Before April, I’d only tried Baba Nyonya-style Malaysian cooking one other time, at Kopitiam in Chinatown. That small cafe serves traditional snacks along with Malaysian coffee and tea. Philadelphia’s Saté Kampar also serves their versions of the items in a larger space and with a larger menu.
We first visited during brunch, and my friend recommended the rendang daging (or beef rendang). This was perhaps the best beef rendang I’ve had to date. The beef was braised with spices and coconut cream, then slow-cooked for six hours. As a result it was tender and falling apart. The crunchy shredded carrots and rice added a crunch and base to support all the sweet, spicy and rich flavors of the beef.
I also had the cham, which is half teh tarik (Malaysian hand-pulled tea), half kopi (Malay for “coffee”). It had just the right amount of sweetness, and as someone who dislikes the actual taste of coffee I was pleasantly surprised at how mild the flavor was.
I came to find out why when Ange, the owner, introduced herself and shared more about the Baba-Nyonya history, culture and food. She said that Malaysians like drinking kopi at night before sleeping, so they prefer a milder version to their Western counterparts. European and American coffee usually has a fast roast of about 10-20 minutes, which burns the sugar and makes the coffee bitter. Kopi, on the other hand, is roasted on a slow flame for 45-60 minutes so the sugar doesn’t burn.
Ange also showed us the differences between Malaysian tea before and after it is “hand-pulled,” resulting in teh tarik. Hot black tea is mixed with condensed milk, then poured back and forth in a high, steady stream between two jugs. This process oxidizes the tea and lessens the amount of tannic acid, resulting in a lighter color and sweeter, milder flavor after being pulled.
We came back the next day for dinner and tried the sate skewers. There are two styles, both named after places in Malaysia: Kajang (classic style with spicy peanut sauce) and Melaka (Hainanese style with pineapple peanut sauce). Both are cooked on coconut shell charcoal. Ange says when using other types of charcoal, the smoky flavor overwhelms the flavor of the meat, while the more neutral-smelling coconut shells let those natural flavors come through. Baba Nyonyas were a cultural marriage between the Chinese and Muslims, so other than the pork, all the meat is Halal so as to follow their traditions and mixed cultures.
We ordered the Melaka-style pork skewers and Kajang-style chicken skewers. The pork was a bit too fatty and salty for my tastes. I also wasn’t a big fan of the pineapple peanut sauce, which seemed a little too oily. However, the Kajang-style skewers were great. The chicken was tender, perfectly cooked and nicely marinated in a sweet sauce. The spicy peanut sauce wasn’t very spicy at all, but it was lightly sweet, flavorful and lightly chunky from chopped up peanuts.
The Otak-otak Nyonya is a Baba Nyonya recipe that is barely even found in Malaysia. Ange got this recipe—like many others—from her grandmother, whose stitchings were also hanging on the restaurant’s walls.To make this otak-otak, fish is whisked with eggs, flavored with kaffir lime, betel leaf and other spices, then steamed in a banana leaf pouch where it rises. The result is a moist fish custard of sorts. It’s on the milder side, but the light flavor of fish and spices still comes through.
They have weekly dessert specials, and when we went we got to try the sago gulam melaka. A cluster of sago pearls arrives bathed in coconut cream before palm syrup is poured on top. The light, chewy sago paired well with the rich coconut flavor and intensely sweet palm syrup. It was a sweet and comforting treat.
1837 E Passyunk Ave (map)
Philadelphia, PA 19148