An exceedingly authentic mecca for Malaysian Peranankan cuisine.
Have you been to Malaysia before, dear readers? As a shopping destination, it is one of the best in Asia, with market bargains comfortably sitting alongside designer chic. As a cultural destination, rickshaws, lorries and motorcycles weave their way among tall skyscrapers, colonial-era buildings and traditional kampungs (Malay stilt houses). As a food destination, it has far less of the imported expatriate mesh of Hong Kong and Singapore, and is arguably, unparalleled for the diversity of ethnic cuisines available — a veritable melting pot of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, and perhaps the first “fusion” cuisine, Peranankan.
In Melbourne, in the leafy inner-east suburb of Hawthorn, opposite the thunder of Glenferrie Station and an adjacent serene old church, Omah is a quiet achiever. Its frontage is tinted black glass, opening out onto a small venue that pays homage to an East meets West idea, simultaneously modern and historical, tasteful without veering into cultural kitsch. It evokes a mid-20th century kopitiam (coffee shop) complete with oriental wall gratings, lacquered teak chairs and quaint birdcage lighting, energised with splashes of bright red and green from the contemporary canvas paintings.
MoMo & Coco visited for a celebratory weekend dinner. Focusing on Malaysian cuisine, with a few assured leaps into Nyonya territory, Omah’s typically share-plate-style a la carte menu was lengthy, organised into food groups of “entree, seafood, poultry, beef and lamb, noodle and rice, salad and veg.” Conscious of its Malay heritage, porcine things were noticeably absent. Our dining party selected a hefty number of dishes, all of which arrived in a rapid parade. We started with the traditional Malaysian snack fare of Loh Bak ($7.50), two small meaty logs wrapped in a fried and baked bean curd skin; a rich peanut sauce slathered onto Roti sheets ($7.50) that were a perfect balance of crisp and chew; and plump crescents of Curry Puffs ($5.50) that were audacious in their heat. A most promising debut. Being the declared “house specialty” of Omah, we continued with two crabs, which did not disappoint. To chomp down on a Chilli Mud Crab and a Five Spice Mud Crab ($45.90 each), the venue supplied the necessary accoutrements of cute paper bibs, claw cutters and lemon water bowls. You have it from MoMo & Coco’s family and the one part of MoMo & Coco who does not suffer from an unfortunate shellfish allergy that the crabs were very very good, finger lickingly so. But dear readers, do not stop at the crabs! We would in the future, bypass the food-court-like Crispy Battered Chicken ($19.50) and the Belanchan Kangkong ($14.50), the latter sorrowfully lacked the ricocheting prawn paste taste (and smell) that should be characteristic of belanchan. However, the Beef Rendang ($19.50), arguably one of two make-or-break dishes of a Malaysian restaurant, was textbook perfect — a rich, pungent stew of tender beef in the Nyonya/Malay, rather than Indian style. Superb. Similarly, the other make-or-break dish of Char Keow Teow ($13.90) captured the ever-important wok breath and taste, though the cockles were absent. Oh dear! The highlight of the night was the Ikan Baakar ($24.90). Although a little small for the price, its chilli paste was beautifully nuanced in the zest of lemon grass and the explosive heat of chilli, sweeping the white flesh of the fish into a dream of the tropics. Breathtakingly good.
Desserts at Omah were presented on a formulaic list that didn’t really diverge from that available in too-many Chinese restaurants in Melbourne. There were nevertheless, a few delights, hence it is MoMo & Coco’s great pleasure to showcase Omah in our dessert-blog here. Of six options, we sampled four, bypassing therefore the non-Malaysian sticky date pudding and a more Cantonese-style cassava pudding. The first irresistible, the “Ice Kachang” ($7.50) had all the elements of the dessert — a towering ice mountain secured by a wreath of sweet corn, palm seeds, grass jelly and green cendol, and lashed by rosewater syrup. However, as a too-cautious hand had drizzled rather than doused it in condensed milk, it therefore consequently lacked the characteristic sweet taste to bind it all together. For a better version in Melbourne, MoMo & Coco would recommend the ice kachang found at the Petaling Street chain restaurants ($5.00).
For $18.00, one may select three of the other desserts available. Even without being dipped into a saucer of gula melaka (palm sugar), the four stumps of “Banana Fritter” ($8.50) were far too sweet, even for the insatiable sweet-tooths writing this dessert blog! A simpler goreng pisang version daringly wrapped in brown paper would have sufficed, and would have been most welcome for bringing back a hawker snack that has all but disappeared from Malaysia’s street hawkers. Resembling a jade-green island floating on a slightly sweet milk pool, upon which strawberry slices formed a pretty blossom, the “Pandan Sago” ($6.50) was presented as a pudding rather than as the often-seen individual beads in a sweet broth. It could possibly have been bolder in flavour, to counteract its doughy, glutinous texture. The highlight of Omah’s desserts were the “Coconut Crepes” ($7.90), toasted and roasted coconut rolled into well-flavoured soft pandan crepes — a precise execution of the Nyonya kuih tayap (also known as kuih dadar) that MoMo & Coco simply adored.
Service at Omah was accommodating of our large dining party and quite efficient. MoMo & Coco’s only quibble is that they tend to clear up the dishes rather hurriedly, even when two of our dining party were still eating from clearly unfinished plates.
What’s so special about Omah, you might ask. Yes, there’s the multitude of cheap and cheerful raucous Asian eateries clinging to the vicinity of Melbourne CBD’s Chinatown, spilling out onto Swanston Street, and also in the eastern suburbs of Box Hill, Doncaster, Glen Waverley, Richmond, etc. Yes, there’s some very good traditional restaurants focusing on East Asian food of the Cantonese yum cha, Shanghainese dumpling, Korean BBQ and Japanese sushi/sashimi type. Yes, there’s the elegant modern fusion cuisine being created at the likes of Gingerboy, Coda, Longrain, Izakaya Den, Golden Fields, Easy Tiger, Heirloom (but no, do not speak to MoMo & Coco of that mod-Thai-Mamasita, pedestrian Chin Chin). But aside from all this, Melbourne has next to nothing when it comes to well-executed, well-balanced, refined, classical *South East Asian* food. Omah came to our attention because of a lot of hype, but for once, that hype is justifed. It is an exceedingly authentic mecca for Malaysian Peranankan food, possessing in most parts that necessary kinetic flavour that is essential to this cuisine. Our main quibble is the slightly exorbitant charge for rice. Sweets are as well-executed as the savouries, although we would love to see more confident leaps into Peranakan territory with the desserts. We are thinking a kuih (cake) dessert trolley, what do you think? 😉 That would be a complete kuih kapit (love letter) to Malaysian Peranankan cuisine. So yes, if you have a Nyonya Omah, typically one that bustles around in her kebaya, it is likely that she would have been similarly impressed.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Omah’s Restaurant, 338 Burwood Road, Hawthorn, Vic 3122.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Neo-classical Malaysian.
- ☑ Must-eat: The coconut crepes.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: An exceedingly authentic mecca for Malaysian Peranankan cuisine.