One More Nyonya Kuih for the Road?

loading Li Er Cafe produces more than 20 types of Nyonya kuih daily.

Penang’s glorious bites of colour have not only survived, they are now cool to eat.

A Mother-Son Venture

Kei Vin (standing, left) and Lee Ngau (seated) with their team.

With its colourful variety of nyonya kuih, Li Er Cafe has been tantalising taste buds since 2015. Situated along Jalan Burma, the cafe is run by mother-son duo Tan Lee Ngau, 54, and Tan Kei Vin, 30.

A litigation lawyer by profession, Kei Vin decided to quit his job in KL to go into the kuih-making business. “The trade has been pigeonholed as a sunset industry because it requires manual labour, which most people would rather avoid these days. But what they don’t realise is that its value will only increase in the years to come since there will only be a handful of us left with the knowledge to make kuih.”

Not only is it difficult to make, the perception surrounding nyonya kuih also affects its popularity: “For the longest time now, nyonya kuih has had the misfortune of being associated with pasar (market) food,” says Kei Vin. “They’re especially unpopular with youths today because they lack the ‘wow’ factor typically associated with cafe bites. But I think it’s high time we reverse that perception.”

The key, he reveals, lies in the packaging of the kuih. “The arrangement, decoration and presentation must all be taken seriously. We used to have customers lamenting how huge amounts of kuih went to waste at their weddings; guests were reluctant to eat them because they had that ‘pasar’ look.

“So, keeping that in mind, we make sure our kuih sets are eye-catching. We play up the colours of the different kuih via the arrangement. It gets people curious and more importantly, it gets people talking. So far, our kuih sets have been quite popular. Of the 10 customers we have catered for, we’ve received phone calls from eight of them frantically asking if we could send over another set because the first had been wiped clean before the wedding ceremony even began.”

Some kuih took a good six years to get right while others took longer. The kuih lapis took about 10 years just to get right.

According to Kei Vin, the conception of Li Er Cafe can be traced back to when his mother, Lee Ngau, was a child living in Paya Terubong. “I used to frequent a kuih shop near my house. They sold such delicious kuih that I’ve always wondered if I’ll ever come close to making nyonya kuih that are as good as the ones I ate as a child,” says Lee Ngau.

When she relocated to Perlis after her marriage, Lee Ngau set to work teaching herself how to make her favourite kuih. “My mother used to send over kuih recipes she got from her friends and I’d try my hand at making them. I hit a lot of bumps in the beginning for sure,” she laughs. “Nobody was willing to teach you because they were afraid yours would come out better than theirs. But it’s okay, I don’t blame them because it’s their livelihood after all.”

When her husband’s business was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Lee Ngau supported the family through her kuih sales. However, she admits that her nyonya kuih-making experimentations took years to perfect. “Some kuih took a good six years to get right while others took longer. The kuih lapis took about 10 years just to get right. I was on the verge of giving up because the layers just wouldn’t stick together. It was only after we came back to Penang that the layers were able to cohere. I think it was the santan (coconut milk) that did the trick. Penang’s santan has a thinner consistency compared to Perlis.”

Though Lee Ngau had her regular customers back in Perlis, the location wasn’t right for the business to flourish. “That was why we decided to set up shop in Penang instead,” says Kei Vin.

In addition to the assortment of kuih, Li Er Cafe also serves savoury meals like nasi lemak, kerabu bihun and chicken rendang among others. “The savoury dishes were introduced in order to create a wider menu selection for our customers. But our main focus is, of course, still very much on the production of nyonya kuih.”

Li Er Cafe is located at 349, Jalan Burma and opens from Fridays to Wednesdays from 7am to 4.30pm.


A Legacy to Continue

Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay is nestled in Jalan Masjid.

Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay is George Town’s best kept secret. Located in a cul-de-sac just off Lebuh Chulia, the family business has been in operation since the 1930s, having miraculously withstood the ravages of World War II.

The man himself, Moh Teng Pheow, came to Penang from Hainan at the age of 10. He worked as a houseboy for a local family. “Being so young, my father started at the bottom. He swept floors and washed plates before working his way up in the kitchen. The lady of the house used to make and sell nyonya kuih as a means of income. I don’t recall much about her but she took my father under her wing and taught him how to make different kinds of kuih. Then, when she became elderly, the business was handed down to my father who in turn showed me the ropes,” says current owner, Mook Hian Beng.

I believe our open kitchen concept helps draw in the customers as well. There’s always that element of fascination in our customers’ eyes whenever they see first-hand how the kuih are made.

In its heyday, business thrived. “Our hardworking Indian vendors were pivotal to our success. In the morning, they would help us sell the nyonya kuih along with packets of nasi lemak to the breakfast crowd. By mid-morning, they’d be back to replenish the kuih and also to prepare bowls of laksa in time for lunch. Business was going relatively steady until about eight years ago when it took an unexpected nosedive. Suddenly, the hustle and bustle we’d grown accustomed to in the kitchen slackened to a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, one by one, our Indian vendors started leaving to retire in India.”

The bleak circumstance had Mook and his wife, Teoh Kheng Sim, contemplating retirement themselves. “We decided that the business had enjoyed a good long run and that maybe it was time to call it a day. But our son advised us against it. I remember him telling us, ‘Grandfather worked hard to build a name for himself with the business. It would be a shame to see his legacy go to waste’. Thank god we listened to him,” he says.

Mook's helpers making Seri Muka.

Thus, Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay was given a stylish make-over. A canteen, furnished with colourful Peranakan bric-a-brac, was fitted into the old-school kuih shop. “Previously, our customers would have had to take-away their kuih because of the limited seating space. Now, there’s plenty of room for them to sit and enjoy their meals.” The couple also introduced classic savoury dishes like nasi ulam (mixed herb rice) and kuih pai tee as well as old favourites like nasi lemak and laksa to the menu. “If the past had taught us anything, it’s that the business won’t be sustainable if we’re just selling nyonya kuih alone,” adds Teoh.

People began to take notice of its revamped premises. “We began popping up on social media thanks to food bloggers like Ken Hunts Food. Even celebrity chef Martin Yan dropped by for a visit. I believe our open kitchen concept helps draw in the customers as well. There’s always that element of fascination in our customers’ eyes whenever they see first-hand how the kuih are made,” says Mook.

“What’s appealing about our kuih is that they’re all traditionally made. Take for example our best-seller, Pulut Tai Tai. Once the ingredients are mixed together, the glutinous rice will be packed into a tray lined and covered with banana leaves. Then we’ll have to step on the rice to even it out in the tray. The process is similar to grape-stomping for traditional winemaking but the force is much gentler. Once that’s done, the tray will be placed under heavy slabs of bricks for a day or so. This is to ensure the kuih is compact because the more compressed it is the easier it will be to slice into bite-size pieces.”

Mook Hian Beng.

While the methods haven’t changed much, the same can’t be said of today’s taste buds. “I suspect that youngsters’ palates have vastly changed. For one, their taste buds have become more complex because they’ve been exposed to cuisines of different cultures. I’ll give you an example: with our nasi ulam, they’d request for sambal or a bowl of laksa soup to accompany the meal. I find the request to be a little odd since the dish is cooked according to the authentic Peranakan recipe with heh bee (dried shrimp), shredded fried fish and daun kaduk (wild pepper leaves). But I also think that it’s a matter of geography because the nasi ulam in Terengganu is served with sambal,” explains Teoh.

“Still, I can see our young customers are slowly reconnecting with their roots whenever they accompany their parents or grandparents to our shop,” she says. “They’d listen to the stories told by the older folks about their favourite nyonya kuih or how our savoury dishes make them reminisce about the past. It gets them curious to try our food themselves if only just to share the experience with their elders.”

Today, the couple can breathe a sigh of relief. The family business is making a robust comeback. “We were lucky enough to have been given a second chance. Not many people in our line of work have been given the same opportunity. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the business will continue uphill until our children can take over,” says Mook.

Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay and Canteen is located at Jalan Masjid and opens from Tuesdays to Sundays from 10.30am to 5pm.

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