Nyonya Breeze at Straits Quay is still one of the choicest places to savour an authentic Nyonya meal in Penang. My first experience with Nyonya Breeze was at its Abu Siti Lane location back in 2008 (it had just newly moved there then from its original Tanjung Bungah spot, next to Naza Hotel). Nyonya Breeze at Abu Siti Lane at the time was good, on par with Mama’s Nyonya Cuisine, also on the same street.
Nyonya Breeze then expanded to Straits Quay in 2011, with its newer branch named Nyonya Breeze Desire. There were rumblings that the standards at the two branches - in Abu Siti Lane and Straits Quay - tend to fluctuate, depending on whether the proprietress-chief cook, Rosie Yew (called Aunty Rosie by her fans) was cooking at that particular branch. Subsequently, the Abu Siti Lane branch was closed down in July 2014.
Nyonya Breeze Desire’s cooking standards still fluctuate these days, as Aunty Rosie no longer cooks full-time there. On one occasion, about two months ago, when we lunched there during her absence from the kitchen, the standard of dishes which came out were atrocious and lacked authenticity.
Nyonya Breeze Desire is located at Straits Quay, overlooking the marina.
Luckily, Auntie Rosie was present yesterday during our visit there for lunch. The food was much improved, although I find the quality of produce used to be pretty erratic.
- “Choon peah” - Nyonya-style deep-fried spring roll. It is differentiated from the smaller “popiah chee” (also deep-fried spring rolls) with its meatier filling and larger size (a single “choon peah” is usually cut into 4 pieces before serving) and served with a Worcestershire sauce dip. A “choon peah” skin is also thicker and has a mottled surface compared to “popiah” skin. The “choon peah” we had was pretty good, and comparable to the popular one served at Ocean Green Seafood Restaurant.
- “Asam Hae” (pan-fried, tamarind-marinated prawns). The version here was tasty, but the prawns tasted like they used frozen/chilled prawns, not fresh/live ones - a no-no in Penang where freshness of ingredients is a must.
- “Kari Kapitan” - the chicken curry dish which is perhaps the Queen of Penang-Nyonya cuisine. “Kari Kapitan” is cooked using a “rempah” (spice blend) of freshly-ground lemongrass, galangal, turmeric root, ginger, red chilis, “belacan” (fermented shrimp paste), onions, garlic, candlenuts and other local condiments. The curry sauce is enriched with coconut milk, whilst lime juice and kafirlime leaves are added to enhance the aroma.
The version we had yesterday, with Aunty Rosie present, was respectable - unlike the atrocious version served during her absence during our previous visit two months ago, nor the disastrous rendition at Perut Rumah, another formerly much-feted Nyonya restaurant which has also gone to seed.
- “Lor bak”, another popular Penang-Nyonya dish - this one is of Fujianese origins. The rendition here has the right aroma, but was overcooked and tasted overly dry. It was served with an out-of-the-bottle sweet chili sauce which did not have any character, nor was able to lift the dish beyond the ordinary. Disappointed.
- Pork rendang - this dish is a Nyonya Breeze novelty. Usually, Malaysians used beef to cook rendang. The chicken version gained traction perhaps a decade or so back among the commercial establishments as many Chinese-Malaysians (who’re devout Buddhists) and Indian-Malaysians (who’re Hindus) abstain from consuming beef.
But the pork version of the rendang that’s served here is pretty rare, anywhere in Malaysia or Singapore. Really looking forward to it, but was pretty disappointed by their version. It did not have the requisite aroma of rendang. Instead, the spicing was not much different from those for its Kari Kapitan or other spicy Nyonya curries. Whilst rendang spice paste share some similarities with Nyonya spice paste, i.e. lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, the former also incorporates dry spices like cardamom, cloves, star anise and cinnamon stick, which Nyonya rempah does not use. But Nyonya Breeze Desire failed to use any of those dry spices in their version of the rendang. End result, the pork rendang was nothing like what I’d expected and tasted all “wrong”.
- “Jiu Hu Char” - one of my favourite Penang-Nyonya dishes. This dish does not exist in the Southern-Nyonya repertoire which we have in Singapore and Melaka. It’s one of the first dishes I’d order when I have Nyonya in Penang. Julienned jicama stir-fried with carrot, shitake, pork and dried cuttlefish. The version here is sweeter than I’d like, but very flavoursome all the same.
- “Otak-otak” - the Penang-Nyonya version of this dish is mousse-like, unlike the firmer Singapore-Nyonya version, or the fishcake-in-sauce Melaka-Nyonya version. Scented with wild betel leaf and wrapped in banana leaves before being steamed. Unfortunately, the version here at Nyonya Breeze Desire did away with the banana leaf wrappers and was steamed in bowls instead. We ordered two portions and both were overcooked and dry-ish. Very, very disappointing.
Desserts - we tried all 3 on the menu. Nyonya Breeze Desire does not offer Nyonya kuehs - those colourful little puddings, but instead has 3 types of Nyonya sweet dessert soups:
- “Bee koh moy” - black glutinous rice, slow-cooked with dried Chinese longans and sweetened with rock sugar, served with a drizzle of thick coconut creme. Well-executed here:
- “Lek tau sago thng” (mung beans stewed with palm sugar and coconut milk, scented with pandan). Very good rendition here as well.
- “Pengat” - this classic Nyonya/Malay dessert of diced sweet potato, taro, tapioca and bananas simmered in coconut milk and palm sugar, again scented with pandan, has the requisite flavours here, but lacked the finesse in cutting the ingredients as one sees in traditional preparations of this dish. Still, very welll-executed and I particularly enjoyed this very much.
Overall, Nyonya Breeze Desire provides one of the best places to savour Nyonya food on Penang commercially. A cuisine which is labour-intensive and depends very much on cooking finesse is best found in a Peranakan (Baba-Nyonya) home. But very few visitors to Penang would be lucky enough to be invited into a Peranakan home for a home-cooked meal, just as would be the case in Singapore or Melaka - so restaurants like Nyonya Breeze Desire would be the best bet to get a taste of this cuisine.
Straits Quay is a smallish, quiet mall located in Tanjung Tokong, about 20 minutes from George Town, and also from the Batu Ferringhi beach hotels stretch in the other direction. Very accessible by Uber, which is safe and convenient for overseas/outstation visitors to use.
Nyonya Breeze Desire
3A-1-7 Straits Quay
Tanjung Tokong, Penang
Tel: +604 8999058
Opening hours: 11.30am-2.45pm, 6pm-9.30pm daily.