Cook like a Nyonya
It’s too late when I notice my pot of duck stew boiling over. In those split seconds between Bama’s warning and the time it takes for me to put down the camera, the damage has already been done.
Quick as a flash, Pearly Kee rushes over to turn down the heat. By now the excess liquid is bubbling and steaming on the hob, with a minor cascade dripping down the drawers and pooling on the floor tiles. “Too much water,” she says. The embarrassment must be evident on my face, because Pearly is telling me not to worry while she wipes down the mess.
On our last day in Penang, Bama and I spend several hours at a Nyonya cooking class in Pearly’s home. Both of us had tasted Nyonya food in Singapore and Malacca, but to learn three recipes under the guidance of a Penang chef – a fifth-generation Nyonya, no less – would round out our experience of three trading ports where Nyonya cuisine took root.
But first, you might ask, who are the Nyonya? The name itself is a clue. Nyonya is derived from the Malay for “Mrs.”, although some believe that it has distant origins in the Portuguese word for “lady”, senhora. The Nyonya refer to the women of an ethnically mixed community, and the Baba, men. Together they form the Baba Nyonya or Peranakans, descended from marriages between Chinese merchants and indigenous Malay or Javanese women.
And it is this heritage which makes Nyonya cuisine so special. Centuries before fusion food became fashionable, the Nyonyas were already blending ancient cooking methods from China with the spices of the Malay, Indian and Indonesian kitchens. In Penang, it is even infused with discernible influences from nearby Thailand.
Pearly talks of yin and yang, of maintaining a balance, while guiding us through her neighbourhood wet market in Pulau Tikus. She holds up a small, twisted root of kencur, or sand ginger, for all of us to see. “We only use a little kencur because this can be poisonous if you eat too much.” Though I had come across kencur in Bali, it’s the first time I’ve heard this. “The Chinese believe in fighting poison with poison,” Pearly adds, “So if you have an illness, it’s good for flushing out the toxins from your body.”
Pearly is quick to point out that eating right is a form of medicine. “The food we eat should heal us,” she says. We learn that drinking a cup of burdock tea each day strengthens the bones. Roots (rhizomes) are rich in Vitamin B complex – before cooking, they should be washed thoroughly and not peeled, for the most nutrients lie just under the skin. There are plenty of other tidbits: fish head is eaten for its collagen, and I soon realise that I have been calling one vegetable by the wrong name all this time.
“What is the difference between a gourd and a melon?” Pearly asks.
“A gourd creeps along a fence, but a melon creeps along the ground.” She points at a stack of wrinkled, cucumber-like vegetables in a perforated plastic tray. “Write on the internet and spread the word – this is bitter gourd, not bitter melon!”
At Pulau Tikus market, most things are still made the traditional way. We see duck eggs packed in a thick layer of soil, the next stage after preservation in horse urine; a machine to shred coconut flesh; and still another for pressing coconut cream. Pearly demonstrates how the delicate Tamil treat putu mayung is made, grinding vermicelli strands of aromatic rice flour out of a wooden mould. They are steamed and then topped with shredded coconut and brown sugar, before being folded in half and eaten with the hands.
It isn’t long before Bama and I are whisked to the family home by Chandra, Pearly’s husband. In the front garden we indulge in the heady fragrance of turmeric and galangal leaves. It is also an introduction to slightly less pleasant aromas, including daun tai ayam, literally ‘chicken poo leaf’, and a ripe nona fruit, which smells like a wet sock.
Once at our work stations, we begin with Hong Bak or ‘classy meat’, a choice of pork belly, chicken or duck, stewed with ground nutmeg and coriander powder, white pepper, kencur (sand ginger), garlic, shallots, bean paste and potatoes. Bama and I have chosen to use duck for this class; Pearly later reveals it is the best choice, with pork a close second.
I struggle to multitask between the roles of cooking student and photographer as Pearly’s tips come in thick and fast. Once in the pot, the spice paste needs enough cooking oil to give it a shine. The meat must be placed bone side down to conduct heat, and we watch as Pearly scrapes the sides of the pot for every remnant of spice paste. “Every little bit is flavour,” she says, “don’t be afraid to use them. They only become bitter when they are dry.” Pearly also tells us to pay attention to the time, for the pot must be refilled with water every 45 minutes or so.
While the stew simmers on low heat, we prepare Otak-otak, fish parcels steamed in banana leaf. Otak-otak derives its complex flavour from a lengthy list of ingredients: garlic, shallot, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, coconut cream and chilli. Making Otak-otak is a labour-intensive process, from chopping each ingredient, to scalding banana leaves and wrapping the fish and spice paste in a bundle, all the while making sure that the banana leaf does not unfurl and spill its contents.
The final recipe on our menu is Kerabu Kay, which is the most exquisite chicken salad I have ever tasted. It is layered with finely sliced black fungus, giving a gentle crunch; aromatic mint leaves; the sweet-sour tang of calamansi lime juice, with the chopped limes thrown in for good measure; alongside shallots, pickled Shanghai cabbage, torch ginger, and julienne strips of steamed chicken. As if all that weren’t enough, Kerabu Kay also has sambal belachan, a perfect marriage of toasted shrimp paste with the potent heat of fresh chilli.
Once all the ingredients are mixed together, Pearly applies the finishing touch: a spoonful of coconut cream drizzled over the top of the salad. “The coconut cream adds such depth,” she enthuses. I watch as Pearly closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, as though she is imagining the luscious coconut cream on her palate. “You can really taste it!”
Over lunch, served with a refreshing glass of nutmeg juice, we learn that Kerabu Kay is traditionally eaten at New Year’s. Hong Bak is also reserved for celebrations, and I am surprised when Pearly tells us she doesn’t teach it unless there is a special request. So is Hong Bak the most difficult Nyonya dish in her repertoire?
“It’s not the hardest dish to make,” Pearly says, “but it takes the longest.” ◊