Guan Chua's Nyonya Supper Club

I've been a fan of Guan Chua ever since I saw him flying the flag for Malaysia as Anthony Bourdain's protégé on The Taste. How could I not be, with the Straits coursing through my blood? So when Angela suggested an evening at his renowned and incredibly popular supperclub along with some of my favourite fellow foodies, I literally leapt at the chance. 

Guan's specialty is Nyonya cuisine - the word we use for the inevitable intermarrying that occurred after the first wave of Chinese immigration to the Malay peninsula from the 15th century onwards. As with all the best things, this joining of cultures has resulted in the most amazing food - a riot of Eastern flavours and Southern spices from the Silk Route, creating iconic dishes such as chicken kapitan, asam laksa and kuih. It was time to go back to my roots and discover a few more...

As Chinese New Year was winding down, we kicked off proceedings with a traditional yee sang prosperity toss - a raw salad of sorts made up of vermicelli, fresh fruit and vegetables and smoked salmon which you delve into energetically with your chopsticks and fling up in the air while shouting 'lo hei' and 'huat' for maximum luck. So much fun. (And hopefully I did enough to pass my upcoming exams...) We heard that during Guan's childhood the kids got so into their yee sang that bits of the salad actually hit the ceiling. I would have reined it in, but the messier the luckier, so they say...

Yee sang is such a great way to start a party - there's really nothing like brandishing your chopsticks in other guests' faces to break the ice. And the resulting salad was fresh, sweet and light - the best way to line our tummies for the feast ahead.

Next up, chicken wings taking flight with punchy lemongrass and belacan flavour. As soon as Guan and Jo set the dishes down on the table my expectations for the rest of the night rose by several levels. Let's just say this type of delicate presentation isn't quite the norm back in Malaysia...

The fried assam prawns were a treat, their sweetness left intact thanks to a sensitive use of tamarind, which can easily overpower a dish. 

A plate of sambal belacan greens provided a crunchy, clean foil to the meaty mains to come.

Daging pongteh to die for. Apparently it's more common to use pork or chicken in this dish but I'm so glad Guan opted for beef flank on this occasion. Slow cooked a day in advance with mooli, fermented soy bean paste and palm sugar, the meat was incredibly tender - up there with the best beef bourguignon I've ever had, threaded through with an amazingly addictive sweet flavour attributable to the presence of the gula melaka.

Ikan masak nanas - mackerel curry with pineapple. This was far and away the standout dish of the meal for me, possibly because it's in my genes - this classically Nyonya dish is typically found in Penang, the home of my maternal ancestors. The curry played host to an incredibly complex array of flavours, with the fresh fish, pineapple, galangal, tamarind, candlenut and mint grabbing me by the hand and running from sweet, to sour, to savoury, to spicy. One mouthful of this left me feeling like I'd just been on a rollercoaster, lips tingling and blinking rapidly. Really exciting stuff.

The dish on the menu that had me quivering in anticipation the most (judge me all you like, I don't care) was this: a celestially good Horlicks parfait with a mitre of caramelised banana and a halo of crumbled Nestum. I was a terrible sleeper during childhood and my harassed parents decided Horlicks might help me drift off at night. It worked. I have fond memories of sleepily cradling a steaming cup of this malty, creamy drink, which came flooding back as I dug my spoon into this beautifully smooth, semifreddo-like dessert. 

Three batches of miniature madeleines fresh out of the oven made us all gasp in delight - they were so teeny and so moreish, it was almost like playing at tea with dolls. The pandan flavour was excellent too (a wonderful blend of coconut and vanilla for those who don't know it) and a tapau bag of these secreted home with me gave off the most beautiful smell when I opened it in the morning for breakfast to dip, Proust-style, in my tea.

We were surprised with a dish not actually on the menu but nevertheless a shining star of the evening: crispy, fluffy mini Paris Brest buns filled with gula melaka-flavoured chantilly cream. These took me back to the cream-filled choux buns I used to pick up after school in Soho at Beard Papa (miss that place so much!) - though obviously stepping the game up several notches. For me, they also encapsulated Guan's unique style of cooking. In the pastry one can discern the French discipline and technique only a Cordon Bleu-trained chef can display. The delicate palm sugar notes in that divine chantilly, meanwhile, are testament to Guan's personal knowledge of the exceptional ingredients Malaysia has to offer. Hopefully these will become a permanent fixture at the supperclub, as they get a 10/10 from me.

Thank you very much to Guan and Jo for kindly hosting us in your beautiful home for a night of fantastic food and company. I can put my hand on my heart and say that this was one of the most exciting, technically complex approaches to Nyonya food I've ever had. What surprised me the most was the compound of flavours in each dish, with sweet and savoury elements throughout removing the need for a strict dichotomy between savoury main course and cloyingly sweet dessert, as tends to be the case in Western meals. (Not that I don't enjoy them, of course!) Like Angela, I shall definitely be making a return visit - perhaps with the entire extended family in tow, flown specially over for the occasion...

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