Dapur Cho Cho: Fourth generation of Nyonya kuih makers in Melaka

Unlike other stalls, their golden brown apam balik are dainty and fluffy with a distinct taste of coconut milk and gula Melaka (left). Habuk sagu and pulut kaya (back) are some of the varieties made at Dapur Cho Cho (right) — Pictures by James Tan
Unlike other stalls, their golden brown apam balik are dainty and fluffy with a distinct taste of coconut milk and gula Melaka (left). Habuk sagu and pulut kaya (back) are some of the varieties made at Dapur Cho Cho (right) — Pictures by James Tan

MALACCA, April 27 — It took us several wrong turns thanks to a series of epic navigational failures peppered with flaring tempers and a healthy dose of curses before we managed to reach Dapur Cho Cho along the main road of Batu Berendam. This being a modest single storey house hidden in a most inconspicuous manner adjacent to a TNB powerhouse made things so much tougher, not to mention the confusion between the old name; Jalan Taman Merdeka which is perpendicular to the main road now renamed to Jalan Mohd Zin Dsh where Dapur Cho Cho is located.

And in case you’re wondering, they do NOT have a signboard indicating where Dapur Cho Cho is; but if you look hard enough you can see the number of the lot written in black paint across the verandah — house number 84-3. Subtle clue, no less. And challenging to locate if you’re not familiar with the territory like us.

Dapur Cho Cho is the pride of the family now being succeeded by the fourth generation; both Juliet and her brother passionately running the business from the comfort of their home. Specializing in very authentic Nyonya kuih crafted to perfection (literally), this has been a flourishing business conceptualised by the mother who has been the back bone of the culinary business for over 30 years now.

Juliet took over about half a decade ago, and the drive to keep the tradition alive burns strong amongst the siblings; with orders coming in from The Majestic Hotel in Malacca, Nancy’s Kitchen and Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine, and many more orders from every corner of the state.

They tried their hands in managing a food business with the same name few years back, yet it proved to be too much to handle. The intense work load from preparing their signature traditional Nyonya kuih without ample resources plus cooking up savouries as mains took a toll on the family. Thus they decided to terminate the project and instead focus on Nyonya kuih made-to-order from their home kitchen.

Although they do not suggest that you walk in and purchase whichever pieces of Nyonya kuih you fancy, we were still able to observe the process of getting the orders ready by appointment with Juliet.

She does up to three items per day, and these are cleverly scheduled through explicit details written on the walls — the types of kuih she needs to prepare on which day, plus the number of pieces required. She does Dapur Cho Cho’s trademark onde-onde daily; these bite-sized pandan-flavoured kuih are filled with gula Melaka then rolled in a bed of grated coconut. Most of the items are supplied for high tea or welcome bites for guests at The Majestic Malacca.

I was fortunate enough to see how she makes onde-onde and apam balik, both favourites of mine. For the onde-onde, they first need to grate the coconut fresh and early in the morning, about 7am or so. Being typical Nyonyas, Juliet and her mother are exceptionally particular about the details and preparation steps. Not one step less, nor do they compromise on the quality or freshness of the ingredients.

The grated coconut must be really, really fine so that when one bites into a piece of onde-onde, the grated coconut mixed with a tiny pinch of salt does not get stuck between one’s teeth or overwhelm the delicate texture of the kuih.

The light green dough is naturally coloured using pandan juice and pinched into tiny morsels (left). Unlike other places, they shape the dough into cups and fill it with gula Melaka syrup (right)
The light green dough is naturally coloured using pandan juice and pinched into tiny morsels (left). Unlike other places, they shape the dough into cups and fill it with gula Melaka syrup (right)

The light green dough mixture was then left to rest in the refrigerator, to be perfumed by the addition of fresh pandan juice and the delightful green hue from the essence of cendol leaves (also called pandan Serani). She proceeded to knead the dough a little then pinch them into thumb-sized morsels, before making a hollow indent and filling this tiny cup with gula Melaka syrup. And needless to say, they kept sourcing from different suppliers until they got the right taste and consistency. Unlike most onde-onde makers where a cube of hardened gula Melaka is used before the kuih is rolled into a sphere, Dapur Cho Cho’s version contains liquid gula Melaka while the kuih is shaped like a tear drop.

Juliet then dropped the onde-onde into a pot of boiling water. As soon as they rose to the surface, she scooped it out and rolled them with grated coconut. To make them more aesthetically pleasing, she also went to the extent of using banana leaves and shaping them into small triangular-shaped baskets, filling each with three pieces of onde-onde. Talk about meticulous presentation.

The tear drop shaped dough is gently cooked in boiling water (left). The tiny onde-onde is rolled in finely grated fresh coconut and artfully arranged in pandan leaf baskets (right)
The tear drop shaped dough is gently cooked in boiling water (left). The tiny onde-onde is rolled in finely grated fresh coconut and artfully arranged in pandan leaf baskets (right)

One bite into the still warm onde-onde revealed everything that they stood up for four generations: quality and passion channelled from one generation to the next.

The apam balik was another winner, but definitely not a very productive venture since the time taken to “jaga api” (carefully watching over the stove fire) was beyond what was needed for ordinary kuih. Soft, fluffy and infused with the right balance of coconut milk and gula Melaka, the folded-in-half pieces of golden brown delights were satisfying.

They also make apam berkuah, a classic but now almost extinct Nyonya kuih made from fermented coconut water (but not intoxicating toddy!) and served with a gravy made from bananas. Apparently, apam berkuah was a staple of wedding banquets back in the days, and still in demand nowadays by those staying true to the roots.

Habuk sagu and pulut kaya were two of the sweet kuih she made that morning, though all of those were reserved for orders. The golden yellow layer on the pulut kaya was actually coconut and egg jam (kaya) with yellow colouring and made into a solidified gel-like texture atop the glutinous rice stained blue with bunga telang.

The laborious steps involved in preparing each Nyonya kuih are testament enough of their unwavering spirit to keep the Nyonya heritage alive. Working daily from 7 am until 7 pm (at least), Juliet finds it harder and harder to reward herself with breaks sometimes, and seeks to expand the business with the hiring of more staff. Her mother and brother are her only team members while her grandmother would nod with approval (or otherwise) after every bite of her creations.

Dapur Cho Cho — wonder how the name came about? “Cho” refers to great-grandmother, and the original recipes came from her. I guess Juliet can hold her head up high now; making her “Cho” proud with by continuing this legacy for another generation.

James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)

Dapur Cho Cho
84-3, Jalan Mohd Zin Dsh,
Taman Padang Balang,
Batu Berendam, Melaka.
Tel No: +6012-276 8606
Call to reserve your orders and collect the next day
Same row as Restoran Ayoob and opposite of Hotel 906 along the main road.