Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Nyonya cakes, peranakan kueh-mueh

It took me a while to hunt down Baba Charlie's nyonya cake shop. Firstly, I couldn't locate it properly on Google Maps. Secondly, when I keyed the co-ordinates into my GPS, it led me round and round and round. It was only after a painstaking search of Tengkera Road on the GPS that I finally managed to see the cake shop as a point of interest.

But once you know where to look, locating the shop became very easy. The only possible big danger was to scrape the side of the car on the road kerb when negotiating into the narrow lane. Apart from that, once in the lane, you must realise that further in, the lane would become impossibly narrow for a car to pass through and it was necessary to park it in the open space nearby and walk to the shop.

Baba Charlie's nyonya cake shop is actually housed in a small wooden hut. Inside, Baba Charlie's family and staff were busily making nyonya cakes. All sorts of traditional nyonya cakes. And the cooked cakes were all on display in an adjoining room, waiting for buyers who came in droves when my wife and I were there.

My first impression was that there weren't much difference between the nyonya cakes in Penang from those available in Malacca. There are a great deal of similarities but of course, there are nyonya cakes that are unique to Malacca only. Or made in a slightly different way.

One of the unique nyonya cakes is the kueh bongkong. I've never come across this in Penang before. We bought a packet to try and we found it simple yet delicious. Maybe a tad too sweet for our tastebuds as well, but hey, practically all nyonya cakes would actually require you to have a sweet tooth!

I don't normally find tapai (fermented glutinous rice) sold by the nyonya community in Penang, only by the Malays, and so, I was very happy to see this delicacy available at Baba Charlie's. We bought six packets, brought them back to the hotel, and happily enjoyed them all the way to Kuala Lumpur.

We couldn't possibly buy a piece of everything in the shop and so, we had to be very selective of the cakes that we bought. One of them was a nyonya popiah. I had noticed that in a corner of the kitchen, a lady was making the popiah skin in several frying pans. That was so unlike the way the popiah skins are made in Penang. The Penang version can be paper thin and it is an art in itself to making the skin. In Malacca, the popiah skin tend to be thicker.

My second impression was that Malacca nyonya cakes tend to use a lot of the clitoria flower. The locals call it bunga telang but its actual scientific name is clitoria ternatea. The clitoria is blue and it is a natural colouring agent for many of the nyonya cakes in Malacca.

Almost all the nyonya cakes I saw in Baba Charlie's shop had a tinge of blue in it. Elsewhere, I know that the clitoria blue is also used as a whitening agent when washing white-coloured clothes. Lam chneh was how my mother called it.

And my final impression was the quality control at Baba Charlie's nyonya cake shop. While we were there, all the packets of ondek-ondek were suddenly swept away from the counter. Even the packets that had been bought by their customers were asked back from them. I asked them why, and Baba Charlie's son said that the batch had been rejected. Somehow, there was not enough gula melaka inside the ondek-ondek. It wouldn't be sweet enough, he said, and customers had complained in the past when the nyonya cakes lacked enough sweetness.

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