[Penang, Malaysia] Modern-Nyonya cuisine at Rempah, Beach Street

Rempah is that rather tricky offshoot of the maverick Kota at Penang’s old Fort Cornwallis. In its previous incarnation as Kota Express, it used to occupy a fishbowl-like all-glass structure on the corner of Beach Street and tourist-central Armenian Street.

Whilst Kota was (in)famous for its beautifully-plated but rather odd-tasting dishes, where the flavours were neither here nor there - almost as if the chefs, halfway through their cooking, just simply lost interest and let their dishwashers take over their duty at the stoves, Kota Express was a definite improvement where good taste was concerned, but still far from perfect.

Rempah has now taken over from the now-defunct Kota Express, and its new location on Beach Street, a mere 50 metres or so from where the latter used to be, puts it very near the epicentre of George Town’s busiest tourist precinct. Frankly, we were more than a bit apprehensive about coming to eat here, having had less than satisfactory experiences at both Kota and Kota Express.

Rempah had also opened at a bad, bad time - late-Feb 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic was rolling in. Then came the two-month lockdown beginning March 18 when virtually the whole country ground to a halt, just like the rest of the world. Now, as Penang emerges from its lockdown, albeit slowly and with tight social distancing procedures in place, we finally got to try out Rempah for the first time today.

It’s a beautiful space. We started off our brunch with a couple of cool drinks: the butterfly pea flower lemonade (left) and the blueberries mojito (right).

Then, came the appetisers - we ordered three types to share:

  1. Crispy prawn cakes or “Heh kean” these were light and tasty canapes, slightly on the greasy side, but which I thought was reminiscent of Thai “tod mun goong”, albeit much lighter. Delightful, especially dipped into the spicy-sour chili-lime-peanut dip that came with it.

  2. Pomelo kerabu was a cold fruit salad utilising the large local citrus fruit - the pomelo - which was like a giant grapefruit, and marvelously tasty & refreshing. The grapefruit flesh was mixed with a spicy-sour dressing with hints of torch ginger. The explosive birds-eye chilis were used sparingly, providing Lilliputian bursts of heat, whilst the crisp Japanese sakura ebi provided a pleasant salty tang. Fresh shallots, sliced wafer-thin, were crunchy and their acidity juxtaposed beautifully against the bursts of juice from the pink pomelo vesicles.

  3. Otak-otak in filo pastry - the Penang-Nyonya otak-otak: a spicy seafood custard, akin to Thai “hor mok” or Cambodian “amok”, was given a makeover: wrapped in filo pastry and deep-fried. It was sheer genius - the result was little eggroll-like parcels which were much, much more delicately crisp & light, enfolding salmon fillets, and a delicious custard with a very “Penang” taste profile: the unique herbal fragrance of “daun kadok”/wild betel leaf, the perfume from “daun limau perut”/kaffir lime leaves, and the astringency from fresh yellow turmeric. The turmeric-inflected, milky dip that came with the rolls was delicious, and lifted the dish up a few notches.

Our mains:
4) Buah Keluak Chicken - I really enjoyed this dish: a voluptuous chicken breast, well-marinated, served reclining seductively on a divan of “buah keluak” paste. The “buah keluak” is an Indonesian nut with a truffle-like fragrance - it also happened to be toxic, and its preparation required careful cleaning of the nuts, and soaking them for days, with frequent changing of the water, to rid them of their cyanide content.

  1. Peng Hu - the other main we had was decidedly tamer: grilled fish, served with a cincalok dip. “Cincalok” is made by fermenting tiny shrimps or krills. The version served here has been dialed down a few notches, to cater to any non-locals who might inadvertently bite off more than they could chew by accident.

We shared one dessert at the end - a panna cotta. It was pretty good, served with berries and passionfruit.

Overall, Rempah, with its small, compact menu (smart move) gave a good account of itself. We enjoyed its food much more than Kebaya’s, and it outshone even its older sibling, Kota.

Rempah (百分料理)
149, Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street)
10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6016-465 1888
Opening hours: 11.30am to 9.30pm daily