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Nyonya cuisine

Update: January, 05/2015 - 17:06

Nyonya mix: Filling for top hats, kapitan curry prawn and pineapple curry (anti-clockwise from bottom right).

by Louisa Lim

The journey begins the moment you step past the weathered saloon doors into the cool, sepia-tinged restaurant. "Welcome home!" greets a diminutive man warmly as the melancholy music of old Shanghai crackles in the background. Dozens of eyes stare down at you from vintage photographs on the walls, no doubt impressed that you've managed to brave the downtown heat and traffic to find your way to this forgotten part of Kuala Lumpur on the fringe of Chinatown.

Your meandering thoughts are interrupted only once, when waiters in black, Chinese-style uniforms saunter over to hand you the ageing menu, which is essentially just a sheaf of papers bound together by staples. But it's these little quirks-cobwebs in corner and all- that lends Old China Cafe its identity.

Your meandering thoughts are interrupted only once, when waiters in black, Chinese-style uniforms saunter over to hand you the ageing menu, which is essentially just a sheaf of papers bound together by staples. But it's these little quirks-cobwebs in corner and all-that lends Old China Cafe its identity.

Nostalgia: China House has a coffee shop setting like the old days.

Opened by ex-journalist and antique enthusiast Johnny Wong and tour guide and art-house flick producer Leonard Tee, the restaurant, now run by Tee's brother Raymond, has been serving mainly Nyonya food-the unique blend of Chinese and Malay cuisine originating from Peranakan communities in Penang and Malacca-for 19 years and counting. The food, while not always perfect, is soulful and satisfying. Whether it's kapitan curry chicken or prawn and pineapples curry or babi pong teh (pork stew), the trickless dishes have been eaten for generations in Peranakan homes.

One of the best sellers here is the nasi lemak, a meal unto itself. With rice tinged an unusual indigo blue of the butterfly pea flower (clittoria), it is a pretty and appetising dish, especially when paired with the frilly pie tee (top hat) appetiser. It may not be on anybody's best nasi lemak in town list, but a meal here is a unique immersion into old KL.

Once the guild hall of the Selangor and Federal Territory Laundry Association, the pre-war shophouse has been around since the 1920s. Little has changed outside or in- the mirrors have been hanging in the same spot for decades and the wooden fixtures have remained intact even after years of use. That's why it's not unusual to see hordes of guidebook-toting tourists (it has been recommended by the venerable Lonely Planet) and ordinary locals doing nothing much apart from nibbling on pai tee and gazing wistfully at their surroundings.

Most evenings, the cafe is crowded with foreigners seeking the authentic local experience. It attracts not only backpackers on a budget, but also the well-heeled and arty, cultural types.

While the restaurant has been spared the ravages of time, its neighbours aren't quite as lucky. Once a hub of elegant pre-war buildings, Petaling Street is now a wasteland of fake designer goods, the cheap and the tacky. Prices have also skyrocketed; monthly rental costs have increased more than ten-fold since the duo took over in the Nineties.

The art and culture-loving Wong and Tee, however, are intent on soldiering on with their eatery, regarded as a legacy far more precious than diamonds or rubies.— Star (Malaysia)

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