It is said that the best Nyonya food in Penang is found behind closed doors, made in private kitchens and served in private homes, ever out of the reach of tourists. This may well be true, but that doesn't mean that all of what's sold to the general public is mere second-rate slop.
This vendor has been pedddling her Nyonya dishes at Pulau Tikus market for some thirty-plus years. Her days are long (or her nights are short, depending on your perspective); she begins preparing the day's dishes at 1am. It's an amazing - and, for anyone not in possession of four stomachs - extremely frustrating assortment. How to choose between acar hu, chicken curry kapitan, nasi ulam, kerabu beehoon, otak-otak (steamed fish 'custard', similar to Thai haw mawk), tau eu bak (pork stewed in soy sauce), or any of the other other stews and braises on offer .... let alone the endless array of pickles and preserves and sambals precariously balanced on the cart's front edge?
Takeaway-in-a-plastic-bag is the standard modus operandi here, but she'd already teased us to near desperation with a sample spoonful of this and another of that. We wanted to eat now. Noting our fervent nods and happy grunts, she smilingly pulled a couple of styrofoam containers out from under her cart, borrowed a table from the vendor behind her, and, pointing at a couple of stools, told us to sit.
We proceeded to fight first over her nasi ulam - an exquisite mixture of dry rice, toasted coconut, salted fish, and slivered fragrant greens including lime leaves, daun kaduk (wild 'pepper' leaves), and daun ciku, the leaves of the sopadilla tree - and then, her acar, a spritely mixed 'pickle' made with pineapple, cucumbers, and peanuts. The kerabu beehoon fell a bit flat for us if only because we'd eaten what may be Penang's ultimate kerabu beehoon earlier that morning. Less lime juice, chili heat, and fish flavor from belacan made this version a bit one-dimensional, we think, though it might appeal to those not quite as fond of spicy fishiness as we are.
Top to bottom: acar, kerabu beehoon, nasi ulam
Fish 'preserved' in vinegar is a dish found around the world - think sarde in soar (Venice), West Lake fish (Hangzhou), fish paksiw (Philippines). Acar hu, Penang's Nyonya version, comprises deep-fried whole fish (or fillets) doused with a turmeric-tinted sweet and sour dressing, and also includes onions and fiery whole chilies. A good acar hu derives not just coloring from turmeric, but a good bit of earthy flavor from it as well. We chose a fillet for ease of eating and loved the moist flesh enclosed in a still slightly crispy crust (opening photo), though given a choice we might have gone with a bit more vinegar.
The most surprising taste at this stall was the pickled lime that offered to us as an afterthought (bag on the right, above). The vendor dries regular limes in the sun until they turn white, steams the dried, shriveled fruits, and then puts them in a pickling solution. The result is as delightful as it is difficult to describe - sour, certainly, but not overpoweringly so; fruity, in a back-note, understated sort of way; pleasingly astringent. In short, the perfect to a Nyonya stewed meat or fish dish.
This stall is a Pulau Tikus treasure. The next time we're in Penang we'll head back on empty stomachs, armed with plates and proper, sturdy silverware, and dive into some in-depth grazing.
Nyonya stall, outside Pulau Tikus market building, 7am-12pm daily.