Madam Khaw Cheng See, 71, is the very talented Hainanese force-of-nature who whips up some of the best Nyonya food in Penang. Her little food cart at the front of Pulau Tikus morning market is unmissable: bedecked with a smorgasbord of mouth-watering Penang-Nyonya dishes that tasted way more authentic than the offerings of 99% of all proper sit-down restaurants in George Town.
Nasi ulam is a fragrant rice salad replete with finely-chopped herbs, fresh shallots, toasted coconut flakes, chilis and dried shrimp, tossed in a belachan (fermented shrimp paste) sambal dressing, and a squeeze of calamansi lime juice. The vibrant-colored rice salad gets its trademark yellow hue from finely-grated fresh turmeric root, an essential ingredient which contributes to the dish’s rich bouquet of floral aroma and tastes.
The Penang-Nyonya version includes salted fish, whilst its Singapore-Nyonya counterpart often also includes grilled & shredded fresh fish-meat (mackerel or yellowtail scad).
Kerabu beehoon - also a Nyonya-style salad, this one centering on rice vermicelli (Hokkien: beehoon), dressed in a spicy chili-belachan that imparts its reddish-pink hue to the salad. Kerabu beehoon includes pounded dried shrimps, poached fresh shrimps, very finely-chopped pink torch ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
Madam Khaw’s rendition was simply stupendous - moist and fresh, it was lighter and gentler than those I’d gotten at most other Nyonya spots in town: prepared in small portions in her home, it retains that “home-cooked” flavor that’s missing from bulk-prepared ones we usually find in Nyonya restaurants or cafes.
Chicken rendang - a slow-stewed dry chicken curry where Madam Khaw’s Hainanese heritage shines through: her spice mix have that mellow, subtly-bitterish flavor reminiscent of the famous hard-to-find Hainanese curries I recalled from the days of yore - back in the 1960s & 70s, Hainanese curries were a popular must-have dish when one eats out. They were in a class of their own: more gently-spiced than their Malay and South Indian counterparts, but richer through the use of copious amounts of coconut milk. Despite the toned-down chili heat, the Hainanese curry often has a pleasing aroma from the use of other aromatic spices: cinnamon, cumin, coriander, nutmeg.
Curry puffs - I cannot resist Penang Nyonya-style curry puffs, with its trademark spiral-ringed crisp crust, encasing a sweet-curried potato-and-egg filling. I can’t get these kind of curry puffs for love or money in Singapore, or anywhere else in Malaysia, for that matter.
I need to go back to Madam Khaw for her labor-intensive achar awak mixed vegetable pickle one of these days - a friend had just pointed out that Madam Khaw’s rendition is not to be missed.
Madam Khaw’s Nyonya Food, Pulau Tikus Morning Market
3, Jalan Pasar, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Operating hours: 6.30am to 11.30am daily