Old China Cafe: A Peranakan time capsule of old Malaya

The Old China Cafe has a nostalgic feel to it, as evidenced by its frontage.

KUALA LUMPUR: Pass through the saloon-style wooden doors of the Old China Café and like magic, one is transported into the olden days of Malaya.

Except for the newly introduced Covid-19 QR station, the café feels like it has not been touched for over a century.

Family photographs hang alongside those of Puduraya and other landmarks of old Kuala Lumpur. The calligraphy scrolls, grandfather clocks and hanging light fixtures give the restaurant an intensely deep nostalgic feel, almost like a time warp.

Pull up an antique chair and while you flick through the menu, the speaker crackles a familiar 1950s tune, Grace Chang’s ‘Wo Yao Ni De Ai’, a true ode to the glorious songs of the past.

Stepping into the Old China Cafe will bring you back into a time of yesteryear with its decor.

Old China Cafe might only be 23 years old but this building has paid homage to the guildhall of the Selangor and Federal Territory Laundry Association of the 1920s.

Those saloon-style doors that you walked through? 73 years old.

The infinity mirrors are believed to reflect good luck.

A prominent fixture at this Peranakan restaurant is the two grand mirrors facing one another. Commonly known as infinity mirrors, the Chinese believe that these feng shui mirrors reflect good luck.

In fact, it was these mirrors that caught the interest of Leonard Tee, a Malaysian film producer, who fell in love with the rich history and atmosphere of the building before converting it into a Peranakan restaurant in 1997.

“Whatever you lay your eyes on and touch here is basically an experience we offer because it’s all antique. From the front to the bar, it’s the same since the 1920s. We want our customers to experience the old heydays.”

“Those family photographs? I found them. They were thrown away probably by the families who moved.”

He points to a pair of complex-looking calligraphy scriptures adorning the mirror, “No one has ever cracked those before, they are from the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of Imperial China.”

Hailing from Carnarvon Street, Penang where the Baba Nyonya community flourished, Tee grew up on Peranakan food.

“However, these are not authentic Peranakan food because our food comprises a mixture of Penang, Melaka and Singapore,” he confesses.

Before ordering your meal, enjoy a glass of cold De Rozelle Flower Juice, the perfect beverage for a scorching afternoon. This drink is sweet and refreshing, and also contains nutritious rozelle petals.

For the perfect appetiser, try the classic Ju Hu Char, often eaten at family dinners during festivities. The shredded cuttlefish salad is best enjoyed wrapped in a piece of Chinese lettuce, with a dash of sambal belacan.

The Ju Hu Char is a healthy appetiser consisting of cuttlefish salad wrapped in fresh Chinese lettuce.

Alternatively, you could try the all-classic Nyonya Pie Tee. Simply drop as much chicken, turnip or carrot as you desire into the centre of the unbelievably crunchy rice flour top hats and bite.

If you have the opportunity to try only one dish at Old China Café, make it the Nyonya Laksa, which has a delicious, thick spicy coconut gravy.

Together with fresh prawns, chicken, long beans, bean sprouts, bean curd and half a full-boiled egg, this Nyonya Laksa is arguably among the best KL has to offer.

The Nyonya Laksa is easily the highlight of the Old China Cafe.

Get some fibre into your diet with the Belacan Pucuk Paku, which consists of a jungle fern cooked with spicy shrimp paste. The jungle fern is crunchy and tasty, with an underlying bitterness.

The Belacan Pucuk Paku features a crunchy jungle fern cooked in spicy belacan.

Other dishes worthy of your attention are the crunchy and flavourful Lady Finger Kerabu and Brinjal Special, which is essentially deep-fried brinjal slices sprinkled with ground dried prawns.

The Brinjal Special has brinjals deep-fried and coated in a layer of grounded dry prawns.

Be sure to have some coconut rice, tinged blue with butterfly pea flower, on hand when you call for the Devil Curry. True to its name, this dish is as hot as hell itself.

The Devil Curry is a Melaka Portugeuse delicacy that is hot as hell itself.

For a more subtle chicken dish, Pong Teh Chicken features pieces of chicken cooked in brown bean paste with added chewy mushrooms and potato slices, served with shallots and garlic.

A Peranakan meal is not quite complete without a Cincalok Omelette. For this dish, Cincalok, or pickled shrimp paste, is mixed with the egg mixture to create a briny-tasting omelette.

This omelette is no ordinary egg dish, spiced up with some cincalok.

For those with a bigger budget, the Fish Head Curry is definitely something to splurge on. The meaty Garoupa fish head is bathed in a thick curry that has long beans, brinjal and lady fingers in it.

Seafood lovers should also give the Lemak Panas Nenas a try, a spicy dish of fresh prawns immersed in a delicious pineapple curry. The prawns are cooked to perfection and the sourish, fruity taste of the curry is something quite exquisite.

The Lemak Panas Nenas has prawns immersed in a thick, tangy curry.

A big feast is best brought to an end with the Santan Durian and Sago Gula Melaka.

Pair this Durian Santan with the Sago Gula Melaka for a sinfully sweet treat.

Mix the durian custard with the sweet sago for a sinfully sugary dessert that will satisfy any sweet tooth.

The Sago Gula Melaka is a dessert that will sate any sweet tooth.

Dining at Old China Café is more than just satisfying for the tastebuds, it is a nostalgic journey back to the colourful days of old Malaya.

Old China Cafe
11, Jalan Balai Polis
City Centre
50000 Kuala Lumpur

Business hours:
Daily: 11:00am – 10:00pm