In Melaka, the 20-something Aunty Lee Restaurant is something of an institution, its popularity marked by teeming crowds, queues over the weekends and frequent citations in travel guides and food blogs as the place to go for Nyonya food.
Aunty Lee herself passed away a few years ago, but before her death, she sold her business (and recipes) to a group of friends who have a strong passion for Nyonya food. The friends have preserved Aunty Lee’s culinary legacy, adding modernisation efforts in keeping with the times.
“Aunty Lee used to cook with feeling and gut instinct. She would just say, ‘Secubit gula, segantang garam’ but now we’ve standardised everything. Everything is measured and weighed, so that it is consistent,” says Jackson Tan, one of the owners.
Tan is the man behind Aunty Lee’s Kuala Lumpur outlet, which opened slightly over a year ago – the first outside its hometown. Prior to helming Aunty Lee, Tan ran another Nyonya restaurant, so his understanding of the cuisine is deeply entrenched.
According to him, barring a couple of ringgit in price difference for each dish (the rent in KL is three times that of the outlet in Melaka!), there is virtually no difference between the Aunty Lee in Melaka and KL.
“Everything is the same. I go back and forth between KL and Melaka to bring back authentic ingredients, like gula Melaka, sago and asam jawa. And our central kitchen in Melaka makes all the sauces. All our rempah is made from scratch and is authentic, because Aunty Lee started out as a rempah-maker,” says Tan.
To begin a meal at Aunty Lee, try the Pie Tee (RM37), a familiar favourite made up of crispy top hats served with braised julienned turnip and homemade chilli sauce. The top hats are lovely and crunchy, but the real scene-stealer is the homemade chilli sauce, which is fresh and spicy with herbaceous undertones.
Next up, try the ayam buah keluak (RM36 for a small portion). Aunty Lee is one of very few restaurants to offer this traditional dish that is incredibly laborious to make.
“Ayam buah keluak is difficult to find in KL. This buah keluak contains mild cyanide, so you must know how to prepare it so it doesn’t hurt your stomach. It’s a traditional skill, we have to cover it in ash for a few months then take it out and soak it in running water. We change the water every day, so the toxin will be washed away. After that, we have to dig out the fermented nut inside, cut it, then blend it and mix with chicken and prawns – it’s a lot of work. They call it the Oriental truffle, because it has a unique taste – you either like it or you don’t,” says Tan.
If you’ve never tried buah keluak before, you’re in for a bit of a treat. The fermented mixture has an earthy, buttery taste that lingers pleasantly on the palate and is unlike anything you are likely to have eaten before. It’s an exotic, euphoric mouthful that will leave a lasting impression.
The sambal petai squid (RM30 for a small portion) has copious amounts of squid against the backdrop of shrimp paste, dried chillies, onions, candlenuts and lots of stink beans in what proves to be an immensely satisfying marriage of flavours. The flavour balancing here has been carefully calibrated, with the tender squid and pungent petai amiably co-existing alongside the other cast of characters.
Then there is the lemak nenas (market price) which features a whole fish in a rich, pineapple curry sauce thickened with coconut milk. This curry delivers pure pleasure on every count – it is thick, suitably spicy and has a natural sweetness from the pineapples in the amalgamation.
On the vegetable front, try the bendi ulam (RM18 for a small portion) which features blanched okra topped with a combination of shallots, chillies, lime juice, sugar and pounded dried shrimp. As Tan and his team are focused on quality, they actually check every single okra to ensure that diners do not get old ones, which can be tough and fibrous. “We guarantee 100% that each one is young okra,” he says.
The okra itself is sublime – tender and pliant but not stringy or slimy – while the ulam slathered on top is fresh and spicy but not overpowering. You’ll find yourself thinking about this simple dish long after the meal is over.
Aunty Lee also offers a series of omelettes, the most interesting of which is omelette cincalok (RM19 for a small portion) which features the house-made cincalok. The omelette is perfectly executed and is crispy on the outside and yielding in the middle. The only blot in this tableau is the cincalok which is so muted, its presence can barely be discerned at all.
End your meal with Aunty Lee’s cendol (RM7.50), which is a very good rendition of the dessert, buoyed by the syrupy, caramel undertones of gula Melaka.
Although Tan admits that he has had a harder time in KL than he thought he would, he is determined to press ahead and make Aunty Lee a success.
“It’s a lot about education. Sometimes, when some people come to the restaurant, they don’t want to listen to us – a lot of people don’t know that ulam, kerabu and acar are cold dishes, so when people come here and eat, they say, ‘Argh, why so cold?’ When I explain, some of them still can’t take it,” he says.
Still, Tan thinks there is room for more Aunty Lees’ in the city. “When this outlet is more stable, we are looking for a suitable place to open another one,” he says.
RESTAURANT AUNTY LEE
E-G-10, Plaza Arkadia
52200 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-6411 2812
Open daily: 11.30am to 3pm; 6pm to 10pm (closed every 1st and 3rd Monday of the month)