being wrapped in banana leaf and gently steamed.
Otak-otak is similar to Thai haw mawk -- a thicker, richer fish custard heavy on coconut cream and chilies and steamed in a banana leaf cup -- and Cambodian amok, which is similar to the Thai presentation but less custardy and more like a chunky fish stew. As is evident, this version is firm enough to hold its shape once it's unwrapped. Coconut milk is a presence, but not an overpowering one; this fragrant fishy morsel was surprisingly light and the betel leaves add an intriguing vegetal flavor.
The next dish was a surprise: a tomato-based, sweet-sour, coconut-milk free chicken "curry" (curry merah) that, strangely enough, took me back to my childhood and my mother's special oven "BBQ" sauce for chicken. Like mom's sauce, this curry includes chilies, lots of chopped onions, and -- confirmed by Sharon -- a good dose of white vinegar, and upon presentation a bit of reddish oil floats on the surface. Unlike mom's, it does not include a bottle of Heinz chili sauce and a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil. Still, I'm intrigued tby he similarities between the two dishes; just might pull out mom's recipe, use it as a guide, and have a crack at recreating Sharon's curry merah.
Spooning up the last bits of curry gravy, we were full enough to be glad at having stopped at four dishes. We could, after all, return anytime to work our way through the rest of the menu. But we were also impressed enough with Sharon's skill behind the stove -- and, yes, just plain glutton enough -- to order one *just* *one* *more*.
For the (revised) finale we chose tau eu bak, succulent slices of "3-story" pork belly and halved hard-boiled eggs "red-cooked" in dark soy sauce with cloves, cinnamon, and star anise.
Perhaps not the best choice if one wishes to end an already overindulgent meal on a "light" note -- those whitish squares on the left of the plate are nothing but pure pork fat -- but an absolute triumph nonetheless. Slow-- and, it seemed, lovingly -- cooked, this dish of succulent pork and eggs imbued with rich, sweet spice flavors proved too much to resist.
Padi Prada's is home style fare, the kind that visitors to Penang rarely come across. Sharon traces her Fujianese ancestry on Penang back four generations, and relies on her granny's recipes. Key ingredients, like spice mixes, betel leaf, kuay teow, and bean curd skin, are flown in from Penang; Sharon attributes the remarkable crispiness of her lor bak to the latter, which is thinner and less salty than the bean curd skin available around KL.
I'm both sad and relieved -- how many too-much-food meals can a person handle in the course of one week? -- that Padi Prada is not my neighborhood joint. But the menu is fairly extensive, and I hear that lor bak calling .... a return visit is not too far in the future.
Padi Prada, 4 Jalan Anggerik Vanilla Y/31Y, Kota Kemuning, Shah Alam. Tel 03-5121-0167. 8am - 2:30pm (Penang breakfasts served until 12:30) and 5:30-9:30pm. Closed on Mondays.