What is Nyonya Cuisine?Baba men and Nyonya women are Peranakans, the descendants of early Chinese immigrants in Malaysia and Singapore's old Straits settlements. Centuries before fusion food became trendy, these immigrants adapted their traditional, homeland recipes to incorporate ingredients commonly found in the new, tropical climate. With a bit of intermingling with their Malay neighbors, Nyonya cuisine was born. For those who do not have their own Nyonya grandmother or mother to teach them family recipes, Pearly Kee is the person to turn to.
Feasting on Homecooked FoodPearly and her helpers worked in her kitchen for two days preparing all the food for the dinner. The yummy dishes were laid out on her veranda with helpful signs and explanations accompanying each platter.
|Achat Awak - Mixed vegetables cooked in a spicy sauce|
I enjoyed the crunchy vegetables and spiciness of this Achat Awak. Carrots, cabbage, pineapple, long beans and sesame seeds provided contrasting notes. Pearly was so kind as to pack some up at the end of the meal for me to take home for the next day, too. After marinating all night, the vegetables really did have quite a hot kick to them.
|Chap Chai Char - Stir-fried vegetables, glass noodles and black fungus cooked with bean paste|
The Chap Chai Char was my favorite dish because it reminded me so much of the homecooked dinners I've enjoyed in my Chinese aunt's kitchen in Texas. It was like the scene from Ratatouille where the critic takes one bite and is suddenly transported back to his childhood. I've always enjoyed the crunch and flavor of woodear black fungus, and the glass noodles made of mung beans soaked up the flavorful sauce.
I also went back for seconds of the Kari Kay (Curry Chicken and Potatoes) with Roti Jala (batter drizzled across the griddle and cooked into a net-like crepe). I must have been so overwhelmed with all the delightful offerings because I forgot to take a picture of it. No time to snap photos! Must.eat.now. The Steamed Egg with Minced Pork came in individual bowls and had a salted egg yolk nestled inside. Nasi Kunyit (Sticky Yellow Rice) rounded out the offerings for the the main part of our meal.
|Gandum - Wheat Porridge with caramelized tapioca tidbit|
My husband said the dessert of Gandum (wheat porridge) reminded him of the very Western bowl of oatmeal he had for breakfast that morning except not as sweet. I had to ask what the caramelized chunk laid on top was because I couldn't quite pinpoint the taste. When my table companion said it was tapioca, I didn't believe him because I'm so accustomed to eating it in its highly processed form of pearls from a box boiled into tapioca pudding. This tapioca was in its more natural state of just being cut off the tuber. While researching this blog post, I realized that tapioca is also called cassava which I'm very familiar with through all the Filipino food I ate growing up.
|Kuih - traditional Nyonya cakes made of steamed glutinous rice|
Sliced starfruit and guava were the other dessert course offerings. Once again, I was reminded of my Texas home as my mother in Houston used to grow guavas until an usually long cold spell killed off her trees.
A concoction of dragonfruit juice and Sprite sated our thirst. I was definitely gulping it down when I sampled some of the spicier dishes.
Relaxing with ConversationWhile we dined, Pearly told us about Nyonya food and culture. In the olden days, families would have elaborate dinners to show off their unmarried daughters. The eligible girls would dress up for the guests and hold silk handkerchiefs up in front of their mouths while politely nibbling on tiny morsels of food. Only an uncouth young woman would dare to gnaw on food without shielding her mouth from view. Bite-size Inche Kabin (Lipstick chicken) was perfect for polite eating, not even mussing up their lipstick while they ate. Other stories were more personal about growing up in Penang. If you're very nice, she may let you take a sniff of the aptly named Chicken Poo leaves from her garden.
|Pearly, in the red shirt, attentively listens to the other guests at the dinner.|
The dinner turned out to be a very enjoyable experience of good food and delightful company. The group the night I attended in May was mostly local Penangites, a few good friends of Pearly, and a couple tourists who weren't able to fit into her cooking class. While I had feared that it might turn into an awkward dinner where we dashed after staying the obligatory amount of time dictated by decorum, Pearly's friendliness set everyone at ease.
She holds these Dine with Pearly dinners at her home once a month and charges RM50 per person. Her website lists the upcoming months' buffet menu which change for each dinner, but she sometimes makes additions if the she feels to urge or if someone has a special requests. Private dinners may also be arranged if she has time in her schedule.
|A Nyonya Inheritance, Pearly's new cookbook|
Her New CookbookPearly recently released a cookbook of 35 favorite recipes entitled A Nyonya Inheritance. I've already bought a few copies to give as gifts when I return to Texas. She tells you a little bit about growing up Nyonya and gives a background about the cuisine. You can also take an armchair tour of the local wet market with pictures and introductions to the vendors she meets while shopping for ingredients.
The recipes themselves are well written, and I really like that she breaks the complicated ones apart with separate ingredient lists for the different components instead of running them all together into one long list. Pictures accompany each recipe, and she sometimes includes pertinent tips, too. She's realistic in that she illustrates the 11 steps of making coconut leaf parcels for Otak-otak (fish mousse) but ends it with an "if you're feeling lazy" alternative. Pearly gets extra bonus points for choosing spiral binding so that the book stays open while I'm cooking. Click here to get your own copy of the book on-line or while you are in Penang.
If You Want to Attend
- Dinners are the last Saturday of the month and begin at 7:30 p.m. at her Pilau Tikus home
- View each month's menu at Dine with Pearly as it changes each time
- Full cost is RM50 per person with a RM10 deposit at booking time
- Make your booking at the bottom of Pearly's Keep in Touch page.
Penang Homecooking Class with Pearly Kee
Penang Cooking Schools
Dining Like a Local
Malaysian Dining in Houston, Texas
Mystery Fruit: Dragonfruit