Photography Michelle Mae Cameron
Cuba Street is the city’s home of great Malaysian food, a place where chefs import special ingredients and guard their recipes.
A stalwart in the game keeps recipes secret
There is a different special on the menu every day at Little Penang (like a pungent, spicy assam laksa on Thursdays) but the best thing to eat is char kway teow (fried flat rice noodles), which is always available. It’s a specialty in Penang, where husband and wife owners Tee Phee and Keith Cheah come from and, according to Phee, is “the number one street food in the world”. When they came to Wellington, there was no Malaysian restaurant they considered truly authentic. “We wished someone would respect the food,” Phee explains, “instead of trying to change recipes to suit a Kiwi palate. The trinity of frozen vegetables as I call them – peas, corn and carrot – they don’t belong in Malaysian cooking.” Unsatisfied, they opened their own.
From small beginnings as a hole-in-the-wall food bar with three plastic tables, to a much larger sit-down operation and a second opening on The Terrace, Phee and Cheah have been replicating iconic Nyonya dishes on Cuba Street for more than six years. Reluctant to give away too many secrets, Phee is halfway through cooking her char kway teow before she invites us into the kitchen to photograph her. Noodles, prawns and cubes of pork fat tumble over each other in a hot wok, before sauces are squirted around the outside of the pan to run down into the noodles. This technique avoids scorching and burning the delicate spices within each sauce, while also keeping the noodles dry-ish. “You can use pre-made or fresh sauces,” says Phee, “but all that matters is the technique” and the unique smokiness of the wok hei (breath of the wok). All noodle dishes are served on a banana leaf at Little Penang – not because it looks good, but because of the sweet fragrance that the leaf emits when hot food is served on its waxy side. This is the most traditional way to serve Malaysian food.
Phee is also uncompromising about her laksa, importing torch ginger flower and other spices from Malaysia to be hand-pounded into a fragrant paste. Over the years, she has adapted recipes to cater to the increasing number of vegan and vegetarian diners, but still maintains a laksa has to have blachan (shrimp paste) to be deemed authentic. Also, “I’ve never, anywhere, seen an assam laska with bean sprouts in it,” she laughs.
40 Dixon St, Te Aro; 44 The Terrace, central city
An old favourite with hawker classics
Melaka-born Kim Hon Tiow has worked at KK Malaysian for six years; he moved to New Zealand eight years ago to join his brother, earn more money and make “a better life” for himself. While he now considers Wellington his home, there are many dishes he misses from Malaysia, like Kuching’s famous assam laksa, and spicier versions of hawker classics like mee goreng. Tiow says KK does a great job at imitating village cooking, even going as far as to import a secret brand of curry powder and the “right kind” of coconut milk from overseas. A six-litre, heavy-bottomed stock pot goes on every morning for KK’s signature laksa and simmers all day. The best time to come is for an early dinner, when the soup is perfectly infused and aromatic with the right amount of santan (coconut milk).
54 Ghuznee St, Te Aro
The full vego, freshly made
Jacqueline Ong has been working at this vegetarian/vegan, Buddhist-friendly stalwart for five years – she’s from Melaka, Malaysia, and the owner, Aunty Mena, is her mother-in-law, which is how she got the job. Here, they specialise in traditional Malaysian cooking “from the old days” but also work to give dishes an inclusive spin by excluding animal products, garlic and onion from the menu – none of which have a place in a Buddhist diet. Ong says the restaurant buys special egg-free noodles from a local supplier so vegans can be assured they’re staying on track. Spice pastes are made every couple of days, and while their exact recipes are a secret, there are always toasted spices, herbs – and lots and lots of lemongrass.“Everything is fresh here,” says Ong.
167 Cuba St, Te Aro
An Indian-Malay fusion
It takes an entire day for Ujager Thangam’s dosa batter to be ready, so he has to constantly plan and prep so as not to run out. Thangam is from Tamil Nadu in southern India – home of the dosa – and makes his pancakes the old fashioned way: by fermenting rice and lentils into a thin paste, then cooking over a high heat to crisp, delicious perfection. Dosa batter should always be mixed with your hands, as the heat from them will kick-start fermentation, something Thangam is uncompromising about – his dosa-prep station is a no-spoon zone. Rasa’s menu is a marriage of south Indian and Malaysian cuisine, and while the regions have culinary similarities, Thangam is sure to make the differences quite clear: “There are no sweet-savoury Indian foods and we use a lot of ginger,” he says, “but in Malaysian cooking there is the balance of sweet and hot, and they use different herbs, like lemongrass.”
200 Cuba St, Te Aro
Secret spices and secret recipes
The fridges are jam-packed with food at this little, green, family-owned restaurant – a testament to the constant busyness of the place. The Choos, who have owned Satay Palace (and nearby Satay Malaysia) for more than a decade, are fiercely proud of their recipes, safeguarding them territorially, in defense of imitators. The family is from Seremban in the south-west of Malaysia, and daughter Alice Choo says Wellington is a little quiet for them. She misses the food too, which is part of the reason they opened Satay Palace. They haven’t always been able to find everything they need, so they import hard-to-find spices, and anchovies, for example, because the ones here simply
aren’t fishy enough.
165 Cuba St, Te Aro