139 Parramatta Rd Auburn, NSW 2144
|Opening hours||Fri-Sun lunch 11.30am-2.30pm, dinner 5.30pm-9pm; closed Mon-Thu|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
It's Sunday lunch and we arrive at Auburn's Peranakan Place to a full house. "Booking?" asks an intrepid floor staff member. I shake my head no, and feel my palms sweat despite the cold.
Earlier that day, I'd persuaded my parents to drive us to a Nonya restaurant that only opens three days a week and is perched on a roaring section of Parramatta Road.
Between Fishing R Us and the adjacent bathroom design centre, there's no real plan B. If they seemed cautiously optimistic at first, the optimism has now dropped.
Spotting the panic on our faces, owner Sam Wong approaches us. "How do you get customers to go? They won't leave," he tells me, "How about I shout 'Fire!' and you hold the door open?"
Wong's whip-smart banter, we soon learn, is part of this neighbourhood stalwart's charm. Five years ago, the 77-year-old opened Peranakan Place with his wife Agnes Wong, who runs the busy kitchen. Starting a restaurant in your 70s is no mean feat, but Wong is an all-round powerhouse.
On a regular day, you'll hear him chatting to customers in fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien or Teochew (he speaks seven languages). He takes each table's order with a mix of sass and knowledgeable asides about Nonya cuisine – the cooking of his heritage – by a people descended from Chinese, Malay, Singaporean and Indonesian intermarriages, dating back to the 15th century in the Malay Archipelago.
Wong migrated from Singapore to Sydney 45 years ago. This eatery is born from an ambition to introduce Sydneysiders to "proper Nonya food". These are dishes you won't normally find in a mainstream Malaysian or Singaporean menu, thanks to the notorious amount of prep work involved.
Take, for example, the ayam buah keluak – chicken braised with buah keluak nuts. Wong tells us his restaurant is the only place that serves this in Sydney. The nuts, grown wild from Kepayang trees in south-east Asian swamps, are highly poisonous if eaten untreated.
Preparing them properly means getting rid of all traces of hydrogen cyanide by boiling the seeds and burying them in layers of ash and banana leaves for 40 days, which allows them to ferment. The result is a slick, black flesh that's scraped out to thicken the chicken stew.
Blended with tamarind, galangal and other aromatic spices, this dish has the viscosity of a mole sauce but tastes slightly medicinal, and more savoury. You'll also get six of the nuts served whole, cracked for your convenience to eat like a giant cockle, with a crab picker to scoop out its soft insides. "This is our holy grail. All Nonya families make this," says Wong.
Another signature Peranakan dish is the babi pongteh, or braised pork in fermented soy beans. Wong's version is made with pork belly and trotter, cooked down with chestnuts and shiitake mushroom. We watch our neighbours, a family of three, tackle theirs with gusto – the rich, gelatinous sauces mopped up with rice.
We opt for a lighter pineapple and prawn curry (udang masak nanas) that's bright golden and fragrant. Visible bits of lemongrass, galangal slices and banana chilli blend into a tangy, textural gravy. The sweet-sour of the fresh pineapple lifts the sauce and makes it a fun companion to the heavier dishes.
You won't go wrong with Wong's har mee – a prawn noodle soup with a seafood stock so sweet it will win over even the staunchest Malay Chinese Takeaway fans (you know who you are).
Another good bet is the oyster omelette, which takes us straight back to the hawker centres of Singapore. Plump oysters are fried in an eggy batter that's mixed with tapioca starch and sweet potato starch – the ingredients that give the omelette its signature crisp-edge and gooey-centre mix.
Note that the menu is long, and the urge to try everything can be dangerous. So call ahead, take hungry loved ones, and feel smug when punters in the queue look longingly at your proper Nonya spread.
Main attraction: A rare find for Nonyan cooking fans, this Auburn eatery is 77-year-old owner Sam Wong's tribute to the cuisine of his Peranakan heritage.
Must-try dish: The herbaceous "ayam buah keluak" or chicken braised with buah keluak nuts, which takes more than 40 days to prepare. You won't find this elsewhere in Sydney.
Insta-worthy dish: Get the pineapple and prawn curry for maximum colour pop, or post an action shot of yourself eating a buah keluak nut with a crab picker.