A one-of-a-kind restaurant that serves a rare cuisine from Malaysia.
You wouldn’t expect one of Sydney’s most unique menus to be here on Parramatta road next to a bar that hosts topless waitress nights. Yet here we are, looking at a menu that half reads just like a list of famous Malaysian recipes (satay, curry puffs, rendang, roti, laksa, char kway teow, Hainanese chicken and the rest), and half like nothing else in Sydney, or even Australia.
The chef and owner here (a husband and wife team) are Peranakan, descendants of marriages between Malay and Chinese people in Malaysia. As the menu and the wall ornaments here tease, their cuisine and culture aren’t just a mix of Chinese and Malay traditions, it’s distinct.
When our waiter arrives, a sturdy but short fellow with more confidence than he has hair, I order everything I’ve never seen before in Australia – nyonya fish curry, babi pongteh and ayam buah keluak. The sole waiter, who we later find out is the owner, stops us after the last order. ‘Have you ever tried that before?’ He asks.
That’s not something you hear very often from waiters. He’s surprised we’re ordering buah keluak because he considers it an acquired taste, one you’d only acquire if you’re peranakan.
Buah keluak is a lethally poisonous nut. It only becomes edible if it’s boiled (the cyanide inside is soluble in water) and covered in ash for a month. The only people who eat it are some ethnic minorities in Indonesia and Peranakans.
The nuts are cooked in a stew with chicken on the bone. At Peranakan Place it arrives at the table as a viscous soup the colour of eggplant skins and leather boots. The nuts, six of them each looking like an unopened mollusc, have a slit at the top for digging out the ricotta-textured flesh out. Use the supplied crab fork for exactly that.
What comes out tastes unlike anything else on earth. It’s simultaneously bitter, savoury and smooth. The only way to describe it is to say it’s like a mixture of many things – olive tapenade, mushrooms, hazelnut skins (just the bitter, earthy part) and aged jamon fat. It’s also an excellent match to the juicy chicken it’s served with.
A single serve is $35, noticeably more than any other dish on the menu but that doesn’t bother me. I can easily justify and extra $15 dollars for an experience I’ve never had before.
Of course, this isn’t all we’ve ordered. With our keluak stew comes our fish curry and the babi pongteh. The former, which although far from mild, is much lighter – the mix of tomatoes, okra, tamarind and a shrimpy curry paste makes it more tangy than rich.
The babi pongteh, a slow braised stew with pork belly, pork trotters, chestnuts, fermented soy beans and shiitake mushrooms, is immensely rich. The kind of meaty richness usually reserved for thick ramens, the kind you want to enjoy after a winter marathon. That’s not to say there’s no depth, a spoonful more and maybe a swirl in the mouth and you’ll find the flavours of the soy, garlic and chestnuts.
The three dishes together probably sound unassailably powerful, and they are. The thing with peranakan cuisine though, is you never get just the mains. Traditionally, every table should also have rice, sambal, lime and achar (a tangy and crunchy mini salad usually consisting of pickled veg, roast sesames seeds and coconut). Those, along with the option of a perfectly buttery roti, is what you use to balance out a meal.