3-week-old Ceki is the latest addition to Penang’s burgeoning Nyonya restaurant scene. Competition on Sri Bahari Road is stiff, besides two other Nyonya restaurants - one-year-old Bibik’s Kitchen and half-year-old Baba Phang - it also has to contend with long-established Goh Swee Kee Teochew Restaurant (吳瑞記菜館) which has been operating there for more than two decades (and before that in Transfer Road for just about as long) and also the very popular Foong Wei Heong (风味小食馆) which is famous for its braised pig’s trotter for the past decade-and-a-half.
Ceki is fronted by Esther Tan, whose husband, Francis Tee, does all the cooking based upon heirloom Penang-Nyonya recipes passed down by Esther’s grandmother.
Tau yu bak - a braised pork dish of Hokkien origin, but very popular in Penang even in Nyonya restaurants. The version here is one of the best we’d had commercially in town: the meat was caramelised but not too sweet, and still retained its juiciness - highly recommended, although we couldn’t quite understand why the form tofu cubes were not braised together with the pork belly pieces, but cooked separately before being assembled together on the serving dish.
Inchi kabin - chicken pieces marinated overnight in spices and coconut creme, then crisp-fried just before serving the following day.
This dish was a creation of Hainanese chefs, who were often employed as household cooks in wealthy Baba-Nyonya homes in the days of yore. The name is a phonetical corruption of the Hainanese phrase “yean chee ka pin” meaning “marinated slices of chicken”.
Done very well here at Ceki: crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside.
Perut ikan - the classic Penang-Nyonya fish maw-vegetable stew, replete with various types of herbs and vegetables, cooked with preserved fish maw and shrimps. The version here also included coconut milk for an added richness - rarer to find, but authentic all the same. Very tasty.
Otak-otak - the Penang-Nyonya-style which has a texture closer to Thai hor mok than the form Malacca or Singapore-style Nyonya otak-otak. The rendition is rich, though not as strongly spiced as I’d expected.
Sambal goreng - despite its name, this quirkily-named Penang-Nyonya dish does not contain any sambal (chili paste), but consisted of shrimps, lemongrass, coconut milk, shallots, garlic and belacan (fermented shrimp paste). The pale-coloured dish is usually served garnished with toasted cashewnuts. The version here is very tasty compared to the tepid versions I’d had elsewhere in town.
6) Bubur cha cha - this dessert of sweet potatoes, cassava and taro cooked in coconut milk and Gula Melaka (palm sugar), scented by pandanus, was freshly-cooked and well-balanced in its flavours.
That’s the Hokkien/Fujianese version of the Chinese classic dish, Dongpo pork - its creation was attributed to 11th-century Song Dynasty poet, Su Dongpo.
The same dish was adapted into Southern Japanese/Kyushu/Okinawa cuisine, and is known in Japan as Buta no kakuni. The Aussie chef in the following video, Adam Liaw, was winner of Season 2 of Masterchef Australia in 2010.
Unfortunately, the best “tau yu bak” are usually home-cooked, so most of the times, if we get invited to a relative or friend’s home, their rendition will definitely taste better. Perhaps the secret is in the small portions prepared in a home, but which restaurants could not replicate: a lot of times, the pork was a bit too dry or even “hard” (from re-heating or over-cooking) when you order in a restaurant.
(John Hartley - a culinary patriot eating & cooking in Northwest England)
Ah. That’s why it looked so appealing - I’m a big fan of Dong Po pork.
The Hangzou dongpo pork is much softer, melt-in-the-mouth texture, due to its long, slow-cooking process (1.5 to 2 hours), whereas Nyonya tau yu bak would’ve been cooked for perhaps 40 minutes to an hour max.
Chinese New Year falls on Sunday, Jan 22 this year, when we usher in the Year of the Rabbit. Traditionally, Chinese families will hold reunion dinners on the eve, which will be this Saturday, Jan 21.
However, many “reunion dinners” are already taking place this week in the run-up to the Chinese New Year: with celebratory get-togethers between friends, work colleagues, or extended family gatherings.
We had one yesterday when a cousin hosted an early CNY dinner at Ceki. Of course, he ordered all our family favourites.
“Choon phneah” – these are large Nyonya spring rolls, made larger than the “popiah chee” (crisp-fried spring rolls).
Whilst “popiah chee” are individual rolls filled with braised jicama, carrots and bits of meat (either finely-chopped pork, shrimp or both) and served whole, the “choon phneah” has all those, plus shitake mushrooms, crabmeat, tofu, cabbage, glass noodles, and many other ingredients – the composition can vary from restaurant to restaurant.
Each “choon phneah”, because of its size, is usually cut into 4, then served with a dipping sauce which consisted of Worcestershire sauce and cut red chilis.
The version at Ceki is good, though not the best around (Beach Corner and Hainanese Delights both served some of the best in town).
This is a personal favourite of mine – a childhood dish for many Penang Straits-born Chinese, but a very recent discovery for me: my first taste of the dish was here at Ceki back in 2019.
An amazingly simple dish: fried eggs, topped with a tamarind-inflected sauce containing shallots, red chilis and a smidgen of garlic, enriched with a bit of coconut milk.
Its appeal lies in its simplicity – fried eggs with molten centres, and crisp, lacy edges, smothered in a light savoury-sourish gravy. Perfect with steamed white rice.
“Ayam Buah Keluak” - this is a Malaccan-Nyonya dish, wholeheartedly embraced by Penang-Nyonya food-lovers in the recent 5-6 years.
Processed “buah keluak” is an Indonesian ingredient much used in Malaccan- and Singaporean-Nyonya cooking, but very rare in Penang-Nyonya. “Ayam buah keluak” is probably the most popular dish in the pantheon of Nyonya dishes in Malacca and Singapore, but virtually impossible to find in Penang, until just about a few years ago. Ceki produces a pretty respectable version, perhaps the best in town.
“Threadfin Gulai Tumis” – Ceki’s “gulai tumis” is very good, but probably also the most expensive dish on the menu as the owner-chef, Francis Tee, uses only the best cuts of fresh threadfin. His “gulai tumis” is redolent of fresh herbs and spices. The perfectly cooked fish was paired with par-boiled okra and tomatoes, then garlanded with fresh mint leaves and a sprinkle of finely-chopped pink torch ginger.
This dish was another new discovery for me – I had my first taste of it in Baba Phang, another Nyonya restaurant just two doors away from Ceki. Baba Phang actually had a nicer rendition of this dish, but it was off their menu when I was last there.
This mildly-spiced dish: large prawns, large onions and capsicums, cooked in a rich, thick, coconut gravy, with a green chili-based spice mix, topped with cashew nuts, was totally addictive. I was hooked to the dish from the first time I tasted it, and Ceki does a very good version.
“Huan Choo Heok Masak Lemak”
Sweet potato leaves, chunks of sweet potato and pounded dried shrimps were slowly simmered with coconut milk. Fresh shrimps were added towards the end, so they would be just-cooked and still bouncy. Delish.
“Jiu Hu Char” – a Penang-Nyonya staple: finely-julienned jicama, carrots, shitake, mushrooms and fried cuttlefish were slowly stewed with pork. The sweetness from the cooked jicama, paired with the distinct cuttlefish scent and taste, gave this dish its trademark flavour. Well done here, but not the best. Bibik’s Kitchen, another Nyonya restaurant down the same street, does perhaps the best rendition here.
“Nyonya Chap Chye” – Nyonya-style mixed vegetables, which uses fermented brown beans (“taucheo”) as its main flavouring, as opposed to Cantonese-style mixed vegetables (“lo hon choy”) which is flavoured by fermented beancurd.
The “chap chye” here consisted of cabbage, glass noodles, carrots, dried lily buds (“kim chiam”), black wood-ear fungus, and tofu skin (“yuba”). I prefer my own homecooked version where I used pork and shrimps to flavour the dish – restaurant versions tend to be all-vegetables.