NESTLED in the heart of Bandar Kinrara, Puchong, lies a quaint restaurant, its location subtly revealed by the vibrant greenery and blossoming flowers peeking through the balustrades.
Finding this hidden gem was easy, courtesy of precise instructions from proprietor Sheryl Ong. Her advice was simple: park at the adjacent Giant Hypermarket and cross the street. "We'll be waiting for you!" she'd cheerily informed me the previous night.
Above the entrance, a modest sign reading "Nyonya Love" offers a tantalising glimpse of the delightful culinary experience that awaits within.
Occupying a shop lot at the Bandar Kinrara Welcome Centre, Nyonya Love is definitely not a fine-dining establishment. It focuses squarely on homey Nyonya dishes, most of which feature the characteristic tangy-sour taste of tamarind.
There's also the house kasturi ginger ale (fresh ginger juice with calamansi lime) and Gula Melaka ginger ale (fresh ginger juice with palm syrup) for those who can't get enough of the restaurant's spice-heavy Nyonya kick.
I stumbled upon Nyonya Love through a Facebook post, which painted a vivid picture of this little cafe. Ong had described the establishment as a mother-daughter venture, supported by a small yet devoted team.
Their mission? To serve patrons the finest homestyle Peranakan dishes. At the epicentre of their culinary world is her mother, 71-year-old Irene Ho, affectionately known as Aunty Irene.
Aunty Irene is a dynamo in the kitchen, personally overseeing every aspect of the cooking process. Ong wrote that her mother's involvement is a commitment to preserve tradition and uphold the high standards the latter has maintained throughout her life.
She shared that their kitchen makes every batch of rempah and sambal paste from scratch. This labour-intensive, shortcut-free method shows their dedication to Peranakan cuisine. With full confidence, Ong proudly declared their food a gastronomic experience with unmatched taste and aroma, which is rooted deeply in tradition.
The accompanying snapshot of the matriarch, clad in a chef's toque as she attentively stirred a pot of curry that looked almost bigger than her, touched a sentimental note within me. She somehow reminded me of my own determined mother, who continues to be the undisputed "queen" of our home's kitchen.
"There are no shortcuts to cooking!" Aunty Irene and my mother insist steadfastly, opposing "instant" or ready-made ingredients to preserve their family recipes.
Later, Ong laughs: "The most important thing I learned from my mother is to cook with a positive attitude and a lot of love, to respect the ingredients and follow the right methodology."
LESSON IN COOKING
The inviting aroma emanating from the kitchen is undeniable as I push open the glass door and step inside. The interior is adorned with an abundance of potted plants. Lush ferns and verdant greenery contribute to a warm and cozy ambiance within the space.
The atmosphere exudes a tangible feeling of "home" everywhere you glance. The walls showcase pictures of Aunty Irene resplendent in her kebaya, and the counter is adorned with family photos and various charming trinkets, all contributing to the warm and familial ambiance of the place.
At 11am, the cafe already buzzes with customers, indicating its popularity even in the early hours of the day. A woman with a friendly smile appears from the kitchen hallway, greeting me and then saying apologetically: "I'm so sorry, I'll be with you in a moment. Mum is busy in the kitchen right now. She'll be out shortly!"
Almost as if planned, a petite older lady with dark curly hair, dressed in a bright floral kebaya top and slim jeans, pops up beside her. Despite her advanced age, Aunty Irene's hair shows no signs of greying, and her sparkling eyes give her a youthful appearance. "Come in lah!" she beckons towards the kitchen.
The compact kitchen efficiently places everything within easy reach. Ong's mother tends to the sizzling saucepan on the stove with chopsticks and seamlessly shifts her attention to another pot. With precision, she dips a long-pronged mould into batter, then immerses it in hot oil, patiently monitoring the cooking process.
The thin, crunchy pastry shells are for the pai tee, a savoury tart filled with veggies, shredded Chinese turnips and spices. Aunty Irene says: "In Melaka, pai tee is referred to as a 'top hat' because the frills of the tart resemble an upside-down hat."
To create the distinctive flared brim, she delicately positions the mould just below the hot oil's surface, preventing it from sinking.
"We Nyonyas insist on that brim around the tart!" the lively septuagenarian asserts. Each shell takes approximately two to three minutes to cook as she keeps the mould steady in the pot.
Just a short distance from the stove, Ong is engrossed in crafting the cafe's signature roti jala. She pours a lattice of batter onto a hot griddle, then meticulously folds them into small, appetising rolls.
As she works, she shares fondly: "My mother spends hours making those pai tee shells from just that little bowl of batter. It's literally a labour of love."
She gestures around the compact kitchen and adds: "We cook in small batches, mirroring exactly how we would prepare meals in our own home." This intimate approach to cooking emphasises the care and authenticity they pour into every dish.
Aunty Irene describes Nyonya cuisine as the epitome of home cooking. Historically, women, including her mother, were primarily confined to the domestic realm, especially the kitchen, known as perut rumah or the "belly of the house". It was the central hub of household life and activity, where she fondly observed her mother's culinary skills while growing up.
She continues, chuckling: "It's the hallmark of a Nyonya to learn how to cook just as her mother did." A personal twist in her culinary career followed.
Adding, she shares: "My mother didn't teach me. I watched and attended cooking classes to become a proficient cook!" There were no recipe books to fall back on. Instead, each recipe was learnt by observation and committed to memory. "We didn't weigh or measure anything. Instead, we agak-agak lah and put our own spin to the dishes!"
Did your mother enjoy your cooking? Aunty Irene replies with a hearty laugh: "She'd taste and say 'bolehlah!' (acceptable)"
Agak-agak (assumptious) cooking is handed down through generations by observation and experience, not written directions. This style emphasises instinctive cooking based on taste, texture, and scent more than specific quantities. Her narrative shows how Melaka's Nyonya population learnt and preserved culinary traditions.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
From her childhood to falling in love, getting married and raising her family, Aunty Irene's bond with Melaka has grown stronger and more profound with each passing chapter of her life.
However, when her children reached adulthood, a new chapter began. She and her late husband moved to Penang to live with their eldest daughter. "I was there to jaga cucu! (look after the grandchildren)" she recalls, her face lighting up with a smile.
The mother of three — two daughters and a son — shares that when her youngest daughter, Ong, decided to open a cafe, she stepped in to assist in the kitchen.
"I'm the head chef, and my daughter is the assistant," she declares pertly, her elfin face creased in a wide smile. She has passed on the basics of Nyonya cuisine to her daughter. "She's learned it all from me," she says with pride.
Ong gazes at her mother with affection and remarks: "She's incredibly talented and has a real knack for working with her hands." The 43-year-old then shares that all the lush greenery adorning the cafe interior and exterior is the result of her mother's gardening prowess.
She points out an interesting detail about the decor. The images of Aunty Irene that hang at the front of the restaurant, which at first glance appear to be photographs, are, in fact, cross-stitch creations meticulously crafted by the elderly lady herself!
According to Ong, she shares a strong bond with her mother and grandma, who resided with them until the latter passed away in 2018 at the age of 92.
"I have a special attachment to both of them, especially my late grandmother. I used to berkepit (stick close) to them when I was young!" she reminisces with a laugh.
As she reflects on her upbringing, Ong openly admits that she didn't have a specific ambition to pursue. "I had hopes of going to college, but we faced financial constraints," she confides.
Ong eventually found her true vocation in the kitchen, where she developed a deep love for making and creating cakes. Nevertheless, she chose to launch a cafe showcasing her family's recipes when the market for bakers got oversaturated.
"We serve simple, everyday meals that we used to eat at home. Mum taught us how to make the most of the ingredients we had and create delicious meals because we weren't rich growing up," Ong adds, revealing insights into the spirit of her cafe's offerings.
"I'm just grateful that when I asked my mother if she could help me, she willingly came down to do so!" she continues quietly. "It's my mum who puts in that special touch in each dish we serve."
When asked if working together is easy, the mother-daughter duo exchange amused glances before bursting into laughter.
"It's not easy," Ong confesses, adding: "There are definitely moments of tension, especially when things get heated. My mother is quite traditional, which I deeply respect. But occasionally, we need to find a middle ground to speed things up in the kitchen!"
"There are no shortcuts! When you fry, you must kasi fry until naik minyak (fry it until the aroma is released). Baru wangi (then it will be fragrant). You have to take your time. Cooking requires time, love and patience to create something delicious. Without these, the dish just won't taste right!" her mother responds emphatically.
Despite the challenges, Ong reflects wistfully that she wishes they'd started their culinary venture earlier. "My mother often says in jest, 'Girl, we should have done this 20 years ago. I was much younger then. Just think what we could have accomplished!'" she shares, her gaze softening as she looks at Aunty Irene.
She notes: "I think my mum feels like we lost some time. And my siblings are worried about her, considering her age..." After a moment of silence, Ong continues: "But now, we have this opportunity. I'm grateful to have my mum working alongside me. I know she'll keep doing this as long as she's able. For now, I'm just thankful for every moment we spend together."
Ong guides me to a table where an extravagant banquet awaits. The menu boasts a diverse selection of dishes, including nasi lemak with chicken rendang, roti jala with kari ayam and zesty achar, petite pai tee hats brimming with shrimp and vegetables, udang masak lemak nenas with succulent prawns and juicy pineapple pieces in a luscious gravy, ikan goreng cili garam, a crispy fried fish coated in delectable chili paste, and ikan bawal mas berempah (fried fish infused with flavourful spices).
Additionally, you may choose a bowl of Nyonya laksa lemak, which is known for its thick rice noodles in a curry broth with coconut and fish, fish balls, fried tofu slices and laksa leaves.
Do try the bubur pulut hitam for dessert; it's a delectable combination of black sticky rice, coconut milk, and palm sugar or rock sugar, which is lightly sweetened.
While savouring each bite, I find myself thinking about the history and nostalgia that each plate conjures. With every mouthful, it becomes evident that Aunty Irene has poured her heart and soul into her creations.
She's absolutely right — there are no shortcuts when it comes to cooking with love. Here at Nyonya Love, there's plenty of heart served with every dish!
Address: B-LG, 5, Jalan BK 5A/1, Bandar Kinrara, 47180 Puchong, Selangor
Hours: 11am-7:30 pm, Tuesdays to Sundays
Phone: 018-989 9223