Over the years I've had a long-standing debate with a workmate OVER WHO HAS THE BEST MEE GORENG IN WELLINGTON. With around 20 Asian/Malaysian restaurants in Wellington, most claiming to be some sort of dwelling of Satay (villages, palaces, even kingdoms of Satay), there is definitely room for argument.
However, I gained an advantage the day my good friend Mika of Milliemirepoix gave me a tip-off about Little Penang, a new player in town. Being fiercely competitive, I snuck out one lunch hoping to get in before my other Mee Goreng connoisseurs. From that first tasting, I knew I had found a winner - with its deliciously chewy noodles, plump prawns, fried shallots and peanuts giving it some crunch, it was not only far superior - it was unlike any other Mee Goreng I had tried in Wellington. So it was with a smug little strut that I walked back to work to break the news.
Needless to say I went back (as did my workmates, after I triumphantly started spreading the news) and over time got to know the husband and wife team who run Little Penang. Keith and Tee are friendly, talented and passionate about their food and a big reason for me starting this blog in the first place. They are going out of their way to bring truly authentic Malaysian Cuisine to Wellingtonians and have amazing stories to tell...
I sat down with Tee and Keith over a cup of their deliciously sweet Teh Tarik, nervous about my first interview, but excited about starting the Eat and Greet journey.
When did you move to Wellington?
Keith: I was working at the Malaysian stock exchange in 2008 and I was headhunted by NZX. They seemed serious and flew me over, business class, to check out Wellington and show me the commercial market, which at that stage was very undeveloped. I worked there for a few years but after a while I became bored. New Zealand, compared to the Asian market, was very dull!
What made you want to open Little Penang?
Keith: When we came to New Zealand, I told Tee to take it easy, as we both had worked such long hours back in Kuala Lumpur. So she decided to volunteer at the City Mission. Word got out about Tee's cooking and more and more people would turn up on the days she was cooking. She would often get told she had a gift for cooking and that she should do something about it. So after I left the NZX we decided to open up a restaurant, because we felt like a challenge. We went around a lot of the Asian/Malaysian restaurants in Wellington and asked them to give us their best food and every time we felt like we could do much better. However, with so many Asian/Malaysian restaurants in the Wellington area, that posed a few challenges but also opportunities - there is a lot of competition but it also means customers are familiar with Malaysian food. So we decided to do things differently. The way we cook our food is authentic. If a dish required 8 different spices, then we use those 8 different spices; we didn’t want to cut corners.
What do you miss most about Malaysia?
Keith: The three Fs - Family, Friends, Food.
Street food especially - any time of the night in Malaysia, you can go down onto the street and find some of the best food around. You can go to a hawker centre, sit down, look around and there will be 50 stalls all selling different things, all under one roof.
Who taught you everything you know?
Tee: I grew up with Nyonya cuisine - My grandparents came over from China at a young age*. During the 70s my father worked in government and would entertain a lot at home. My mother and aunties did all the cooking for these dinner parties, I was never allowed to cook, but I would sit in the kitchen and watch. One auntie was particularly well known and had a magazine article published about her style of cooking. I learnt everything I know from them.
Keith: I have a passion for food - when I eat out, I am always trying to work out what spices are they using and how they cooked it, so I pick it up along the way.
What makes a good chef?
Keith: [laughs] You must have a passion for it. I can't imagine a person who cooks but doesn't appreciate food. It is like watching sports on TV and not doing any physical activity; it is an oxymoron!
What do you make for yourself at the end of a long day?
Keith: That is an interesting question. We use whatever is left over but most importantly we make sure we all sit down and eat together. We talk about the day, what is happening in the shop, if there are issues, we talk about how we can fix those, what we are going to do next. We ask our regular customers what they would like us to cook next so we talk about whether we can do that. It is a family affair.
What are the challenges you have finding ingredients?
Keith: Anchovies - the anchovies here are substandard. They are stale and powdery. We have to import these from Malaysia.
Ginger Flower - We couldn’t find this at all in New Zealand. Fortunately we are blessed to have a lot of family members going back and forth from Malaysia almost weekly so they bring the ginger flower to us. But because New Zealand customs will not allow us to bring in the flower whole, we finely chop it, package it, freeze it and bring it over frozen. It is a very fragrant flower and so crucial to the Nyonya cooking. We pay our family with cooking!
What's your favourite dish on the menu and why?
Tee: Ayam Masak Merah is very dear to my heart as it was the dish I craved when I was first living in New Zealand, and now it is very popular at Little Penang as it also reminds our Malaysian customers of home. That is the greatest compliment for me.
Do you change anything for New Zealand eaters?
Keith: No, we don’t like to dumb down our food. We don’t even like to change the names of our food, because it gives us a chance to engage and educate our customers as they will ask what each dish is and what it tastes like.
What makes Little Penang special?
Keith: We wanted to make real Malaysian street food. We didn’t want to have hundreds of dishes on the menu - we wanted to do a few things well instead of putting too much pressure on the kitchen. It didn’t make sense to us. We also have a special dish for each day of the week. This gives us a chance to introduce our customers to new tastes and encourage them to try something different.
Do you eat out in Wellington?
Keith: Not anymore! Well, not for Asian food. But if we eat out, I always go to Soprano in Petone. I love Italian food.
Little Penang is on Dixon Street next to Club K (you may not admit it, but of course you know where that is). Check out their facebook page and pop in and say hi to Keith and Tee… I can highly recommend the Mee Goreng after hitting Club K at 4am the night before.
*Tee’s Grandma travelled to Penang from China when she was 14 years old. Her feet had been bound from a young age, so had to go to a cobbler when she got to Penang. Tee lamented over not saving any of these shoes. Not just because they would have been amazing heirlooms but because they were made by a young apprentice called Jimmy Choo!
Little Penang, Dixon Street (Shop 16, Oaks Complex), Wellington.
(04) 382 9818