FOR hundreds of years, the richness and uniqueness of the Malaccan cuisines had remained within the four walls of the Chitty, Nyonya and Portuguese communities.
It was only in the last 20 to 30 years that the Nyonyas and Portuguese opened their kitchens to the outside world, with the latter setting up restaurants mainly on the Portuguese Settlement in Ujong Pasir while the former had small stalls selling Nyonya laksa and popiah.
There’s still no sign of a Chitty restaurant emerging in the near future, however.
A significant move in the Nyonya food business came when a prominent family opened a restaurant in the then new commercial hub Taman Melaka Raya exactly 20 years ago today.
The restaurant was called Ole Sayang, and the venture was undertaken by Seet Tiang Chye and his wife, Louise, together with some partners. When it opened, amid a lot of optimism but also with a touch of uncertainty, Ole Sayang Restaurant was probably the first Nyonya food outlet in Malacca.
“We were not sure if things would work out because there was no such restaurant in Malacca. We were actually starting something new and we didn’t know what it would be like. But we were determined to try our best,” said Louise, who had opted for early retirement from her job as a school clerk.
Some friends even predicted that the restaurant would collapse within a year, she said.
In fact, the other partners started to leave soon after the business was set up, leaving Seet and Louise to run Ole Sayang all by themselves.
Seet, however, had a different approach to the business. He appeared a lot more gung-ho than his wife probably because taking calculated risks is in his blood.
He is the sixth generation in a family which came to Malacca as spice traders, and who ventured into land ownership and plantations. From the start, he knew Ole Sayang was going to be a sure winner.
When the restaurant opened, it was the talk of the historical town. It was a novelty firstly because a family which had literally helped build Malacca economically had allowed the public into its kitchen and, secondly, gastronomes could finally savour the spicy and piquant Nyonya dishes.
Seet was actually inspired by his mother Tan Sek Hoon to set up Ole Sayang. His mother, who shares the same ancestors as Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Tan Siew Sin, married Seet's father early last century.
Known for her culinary skills among the Nyonya community, Tan who lived in Klebang had a huge garden full of herbs and spices that she used in her cooking. She helped her son start the restaurant by allowing her most faithful servant to set up the kitchen and work on the menu. She passed away in 1988 at the age of 87.
With its interiors decorated in the typical Nyonya home setting, dining in the restaurant was an enchanting experience.
The wooden doors and shutters with stained glass, along with marble top tables and wooden chairs, and huge paintings of the Seet ancestors hung on the walls all made for a very unique ambience.
Soon, business was booming and diners started coming by the busloads. Tourist buses packed with Westerners and Orientals also converged on Ole Sayang, the passengers all eager to relish the authentic Malaccan treat it offered.
A measure of its success is the way it has expanded space-wise since then. “We started with one shoplot, which could only seat 40 people. Today we occupy two lots with a seating capacity of 220,” said Seet, 67.
About a year after it opened, several other Nyonya restaurants started to sprout in the area. The fact that they were trying to cash in on Ole Sayang's fame was evident in the way the new restaurants bore either “ole” or “sayang” in their names.
“Ole Sayang was the name of my father's dondang sayang group, and it means the gift of love,” said Seet. “The name sounded nice and so I named the restaurant that.”
“But we don't mind these new restaurants using part of our name. We are just a bit concerned about our competitive edge,” he said Seet.
“What we serve is typical Nyonya food, and there is nothing extraordinary about it. It is good and tasty but there is nothing exceptional about it,” Louise quickly added.
Over the years, Seet has managed to establish Ole Sayang as a Malaccan attraction to the locals, local tourists and those from overseas. To do this, he worked with the state government when it first started strongly promoting Malacca as a tourist destination.
From the onset, he had worked hard at promoting his restaurant to tour operators and hotels. There would be a constant convoy of buses coming over to his restaurant all year round, bringing Japanese schoolchildren on summer vacation, Singaporeans who had come for Santa Cruz (one of the Catholic festivals in Malacca), Chinese tourists – just about all sorts of people. Seet said almost 40% of their revenue came from tourists.
“We opened our restaurant about the time the state started to actively promote tourism,” said Seet. “And because we were the only Nyonya restaurant at that time, we got a lot of support from the state.”
There were also times when the state government would treat its guests to Nyonya food at the restaurant.
“We have had a lot of VIPs dining here over the years, like our Governor, our Chief Ministers, (Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister) Datuk Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, (MCA president) Datuk Dr Ling Liong Sik, (Singapore's Prime Minister) Goh Chok Tong, foreign dignitaries and ambassadors, Hong Kong movie stars – so many of them.”
Twenty years after ensuring that Ole Sayang Restaurant remains firmly entrenched as the gastronomic stopover in Malacca, the owners now want to take it beyond the traditional set-up and make it part of an overall Malaysian experience.
As such, the Seet family is in the process of setting up “trendier” outlets that provide home-cooked Nyonya food.
The spin-off of the restaurant adopts a cafe-like concept and is located in a new hypermarket in Malacca.
“”We are fine-tuning and trying to get the concept right, but I think we’re getting there,” said Cheng Khim (Khim), Seet’s 37-year-old son who oversees the business development aspect of the restaurant.
The new outlet at Tesco in Malacca, which cost RM30,000 to set up, has a breezier setting, although it has managed to retain the old rustic charm with custom-made marble-top tables and modernised wooden shutters with stained glass.
The menu incorporates the more popular dishes served in the Taman Melaka Raya restaurant, but with a lot of set menus and snacks.
Out of this spin-off came another, a franchise in the food court of the new Tesco in Mutiara Damansara, Selangor.
“We call the franchise Ole Nyonya – just to differentiate,” said Khim, adding that the family was looking at other food courts in different parts of the country for more franchises to be opened through joint ventures.
“We found that shopping malls and hypermarkets are the best places for our type of food because of the high people traffic, even though the competition there is high,” he said.
“However, the basics of business still remain, and that is good food, good service and good location.”