In the light of on-going travel restrictions due to the COVID pandemic which has pretty much obliterated international tourist arrivals into Penang, Viva Victoria (our erstwhile go-to spot for pizzas or pastas) has just revised its menu to emphasize local ethnic cuisines instead. Its new menu has an ambitious spread of Malay, Indian and Nyonya (Straits Chinese) curries - yes, curries! Don’t get me wrong, I like curries, but a curry-centric menu, spanning 3 cultures?!
So, we popped down for dinner last night, to see what the new dishes would be like. Honestly, we were pretty skeptical if the different types of curry dishes could actually blend together when consumed at one seating.
Malay curries, for example, emphasize the use of fresh herbs and spices, e.g. fresh galangal rhizome, fresh turmeric root and leaves, torch ginger flowers, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and fermented shrimp paste (belacan). They tend to be lighter, spicier but not as strong-smelling as Indian curries.
Indian curries are relatively more assertive (read, strong smelling) than the curries from other ethnic groups in Malaysia/Singapore due to their heavy use of dried spices: cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, etc.
Nyonya or Straits-Chinese curries, on the other hand, are richer and more full-bodied - built initially upon Malay/Indonesian curries with their use of fresh herbs, but supplemented by the use of Indian dried spices. A lot of time, Nyonya curries are also enriched with coconut milk, used in larger quantities than in Malay curries, and almost non-existent in Tamil-Indian curries. Keralan-Indian curries, on the other hand, do use quite a bit of coconut milk.
For our dinner yesterday evening, we decided to concentrate mainly on the Malay section of its menu, so we don’t have to worry about incompatibility of the dishes we’re going to order.
Beef Rendang - slow-cooked beef shin, with deep, spicy flavors, topped with finely-julienned kaffir lime leaves and pickled carrots. My fave dish for the evening.
Ayam goreng berempah - spice-marinated chicken, deep-fried till crisp on the outside, but moist inside, These were delicious. The taste of fresh turmeric was dominant, the tasty chicken drumsticks were garnished with crisp-fried curry leaves and shallots before serving.
Ikan bakar - seabass marinated in spicy chili paste, wrapped in banana leaves and barbecued. The banana leave wrap ensured the fish-meat remained moist.
Sambal petai dan udang - stink-beans with shrimps, in a punchy chili-fermented shrimp paste.
Sambal terung - I always liked this dish: twice-cooked aubergine, first fried, then cooked in a spicy-savory chili paste consisting of chilis, onions, garlic and sweet soy sauce (kicap manis).
Somehow, when we noticed the table next to ours ordering a banana leaf-wrapped parcel of biryani rice, we simply could not resist ordering the same, and broke our Malay-dishes-only rule for the evening:
6) Prawn biryani - so glad we broke our rule, for this dish was absolutely scrumptious: moist, flavorsome rice, with the prawn-flavored curry seeping through every grain of rice. The prawns were bouncy-fresh and sweet-fleshed.
Since our foray into the menu has become somewhat of a free-for-all, we thought we might as well order the barramundi gulai tumis from the Nyonya section. Viva Victoria’s chef did an admirable job in interpreting the dish. It had all the requisite spicy-sweet-sour combination of Nyonya gulai tumis.
South Indian prawn curry - we thoroughly enjoyed this dish: it has all the requisite strong flavors and aroma of a Tamilian prawn curry: spicy from the chilis, and sour from the use of tamarind. It did had the effect of muting the flavors from the Malay dishes, which was what we were afraid of doing in the first place. So, we probably should not have gone overboard with mixing our orders with cross-ethnic choices after all.
Totally enjoyed the evening - there were six of us in our party and, with the COVID SOPs still in place, we had to sit ourselves in 3 separate tables of two each - not too conducive for conversations, but I guess it’s something we all had to get used to. We agreed that the food was pretty good - the head chef is Malay, Chef Shahril Abdul Manaf - so we did make the right decision to opt for the Malay section of the menu, as that may have been his specialty.
169, Lebuh Victoria, 10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +604-261 0000
Opening hours: 12 noon to 10pm, Tue to Sun. Closed on Mondays.