Peranakan Place - Straits Chinese in Auburn Sydney

Durian custard puff served with Choux pastry.

The outside of the restaurant may look unassuming and the location is more of light industry rather than a food hub.  Parramatta Road in near western Sydney can be confronting with passing traffic at times and yet can be a quiet neighbourhood otherwise.

We were looking for the traditional dishes of Straits Chinese cuisine - and there they were.  Peranakan is an Indonesian-Malay term for "descendant" and have two main streams, Indian and Chinese.  The cuisine here primarily refers to the Straits Chinese tradition, which is a major fusion development in south-east Asia for already a few hundred years.

I have not tried the Chicken Buah Keluak, a rather challenging dish to prepare.  Just like the Japanese art of getting ready the Fugu fish for sashimi.

First you have to source the fresh nuts, like what this restaurant does by importing them, from trees known as the Pangium Edule, native to Sumatra.  Treatment of the Buah Keluak is critical to obtain the edible washed kernels, which are ground up to become the rawon, used for gravies in beef, Sambal, chicken and rice recipes in the Spice Isles.  The fresh nuts are high in poisonous Hydrogen Cyanide, which is patiently removed by boiling in water and burying them in ash.   So a potentially dangerous ingredient is transformed to a safe to eat savoury must, rich in iron and Vitamin C for the body's nutrition, in this Straits Chinese offering.

Prawn and pineapple yellow curry.

I did dive into the Babi Pongteh, belly pork or trotters marinated in soy sauce and other ingredients ala Baba and Nyonya.  ( Baba refering to the gentlemen and Nyonya, the lady)  This appetising braised gravy dish goes well with steamed rice and Sambal - I was more than happy with the Pernanakan Place rendition of this unique item.    The chestnuts had been cooked properly and the Shitake mushrooms not over done.  The critical ingredient for Babi Pongteh I reckon is  the quality and right amount of the fermented soy bean paste ( Tau Cheong in Cantonese).  Potatoes are cut into bite sized chunks to soak in the gravy flavours whilst cooking.  Palm sugar (or the Gula Melaka), dark soy sauce and ground white pepper are added for taste.  I had been unclear what the difference between Hong Bak and Babi Pongteh is and now I know.  The Hong Bak utilises dark soy sauce, Cekur roots, coriander powder and lesser portions of the fermented soy bean paste.

Babi Pongteh is  a desired item for wedding festivities and in the past, an essential serving for the Tok Panjang, the long table laden with various food items of good omen and significance for wedded bliss.  Many a Straits Chinese maiden had to master to exacting standards the quality and presentation of several key dishes, as they count high in the evaluation scores by matchmakers, prospective in-laws and measures of general society expectations. 

To be fair, this meant many long and regular hours of practice and skills build up staying at home.  The world of the Peranakan meant the man ideally went out to earn fabulously and the woman focused on crafts, cuisine and family relationships.  One can now observe that this arrangement no longer applies in such distinct shades.

Mortar and pestle ready to unravel the Buah Keluak.

The menu offerings are not restricted to Straits Chinese in this restaurant.  The owner hails from Singapore.  Advance orders are required for specialties like the iconic Singapore chili or pepper crabs and two specific Teochew classics, the Chwee Kway steamed rice cakes and the traditional Teochew styled duck (the Lor Ark in Hokkien dialect).

Which Aussie cannot recall the pleasure of digging into fresh Singapore crabs on a sweaty afternoon on the East Coast and then having the pleasure of downing Tiger beer? 

Now we may be more familiar with Beijing duck, but this version found at the Peranakan is another that hails from Chaozhou province in southern China.  The latter has the outside of the duck marinated in a mixture of five spice powder (or the Ng Heong Fun in Cantonese).  The inside of the duck is rubbed with the ever popular fermented soy bean paste and placed with Galangal and garlic cloves for flavour.  Hmm, did they really use Galangal back in Chaozhou province? Spices in the Ng Heong Fun used include black peppercorn, star anise and cinnamon sticks.

The Chwee Kway ( literally meaning "water dish" so they are light on the palate) is popular amongst true blue Singaporean Chinese and it is consumed like a ready on the run snack, being easily available from food courts and hawker entertain the island republic.  Initially I did find these a bit plain but I cannot underestimate the delicacy about this creation, with preserved radish placed on top of a plain base when served.  This water dish started from less positive economic times in southern China, when rice holdings had to be sparingly and carefully used in consumption.  The migrants who then landed in Singapore carried the recipe for this snack to contemporary times.  Corn flour and shallot oil are used to enhance the rice dough and these snacks are best eaten fresh.

Classic motifs on Straits Chinese porcelain on display at the Peranakan Place.

Penang inspired Char Koay Teow.

There are two versions of Char Koay Teow in the menu, the Singapore and Penang variations, both of which I have yet to try.  What is the difference, can anyone please tell me.

The owner operator, Sam, is a gently sociable and experienced personality with lots to chat about, adds to the ambiance of this restaurant.  Sam is passionate about this cuisine and tells me he is doing this mainly to promote his heritage and culinary styles.  This does open the eye of the Sydney diners to another yummy branch of cuisine and culture from south-east Asia.  Even back in south-east Asia, such restaurants are few and far in between, with Singapore and Penang promoting much of this niche heritage.  A few diners find that orders come out not as fast when there is a crowd but the place does run on minimal staff.  The wife at times cooks in the kitchen, her husband engages with the customers and there are framed prints to check out on the walls.  A display shelf cupboard is devoted to Straits Chinese craft and cultural items.

Ngor Heang.

For those who loved their deep fried pork stuffed inside bean curd rolls from Penang or Malacca, there is this Straits Chinese twist  called the Ngor Heang.   Serving was small here but the taste passed the required test. Best of all, I fell in love with the durian custard puff tucked in Choux pastry buns for dessert.  The chicken satay was well marinated sufficiently and the accompanying gravy stood up to the palate, thick and peanut spicy.

To add to the confusion, Ngor Heang literally means 'five spices" in Hokkien dialect.  Concurrently it refers to this deep fried roll that is a cousin of the Penang Lobak. No surprises that the Ngor Heang requires use of Chinese five spice powder, but it also utilises finely cut up water chestnuts, potato starch, deveined chopped up prawns and diced carrots. Perhaps the common elements between Penang Lobak and Straits Chinese Ngor Heang are the the use of shoulder pork and the bean curd skin wraps.

A trove of Straits Chinese cultural icons for the display cupboard.  Tiffin carriers in red, woven baskets and beaded slippers are just some of the significant craft used especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries in colonial Malaya and Singapore.

Let-downs one evening on another visit were the Kueh Pie Tee and the prawn Nyonya curry cooked with pineapple.  The former did not remind me of those served at house parties back in Penang and Singapore, perhaps the slicing was not fine enough or there was just something missing.  

Kueh Pietee (or also known as "Top Hats") have daintily crafted crispy to the bite miniature casings,  holding tapas-like fillings of chopped and deveined/shelled prawn bites, julienned carrots, finely cut shallots and julienned Jicama.  To make the casings, you need a specialised mold.  The casings have to be just right freshly made on the bite,  having been shaped from lightly beaten egg contents, plain rice flour, a pinch of salt and water to form a mixture that is then deep fried.  They are best served for high tea or as starters to dinner courses. Each "top hat" is small and can be held by the fingers.

The lack of freshness that evening in the prawns used threatened to spoil the latter dish and I wanted the gravy to be stronger.

I did notice a few dishes from the Straits Chinese cuisine that were not served here.  The classic curry Kapitan, concocted by local cooks on board a ship run by a colonial master.   The deep fried chicken as in Inche Kabin, perfect as pub food, with a unique marinade as only traders, chefs and a certain Mr Cabin could conjure and make into reality.  I also did not find the Katong inspired Nyonya Laksa or the chicken Kerabu (cold entree mixture).

Perhaps I should just be content that in this restaurant, I can still have my Thai Otak Otak, Indian Muslim Nasi Briyani,  Malay-Indonesian chicken Rendang and Hainan styled pork or chicken chops.  It says a lot that the Straits Chinese mostly lived in harmony with the other ethnic groups in years past - and that dishes from other races and cultures are still offered in the Peranakan Place Restaurant in Australia.

Babi Pongteh - marinated pork belly from a traditional recipe.

The Peranakan Place is located at 139 Parramatta Road in Auburn, not far from the major intersection with St Hillier's Road and Costco.
Telephone: 02 9737 8989
Opening Hours: Wednesdays to Sundays only, lunch from 1130am to 230pm and dinner from 530pm to 10pm.
Vehicle parking is best along the nearest cross street, Station Road.

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