A Nyonya Primer: Cafe Sambal Shanghai

There are some wonderful things about being a blogger, one of which is that you sometimes get the opportunity to meet readers (other than your immediate family, of course) who enjoy what you write enough to actually email you and ask questions, or arrange to meet, all in the name of good food. Other than a few extreme-health food bloggers (who make me feel quite nervy), or the occasional blogger devoted to making things from convenience foods, on the whole all food bloggers and their readers have one enormous passion in common - we're all foodies, and we all love to eat. The often-er and delicious-er the better.

A long-time reader, E, who started emailing me last summer about the organic peach farm I'd visited, then over the last year has emailed other questions and several interesting food articles, invited me to dinner at the restaurant of his good friend Cho Chong Gee, a Malaysian who has run a famed Beijing Malaysian restaurant, Cafe Sambal, for many years. 

Shanghai's Cafe Sambal serves traditional nyonya cuisine, a beautiful blend of Malay and Chinese influences that comes from descendants of Chinese migrants who intermarried with local Malays. The term nyonya, part Auntie, part madam, is a term of respect for older women, and indicates that the dishes are very traditional. 

According to Nyonya expert Bee Lee Tan,

'The art of Nyonya cooking used to be compulsory learning for young girls. They were taught to practise cooking to perfection before marriage or they would be regarded by their in-laws as not brought up properly and a disgrace to the family.

Intense training started in early childhood; young girls were taught basic preparation, such as cutting pieces of onion and garlic, scraping coconut from coconut scraper, cleaning vegetables, cleaning fish, peeling prawns, pounding chillies with pestle and mortar, and using grinding stone to grind the curry paste.

The second step would be cutting vegetables into floral designs, cutting meat and gradual introduction to cooking. The beginner was under strict supervision of the elderly members of the kitchen.

The Nyonya are known to be meticulous in their cooking.

With the use of modem appliances, the Nyonya admits that the work in the kitchen is less tedious and time consuming, but the traditional Nyonya believes that their old methods of grinding, pounding and cooking their food is the best method.'

So E, Cho and I enjoyed a fabulous nyonya dinner together, made all the more interesting because of Cho's love of traditional Malaysian food and its history. I just asked him to order all the things that he enjoyed eating himself - here's Cho's nyonya primer, if you like. 

The meal began with otak otak - a traditional Malaysian fishcake baked in a folded banana leaf and topped with kaffir lime leaf shreds and a gently spiced curry sauce. The mousse-like fish cake is kept moist and delicate by the sauce as it cooks. 

Beef satay, presented in modern day nod to the traditional beef skewers, is made from medallions of tenderloin on cucumber slices with the nutty, spicy satay sauce on top. 
One of the most interesting dishes of the night, flavour and texture-wise, was this rojak, a nyonya fruit and vegetable salad composed of pieces of crunchy cucumber and sweetly tart pineapple, coated with a paste of sweet shrimp sauce, peanuts and sesame seeds. At once savoury and sweet, the mingling flavours were the perfect accompaniment to the spicy curries to follow.

We began with a red curry of deep sea grouper, sweetened with coconut milk. The grouper fillets stood up well to the robust flavours of the curry. Then came the famed beef rendang, a dish I'm sure is the yardstick by which all Malaysian restaurants are compared. This version was soft, oozing red chili oil onto the banana leaf it rested on, and sending wafts of cardamom, lemongrass, chili, cloves, coconut and star anise into the room. Superb, complex and for grandma-style food, sophisticated.

The final two dishes were fried four-sided beans ('dragon beans') with a home-style cashew nut sauce, the interesting textured beans are a tropical vegetable has to be flown in fresh from southern China, followed by Malay style deep-fried honey chicken. Crunchy and succulent.

And at last time for dessert. I admitted to E and Cho that my childhood was filled with tapioca cooked in milk, milky rice pudding, and junket, all of which I hated. They immediately sought to put things to rights with Malay comfort food - sago gula melaka - tapioca with palm sugar syrup, topped with cold cocnut milk. Now had I grown up in Malaysia, I could be nostalgic about this lovely simple dish.

We also tasted the traditional and very popular bubur caca, a dessert with yam and sweet potato pieces in warmed cocnut milk, interesting, but I admit I still find these savoury desserts unsatisfying, thanks to my Western palate, but it's one of the most popular dishes on the menu. 

Lastly arrived kuih dadar. A delicate pale green crepe, flavoured and coloured with pandan leaf, rolled around a filling of freshly grated coconut strands cooked in syrupy palm sugar. Sensational. The beautifully soft texture of fresh coconut is delectable mixed with the honeyed toffee flavours of the syrup.

Knowing almost nothing about Malaysian nyonya food, other than that it is utterly delicious, I thank Cho and E for the welcome introduction. But I suspect Malaysia is a place I should never visit - because I might never return, lost forever in a coconut and spice food heaven. 

Cafe Sambal

Jiashan Market
Lane 37A, 550 Shanxi Nan Lu

Ph: +86 21 3368 9529

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