GEORGE TOWN, Dec 29 ― They come for the sun, sand and a personalised Nyonya cooking experience that will not only stimulate their palate but add a unique twist to their holiday in this island state.
Days of lounging in the sun and soaking in the rich culture that is the melting pot of Penang are no longer the main draws for tourists, particularly those who are curious to know more about local Penang Nyonya fare.
These are the new breed of tourists making their way to Penang to learn the “secrets” behind the explosion of flavours in Nyonya dishes such as nasi ulam, sambal udang or even a simple chicken curry.
Hailing from Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Europe and even from the United States, these visitors usually book a short stay in Penang and then book a Nyonya cooking class with a well-known local Nyonya cook... someone like Pearly Kee.
This was what Australians Michelle Allpress and Daniel Collette did.
The couple had heard about Kee’s cooking class from a relative and were determined to book a Nyonya cooking class with her when they came for a holiday here.
Though in the hospitality industry, the couple were not chefs but wanted to include Nyonya cooking in their short trip here as it is something interesting and new.
“We are here for only four days and since I love to cook, I signed us up for this class to learn about cooking some local Penang food,” said Allpress.
A fifth generation Nyonya, Kee has personally taught hundreds of “students” from all over the world ever since her first impromptu cooking class in 2007 which happened almost by accident.
Kee said it all started from her blog, my-island-penang.com, where she posts up information on Penang and the local food.
“Soon, I was getting enquiries from all over on where they could learn to cook Nyonya food and since I love to cook, I offered to teach them,” she said.
From teaching a few people once or twice a week, Kee’s popularity grew and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now the cooking Nyonya is coming up with her first cookbook, “A Nyonya Inheritance”, while conducting private cooking classes for tourists and locals every week.
It is hard to believe that this no-nonsense woman used to be in a line of work that was as far removed from cooking and the kitchen as possible – manufacturing.
In the decades spent in the manufacturing industry, Kee said she rarely had time to cook and only confined her cooking to family functions and special occasions.
It was after retiring as a quality assurance manager that she suddenly found more time to indulge in cooking more elaborate meals as she was often disappointed by the quality and taste of food from restaurants and hawkers.
“I guess my taste buds are ‘spoiled’ from all those years of growing up in my aunt’s house where all the food is prepared fresh and from scratch,” she said.
Her mother had died when she was three and she and her sister, Junnie, lived with their aunt.
It was from her aunt that she acquired the skills she has today in preparing authentic Nyonya dishes, all from scratch, right down to the grinding of dried chillies for chilli paste using a pestle and mortar.
“Growing up, my sister and I were often given kitchen duties when preparing the family’s meals... no ready-made ingredients,” she shared.
Kee reminisced how she learnt to grind sambal using the pestle and mortar without spilling the paste due to daily practice.
She lamented about how it is now so hard to find really good authentic Nyonya food in restaurants and coffee shops.
“This is why I want to continue to share my recipes by teaching all who are interested,” she said.
She is worried that authentic Nyonya food will die out and give way to the modern concoctions of conveniently-prepared food that comes from packets and not from fresh ingredients.
“Nyonya food is all about giving you a burst of flavours and sensations with every mouthful and I want to keep this alive by teaching as many people as possible... from identifying the herbs and spices needed to using traditional cooking utensils like claypots to cook,” she said.
Kee’s cooking classes are not where students are given a demonstration, some recipes and then left to their own devices.
Her classes often start with a trip to the local wet market where the students get hands-on experience of choosing and picking their own ingredients, spices and herbs for their recipes.
Then she takes them back to her place in Pulau Tikus where she has a thriving herb garden and an outdoor kitchen where she conducts her classes.
Her students are then introduced to the Nyonya style of cooking using a pestle and mortar to pound small amounts of garlic or chillies and using the claypot to cook dishes like chicken rice and chicken curry.
Some of the famous Nyonya dishes she teaches are joo hoo char (stir-fried turnip), hong bak (braised pork), curry kapitan, sambal udang, nasi ulam, and many more.
With hundreds of different Nyonya recipes in her repertoire, some of which she shares in her upcoming cookbook, Kee will continue to share her love for Nyonya food.
“This is my way of keeping the Nyonya culture alive, by spreading it to all in the world and it is also my way of promoting Penang to the world,” she said.
So, the next time you hanker for some authentic Nyonya fare, you may want to check out Kee’s Nyonya cooking class so you can learn to make it on your own.
For more details on the cooking classes, go to Kee’s blog or call 016-437 4380.