[Penang] Nyonya lunch at Auntie Gaik Lean's

Auntie Gaik Lean on Bishop Street is one of the two Nyonya restaurants in George Town’s banking district - the other one is My Nyonya Favourites on Penang Street just a couple of minutes’ walk way, run by 3 alumnus of the old Nyonya Breeze at Abu Siti Lane.

Auntie Gaik Lean is a feisty, very self-opinionated Nyonya lady who’s very particular about the way each Nyonya dish is to be prepared. Her restaurant occupies a large double shop-lot on Bishop Street which used to house a jewellery store. Lunch-time will see large office crowds coming in for their chilli fix, as most of Auntie Gaik Lean’s Nyonya dishes pack quite a spicy punch.

Our lunch today:

  1. Popiah chee (deep-fried spring rolls) and lor bak (5-spiced meat rolls).

  1. Sambal petai (stink-beans) with shrimps. Very spicy version here!

  1. Chicken Curry Kapitan - Penang-Nyonya cuisine’s standard bearer: a spicy dry chicken curry redolent of lemongrass, galangal, belacan (shrimp paste) and kaffir lime leaves. The version here is one of the best commercially-available renditions I’d tried in Penang. Suffice to say, labour-intensive Nyonya dishes are best savoured at home - but for those of us who don’t have Nyonya friends who’d invite us home for a meal, one from a Nyonya restaurant would have to do, even though they tend to be pale imitations of the real thing. The same can be said of Singaporean and Malaccan Nyonya restaurants.

  1. Jiu Hu Char - this is another typical Penang-Nyonya dish of finely-cut jicama (Asian turnip) with finely-julienned dried cuttlefish, shitake mushroom and chicken (Auntie Gaik Lean don’t serve pork). It’s usually served with lettuce leaves as wraps and sambal belacan on the side to add a spike of chilli heat.

Pretty decent Nyonya dishes here. Certainly cannot be compared to home preparations, but the one I tried food here here certainly tasted better than at my recent lunch at Nyonya Breeze Desire @ Straits Quay, oft-quoted by Penangites as having the “best” Nyonya food in Penang at the moment. But the meal I had at Nyonya Breeze Desire then was god-awful - two young chefs in the kitchen, and they don’t seem able to understand the nuances of Nyonya cookery, let alone churn out decent renditions.

Address
Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery
No.1, Bishop Street
10200 Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6012-449 2121
Operating hours: 11am-2.30pm, 6pm-9.30pm, Mon-Sat.

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It was a nice lunch Peter thank you. Good to meet up with you again. A pity about them not having otak otak. I prefer the Penang style to any other kind and loved it at Mamas. Still I enjoyed all the dished particularly the Jiu Hu Char.

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I do like Penang otak-otak, too - although my favourite type is Singapore-style otak-otak, the sort which Guan Hoe Soon Restaurant in Joo Chiat Place, Singapore, does best.

I wondered if Auntie Gaik Lean herself still cooks in the kitchen of her namesake restaurant. I was told that she’s pretty meticulous and a stickler for traditional cooking methods. But some dishes we had during this visit didn’t taste “quite right”, and I very much suspect that it was cooked by someone else.

It was cause for celebration amongst Penang’s Straits Chinese (Baba-Nyonya) community yesterday when George Town World Heritage Inc. awarded the community with a special award for cultural preservation of dondang sayang, a 15th-century music art-form unique to the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore.

The Straits Chinese community is unique for fusing Chinese, Malay and even British cultures to form their own unique identity, and they are recognizable for their vibrant, colourful dress, cultural practices and cuisine.
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In keeping with the Straits Chinese theme, we decided to lunch at 𝗔𝘂𝗻𝘁𝗶𝗲 𝗚𝗮𝗶𝗸 𝗟𝗲𝗮𝗻 Nyonya restaurant, 5-minute walk from the Pinang Peranakan Mansion where the awards ceremony just took place.

The restaurant prepared a sumptuous spread of Nyonya dishes.

:small_orange_diamond: Appetiser platter with cucur udang, kueh pie tee, chicken lor bak and achar awak
I’m not sure what to make of this selection of starters - firstly, the presentation is all wrong: Nyonya cooking and presentation prides itself on the delicacy and finesse of the food preparation, cooking and plating. Everything should look neat and presentable on the plate.

The version here looked a bit unkempt. Also, cucur udang (Malay-style prawn fritter) is not Nyonya, but I guess the restaurant wants to deviate away from being an out-and-out Nyonya restaurant and serve a Malay food item. Taste-wise, the batter was not seasoned enough, and the shell-on shrimps were not as flavorsome as fresh shrimps should be.
The kueh pie tee, one of my favorite Nyonya dishes ever, did not have enough flavors in its shredded jicama filling. There wasn’t the savory-sweetness of well-stewed jicama. The messy way in which the pie tee pastry shells were presented was also quite disappointing.
The chicken lor bak lacked the richness of the original pork version, but I found the dish lacked 5-spice and other seasonings. Not a good start to the meal.

:small_orange_diamond:Jiu hu char (jicama with dried cuttlefish). Another one of my favorite Nyonya dishes - I could finish a whole pot of this by myself.
Not the version here, though. The jicama was not properly julienned, the way any respectable Nyonya chef has to do - no grater to be used, but has to be very finely, properly julienned by hand, with a very sharp knife. The one we had (pictured below) were rather haphazardly prepared.
The “no pork” approach already takes away an important component of the dish, but the conspicuous absence of aroma and flavor from dried cuttlefish was another letdown. I wondered why the slide in cooking standards here.

:small_orange_diamond: Chicken curry Kapitan - the quintessential Penang-Nyonya dish. A good curry Kapitan should have a good balance of spices and herbs: galangal, lemongrass, dried chilis, fresh chilis, candlenuts, fresh turmeric, kaffir lime leaves. The keyword here is fresh - you need really fresh ingredients, or else the dish won’t work. Pretty decent version here. But I seemed to remember it was much, much better before.

:small_orange_diamond: Gulai tumis with threadfin and okra. This one’s fine. Can do with stronger flavors, though: spicier, more sour. Best dish at lunch today, but the version I had here 4 years ago was much better.

:small_orange_diamond: Asam prawns. A milder version here than I’m used to.

:small_orange_diamond: Brinjals with sambal - this one’s okay.

Dessert:
:small_orange_diamond: Bee koh moi (black glutinous rice with dried longans & coconut milk) - okay, even though I’d prefer fresh, rich coconut milk, than the diluted version used here.

:small_orange_diamond: Iced nutmeg punch.

We wondered if 69-year-old founder-chef, Mdm Beh Gaik Lean aka Auntie Gaik Lean still runs the kitchen. The cooking did seem to deviate away from her erstwhile high standards.

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