Nyonya dishes are labor intensive and time consuming. It's said that the best are served in private homes. I believe that, because in Penang nothing I've eaten in any traditional Nyonya restaurant compares to the food I've eaten at Madame Khaw's cart.
I last wrote about Madame Khaw almost 6 years ago. Every morning she rises early, prepares a mess of Nyonya curries, stews, vegetables and relishes, and wheels it all over to Pulau Tikus market, where she sells from her cart from 6 or 7am till noon. Madame Khaw is a Penang-born Nyonya (Nyonya are the female descendents of long-ago marriages between Hokkien traders and Malay women; the male descendents are called "Baba") who learned to cook, she tells me, from her Hokkien father. (Her brother mans a cart selling homemade Nyonya kuih, or sweets, which he sets up next to her stall in Pulau Tikus on Saturdays.)
Madame Khaw's Nyonya delights are transcendent. She cooks with an assured hand, often pushing the edge of the envelope by upping the quantities of strong-flavored ingredients in an already strong-flavored dish. This is how I cook too, like an addict feeding an addiction: just a few more chilies, another teaspoon of each dried spice, fresh herbs by the handful instead of the quarter cupful and 5 different types of fresh herb when a recipe calls for 2 or 3. I love strong, really strong flavors, and foods that leave me searching for descriptives. After a meal at Madame Khaw's stall the best I can come up with is "fireworks". That's a compliment.
This morning was no different. Two friends in town, our last breakfast together after almost 48 hours of bordering-on-pathological indulgence. Dave and I love all of Madame Khaw's dishes. But our bellies had been stretched, and our taste buds bordered on fatigued. So we opted for three favorites, all punchy enough to revive faltering appetites.
First, Madame Khaw's stellar asam fish, a deep-fried whole specimen or steak marinated in turmeric-infused oil and vinegar. Many recipes for this dish call for a few whole chilies. Madame Khaw's version is approximately one third to one half chilies in volume. There's plenty of turmeric in there -- the oil is good and orange -- and finely shredded ginger and sliced garlic and sesame seeds too. It's tart (asam is the Malay/Indonesian word for "sour") with a wonderful hit of astringency. Should you choose to eat one of those chilies (I always do) the jolt of heat will cut right through the vinegar and then quickly subside. It's a powerfully addictive dish, one I'm sure that I could eat every day.
An appropriately gutsy accompaniment is Madame Khaw's nasi ulam, a cool dish of rice mixed with (she says) twenty or so rhizomes (turmeric, ginger, Chinese keys) and fresh herbs -- including wild lime, turmeric and wild pepper leaves (the latter of which is often mistakenly called "betel leaf") and Vietnamese mint -- as well as sliced shallot. Madame Khaw does not own a food processor, preferring to chop, to the minutest dice, all of her rhizomes by hand. The leaves she rolls and slices into the wispiest of chiffonades. Tossed with the vegetables, the rice remains fluffy, each grain distinct. There is so much going on in this dish in terms of flavor and texture that you have to pause after each mouthful to take it all in. It tastes healthy in a way that no other rice dish I know does and, like the asam fish, is thoroughly addictive. It's also usually the first dish on Madame Khaw's cart to sell out.
We rounded out our plate with Penang-style acar, a fantastic relish of fresh pineapple, carrot, long beans and cucumber tossed with a dressing heavy on vinegar and crushed peanuts. Usually eaten as a side dish, acar is one I'd be happy to give star billing to. (I also envision its freshness enlivening slices of roast pork in a Penang Nyonya-style banh mi.)
Penang's Nyonya food is generally more sour, less coconut milky, fresher (incorporating more fresh herbs as opposed to dry spices) and spicier than the Malacca's -- a result, presumably, of Penang's proximity to Thailand. Madame Khaw's food, and these three dishes especially, embody everything I love about it.
I understand the occasional desire for a restaurant meal now and again, as opposed to one eaten standing around a cart outside a wet market. Believe me, I do. But if you have time for one Nyonya meal on Penang, make it at Madame Khaw's elbow. (She also sells everything for takeaway, and offers plastic spoons.)