April 19, 2009
Real taste of Penang
At Red Lacquer Penang Peranakan, you get the real deal, just like how they do it in Malaysia
By Wong Ah Yoke
One would think that Penang food is very popular here, judging from the crowds at the thrice-yearly Penang hawker buffet at York Hotel.
Yet very few Penang eateries have opened here. Some, such as a small eatery in Balestier Road and another one in Bencoolen Street, did not last long. And of course, there is the long-running buffet at Copthorne King's Hotel, which features mainly Penang-style dishes.
But none has been as comprehensive in representing the food from the Malaysian island as Red Lacquer Penang Peranakan, which opened in Jurong Point's second wing last December.
Its menu may not be extensive but it includes popular hawker dishes such as char koey teow, Penang laksa and Hokkien mee, as well as Peranakan dishes such as Nyonya chap chai, assam pedas and tau eu bak.
If some of the names have unusual spellings, that is because Malaysian styles are adhered to here, from the names of dishes to the cooking. And even though the Peranakans in Singapore and Penang share certain dishes, they also have some that are unique to their location.
For example, you do not find ayam buah keluak in Penang restaurants even though it is a favourite with Singaporeans. My guess is that the black nuts come from the Indonesian isles and were not commonly found in Penang in the past.
Instead, the popular chicken dishes there are kari kapitan and inche kabin, both of which are found in Red Lacquer. And both are very good.
Kari kapitan ($13.90) is chicken cooked in a dry curry, the tender pieces of meat suffused with a delicious paste of aromatic spices and herbs such as turmeric and lemongrass. It goes very well with rice, and though the version here is a bit oily - which, by the way, is how it is done in Malaysia - I cannot resist ladling spoonfuls of the rich gravy on my plate.
Inche kabin ($13.90) is fried chicken that has been marinated with Peranakan ingredients such as chilli, ginger, candlenuts and coconut milk. It is traditionally served with Worcester sauce, which is how Red Lacquer does it. But I do not use the dip because the chicken already tastes so lovely on its own.
I also like the flavour of the tau eu bak (soy sauce pork, $10.90), which is strong with aromatic spices such as cinnamon and star anise. I enjoy fat with my meat but the pork is too fatty even for me. It would be better if there was slightly more meat than fat instead of the half-half ratio here.
For a healthier dish, try the assam pedas (tamarind fish curry, $12.90), which comprises three ikan kembong cooked in an appetising sweet-sour soup. It tastes like Penang laksa without the noodles and prawn paste.
Two hawker dishes I tried - Hokkien mee ($6.90) and char koey teow ($7.90) - are very authentic. They are not as good as the York Hotel's Penang hawkers but come a close second.
Among the desserts, I like the pengat ($2.90), which is like bubur cha cha. The pieces of yam and sweet potato are boiled till nice and soft and the coconut milk soup is sweetened just enough. But it is the cubes of starch, which are soft and faintly aromatic, that stand out.
The chendol ($2.90), however, is disappointing. The green strips of cooked pea flour are skinny and hard, not the stubby soft ones from Malaysia.
What also do not work for me are the hey ya kay (stir-fried cincalok pork, $10.90) and Nyonya chap chai (fried mixed vegetables, $7.90). There is not enough of cincalok (fermented shrimp) in the pork and the chap chai is bland compared to the local version, which tastes of bean paste.
On the subject of weaknesses, I should also point out that the restaurant does not serve complimentary water.
Except for these hiccups, Red Lacquer's cooking is largely authentic, thanks to three Penang cooks in the kitchen. So it is still worth a visit.
Also, it is much easier to take a trip to Jurong than to fly to Penang, don't you think?
Kari kapitan ($13.90)
This dish, translated as captain's curry, is so delicious that it will have you saying 'Aye, aye'.
RED LACQUER PENANG PERANAKAN
63 Jurong West Central 3, 03-96 to 101 Jurong Point Shopping Centre, tel: 6794-5427
Open: 11.30am to 10pm daily
Food: *** 1/2
Price: About $25 a person for dishes, $15 for hawker fare (including a drink).