A Matriarch’s Cuisine of Love

It’s only when guests or friends come to Penang that I make that mad effort to find new places to dine. Most times, we’re lazy and eat around our area which to me is rather sad and boring. I mean, how many times can you eat “chee cheong fun” for breakfast before you kind of roll your eyes and wish this dish was never invented?

Little Kitchen, Noordin Street, George Town
Little Kitchen, 179, Noordin Street, George Town, Penang

My area, Taman Sri Nibong, isn’t exactly crawling with lots of eateries.

So it gets fun when guests arrive. A few days ago, Nic and his Mensa Penang friends hosted Patrick, a fellow Mensan from Hong Kong.

It was Patrick’s first time in Penang. We thought it would be fun to take him to a Nyonya restaurant in George Town. But where? Nic’s favourite Nyonya restaurant, Hot Wok, had closed down about 2 years ago so there went the first choice on our list. Nyonya Breeze in Straits Quay was a little too modern for my taste, at least for this round.

I quickly scanned CK Lam’s food blog and found an interesting one. “Let’s take him there,” I enthused to Nic.

That’s how we ended circling Noordin Street three times before we finally found a parking spot near Hotel Grand Continental. The hotel was just one street after the Nyonya restaurant called Little Kitchen @ Nyonya. Don’t ask why it’s so oddly named.

Conceptually the restaurant was interesting. It is a Straits Chinese shop house some 135 feet long which belonged to a 4th generation Straits Chinese family. They still reside on the first floor. This family runs the Nyonya restaurant with the matriarch as the head chef! (She was this smiley Auntie in her 70s.)

Ulam appetizer with two types of sambal belacan
Ulam appetizer with two types of sambal belacan

So what’s unique about this place? Plenty of character I can tell you.

The main business (yes, the Nyonya food isn’t the main business and I will tell you why in a bit) is their birds’ nest business.

This family trades birds’ nests – the kind that most Chinese elders will give an arm and a leg and two best jade bangles for. So you can actually buy the birds’ nests in dried form from them or pre-order and have them double-boil the birds’ nest dessert for you (available for dine-in or take-away).

So the Nyonya food is more like a hobby for this family.

Nic and our Hong Kong Mensa friend, Patrick
Nic and our Hong Kong Mensa friend, Patrick

This we found out from the Auntie’s son – a chatty guy in his 50s. He must be recounting the history of the 7 year old restaurant to so many customers that the stories simply flowed out easily. And he is a veritable trove of birds’ nest facts, trivia and how the Chinese grew so mad over drinking and eating birds’ nest. The other way to locate this restaurant is to look for “Birds Nest Heaven” – the alternate name of the shop.

An array of Nyonya kuih to whet the appetite
An array of Nyonya kuih to whet the appetite

Anyway, he said that his family really didn’t need to run a Nyonya cuisine restaurant. His grandfather and father had done well for themselves back in those days of trading that the family was well set for life.

The only thing was, with his father’s demise some 10 years ago, his mother felt an inexplicable sense of loss. You see, in those days, his mother cooked every day for his family. Specifically his father never had to eat out. He had breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared lovingly by his wife.

Plus as her children had grown up, they ate out more than they ate in. Hence, the matriarch felt abandoned – no one appreciated her cooking any more.

So the children got together and hatched a plan to keep dear old Mum happy and cooking up all her favourite Nyonya dishes.

That was how Little Kitchen was born or at least that’s how Mr Loh, the son, tells it.

The second hall where we dined
The second hall where we dined

When you step into the restaurant, it does feel like you’re dining in someone’s home. We were ushered to the second hall which had an air well.

What I liked was that we were served tiny slices of Nyonya kuih as well as raw sliced cucumber, baby brinjal and four-angled beans with sambal belacan as appetizers.

The other unique feature is that all drinks were free flow – nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water. These were in traditional hot water flasks and you could drink all you wanted for RM4 per person. Funny how free flow of drinks could make me so delirious!

Free flow of nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water in Chinese flasks
Free flow of nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water in Chinese flasks

The food portions weren’t exactly large although they were tasty and had a true home-cooked feel. We ordered pig stomach soup with gingko nuts (although it had Szechuan vegetable too which is a first time tasting this vegetable in a pig stomach soup), fried paku or fern shoots in sambal hae-bee, sliced pork with cincalok, mixed vegetables, acar fish and asam prawns.

Mother-of-pearl day bed, one of the antiques in the restaurant
Mother-of-pearl day bed, one of the antiques in the restaurant

Later the affable owner came around to explain why his dishes were small in portion and a tad more pricey than most. Then again, he did say he was “rather choosy with his clientele” preferring those who could appreciate the food and not just bus-loads of tourists who eat and leave.  Not that his place could accommodate bus-loads. At most there were 6 to 7 tables.

Mixed vegetable stir-fry and pork cincalok
Mixed vegetable stir-fry and pork cincalok

As someone who goes to the wet market (yes, I do cook), I know how pricey fish, pork, chicken and vegetables cost these days.

Anyway he justified it by saying that his mom insists on the best cincalok, the freshest ingredients and all so these add up. Plus he served us on true-blue possibly heirloom/antique porcelain plates – perhaps harking back to the days when his grandfather used to run a restaurant on No.7, Leith Street!  (Upon looking under the plates, Patrick says that they were from Jingdezhen, a city in China famous for its fine quality chinaware!)

Look at the original floor tiles so telling of a Penang Nyonya shophouse
Look at the original floor tiles so telling of a Penang Nyonya shophouse

Dining at Little Kitchen was an experience that wasn’t just about the Nyonya cuisine and food tales.

Sure the food’s on the pricey side (the bill came up to RM208 for the five of us, plus drinks and 2 bowls of black glutinous rice dessert) and it wasn’t classy like some of the newer establishments. (This is Ji Tiao Lor after all.)

Labelled herbs in pots to show you what's used in Nyonya cooking
Labelled herbs in pots to show you what's used in Nyonya cooking

Yet in its homely way it was charmingly Chinese – much like dining at your favourite aunt’s home.

Whatever it was, I left feeling satisfied and perhaps made a mental note to revisit, if only for the unique tale it has to tell.

Colourful pickles in jars
Colourful pickles in jars

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