It's been 6 years since Singapore's top food-blogger, Chubby Hubby, wrote about Aunty Lee's, a little eatery on the edge of Malacca town, which purportedly serves the "best" Nyonya cuisine in town.
The five centuries old art of Nyonya cuisine is probably earliest instance of fusion cooking, blending Chinese and Malay-Indonesian culinary styles into a unique, extraordinarily complex cooking method which is both labour-intensive and resource-demanding - requiring a daunting list of fresh ingredients, herbs and spices for most of its dishes. Nyonya cuisine is one of the pillars of the Peranakan (Baba-Nyonya) culture of the former British Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore.
There are two types of Nyonya cuisine: the Northern-style centred in Penang, and the Southern-style anchored in Malacca and Singapore, both styles having a rich repertoire of complicated-to-cook, but absolutely delicious dishes.
Because of the effort that needed to go into preparing Nyonya dishes, it's usually prepared at home - it was practically impossible to find good Nyonya food in a commercial establishment few decades back. In Malacca, the earliest Nyonya restaurants were Nyonya Makko and Ole Sayang, both of which opened in the mid-80s - something unthinkable back then, as Malaccans, when they eat out, will go for the usual Chinese or Malay hawker fare, and *never* expected to find the more elaborate Nyonya dishes commercially.
Both Nyonya Makko and Ole Sayang are still operating today, albeit in a highly-commercialised form - catering to large tour groups of Mainland Chinese, European and sometimes Middle-Eastern customers, resulting in watered-down renditions of the traditional Nyonya dishes.
Aunty Lee, located at Ujong Pasir, away from the touristy, historic quarter of Malacca, bucked this trend. In its original incarnation when it first opened in 1997, it occupied a small, ramshackle space which accomodated only 6-7 tables (depending on the number of seats put in for each table). Aunty Lee then used to take the food orders herself, often chiding her customers for attempting to "over-order". Service at the time was also pretty slow - food would be prepared and served one table at a time: so if yours was the last table, you would have to endure an excruciating, (sometimes up to) one hour wait, whilst watching the next table being served all their dishes at one go (there is no course-by-course serving in Nyonya dinners) Nevertheless, Aunty Lee became the go-to place for Singaporeans (and local Malaccans) for authentic, unadulterated Nyonya cuisine.
But, a year ago, Aunty Lee came down with a serious illness - she stopped cooking and closed down her restaurant. It was a long while before Aunty Lee Restaurant re-opened, under new ownership/management after Aunty Lee decided to hang up her wok for good. Luckily for the restaurant's loyal clientele, the new chef, a very talented local Malaccan-Eurasian, Anthony da Costa, proved to be more than capable to reproduce Aunty Lee's dishes, and very likely using her recipes. Aunty Lee's famous ikan goreng cili garam - crisp-fried and good to the last crunchy bone - was every bit as good as the one cooked by Aunty Lee herself.
The dishes we had last weekend:
- Otak-otak:a testimony to Aunty Lee's popularity among Singaporeans who made up a large number of its clientele, the otak-otak served here is actually the Singapore version, rather than the gravy-covered Malacan-style otak-otak. Suited me fine as I'd never been able to get used to Malaccan otak-otak.
- Ayam buah keluak: this is singularly the *best* rendition of the dish I'd ever had in Malacca. Its gravy is still rather liquid, compared to the more robustly-flavoured versions in Singapore, but it's got the distinct scent and flavours from the kaffir lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass I'd expected from the dish. My own homecooked version would have more candlenuts, fresh turmeric and onions, but for a commercial version, Aunty Lee produced quite an acceptable dish. One complaint: their "buah keluak" were dry-ish and grainy in texture, as if they'd not been cooked long enough.
- Ikan goreng cili garam: this is the piece de resistance on any Aunty Lee spread, and very well-replicated by the chef. Well done.
- Beef rendang: nice textures and one of the best I'd tasted in Malacca. But I preferred Malay versions of this dish which would have a more full-bodied flavour. Rendang has *never* been a Nyonya forte.
- Udang masak lemak nenas (prawns cooked in spiced coconut milk, with pineapple chunks): lovely, coconut-rich gravy - not too cloyingly-rich like the version I'd had at Amy Heritage nor as liquidy as Ole Sayang's version. The one here was well-executed and certainly the best-tasting I'd had in town.
- Sambal petai goreng ikan bilis: Very interesting version here - the ikan bilis were fried till crisp, then paired with the "petai" stink-beans. The sambal was dry-ish but ok.
- Nyonya chap chai: definitely the best "chap chai" I'd had outside a homecooked version anywhere - even better than the ones we have in Singapore (where good Nyonya restaurants are generally a class above Malacca's).
- Cincalok omelette: very nice, although I always find "cincalok" omelettes to be under-seasoned. The version here was tasty and the omelette had the right level of moistness.
- Cendol: Oh, this is superb! Aunty Lee's "Gula Melaka" was the pure, high-quality version, and had the delicious smokiness in flavour which one cannot find in lesser quality palm sugar. Do *not* miss this dessert here.
Aunty Lee Restaurant
385 Jalan Ujong Pasir
Taman Sinn, 75050 Melaka
Tel: + 6 06 283 1009