It’s always a privilege when I meet someone who is part of a dying culture.
And an even more interesting privilege when she won’t take her culture’s demise lying down.
Meet Evonne Yeo, a young Malaysian who hopes to keep her culture alive one meal at a time through her restaurant Unicorn Cafe in Melaka, Malaysia.
Listen to Evonne Yeo’s story here and what makes Peranakan food unique:
Evonne is a Nyonya from the Peranakan people of Malaysia, a group born from the intermarriages of mainly Indonesian traders in the 1800s and local Chinese, or Chinese traders with local Malay women. Peranakan women are known as Nonya while Peranakan men are called Baba. What was also given birth was a new cuisine, marrying the flavours from both cultures to create multi-layered flavours and textures. The new combinations even flowed to their clothing and furniture.
But, it’s a culture that is slowly slipping away as young people abandon their traditions in favour of modern lifestyles in big cities like Kuala Lumpur. Evonne however, has chosen to reject the trend and instead return to her roots in Melaka so she and her fiancé can “give Melakans a taste of authentic Peranakan food”.
Her commitment to authenticity shows in her food. And it was love at first bite.
Take this pai tee (RM4.00), which are fried pastry cups filled with vegetable, prawn and egg bits. Up till now, I had never been able to figure out what the big deal was about this entree dish. Previous versions I had tried, both home cooked and restaurant ones, were a little soggy and rather tasteless. This was the first time I actually “got it” and you could probably tell when my eyes widened at the first bite.
We ordered another popular entree, popiah (RM5.50). If this picture doesn’t make you salivate you’re probably not Malaysian or Singaporean. Popiah is a crepe spring roll filled with shredded carrots, cabbage, omelette, turnip, fried shallots and other ingredients. At Unicorn Cafe this was pretty much done to perfection with the right combination of flavours and a thin, lightly crispy skin (many places disappoint on the skin alone!).
For our mains we ordered what was printed on the menu as “nyonya laksa” (RM5.50). Let me say it was delicious but my DH says this would have been better described as “nyonya curry mee”. The nyonya laksa he remembers growing up eating in Melaka has a distinct lemongrass flavour which was absent in this dish. So he didn’t get what he expected when he ordered but neither of us were complaining. We were too busy filling our mouths with the delicious sauce.
Finally we had the dessert. It would have been so disappointing if such a great meal so far was let down by a sweet ending that was short of perfection but no, we had nothing to worry about.
Yes, it’s as good as it looks. Chendol (RM3.50) is one of Malaysia’s hallmark desserts… shaved ice with fresh coconut, gula melaka (palm sugar), red beans and green rice flour jelly.
Dee-licious and I loved how thinly shaved the ice was. Just like how it used to be.
Evonne at work on her chendol ice-shaving machine.
You just can’t get much better for authentic Peranakan or Nyonya food. There’s not a huge range of menu items but Unicorn Cafe is not trying to be all things to all people. They just want to serve Peranakan favourites and do a few things really well.
Also they are proud of the fact that serve pork and lard, something many eateries shy away from as they try to appeal to larger groups of people despite the compromise on taste and authenticity. If you don’t have a problem with that, you’d be doing yourself a favour to visit if you haven’t already.
Half-slurped bowl of chendol.
Will we still see this kind of food in Malaysia a few generations from now? No one knows.
Evonne believes it’s foreigners who may just ensure the survival of her beloved Peranakan culture. “It’s sad that my culture is really dying because parents do not expose (their kids) to the culture”.
“(But) the funny thing is… the ones that are embracing the culture are the non-Peranakans…I have seen a lot of my Singaporean friends …they are actually very intrigued by the culture. They are starting to wear the Nyonya kebaya (traditional clothing) and they will have the decorative items in their house. It’s really nice to see and hopefully with that, the culture will not die off….future generations will still be able to see the culture although it’s not by our own Peranakan (people).”
In the meantime, get it while you can. It’s authenticity you can’t buy.
And I mean the best chendol for RM3.50? Don’t have to ask me twice.
I wish I lived next door.
Entrance to Unicorn Cafe. Nothing fancy but the food is everything you want in authentic Peranakan flavours.
627 Jalan Melaka Raya 10,
Taman Melaka Raya,
75000 Melaka, Malaysia
+60 16-342 5365
Unicorn Cafe’s FaceBook
- Check their FaceBook page for updates to opening hours. Times may differ during holidays.
- There is no air-conditioning so dress lightly and try to sit near a fan. Better yet, cool down with a chendol.
- Chendol is a MUST. Oh did I say that already?
For reviews on more dishes go to Rebecca Saw’s website. This is where my DH learned of the cafe in the first place.
Other daily specials: Nasi Lemak Rendang RM7.90, Unicorn Special of sliced pork with a dry curry RM9.90.
These dishes come with rice and vegetables:
Satay Jantan (chicken satay) RM7.90, Pongteh Ayam (chicken meat stew) RM7.90, Pongteh Babi (pork meat stew) RM9.90, Kuah Lada Ikan (fish in tumeric & peppercorn gravy) RM9.90, Cili Garam Ikan (nyonya-style fried fish with chilli paste) RM9.90, Seh Bak (sliced braised pork marinated with herbs & spices) RM9.90, Curry Debal (chicken in spicy curry flavoured with candlenuts, galangal and vinegar) RM9.90, Babi Asam (sliced pork in tamarind sauce) RM9.90.
Evonne’s story is also featured on Travel Writers Radio here (it’s the same interview as above but combined with a chat with Baba Charlie about his Melakan kueh: