I first met Pearly a year ago at her last-Saturday-of-the-month dinner when she invites the public into her home and nourishes them with both food and tales of growing up in Penang. She's a guru of Nyonya cuisine, the intermingling of Chinese food with the spices of the tropics and hints of Indian and Malay flavors. It was fusion before fusion was trendy. Now, I wanted to learn how to cook these generations-old dishes in my own kitchen.
Which Class to Choose?
I considered both her classes at the Tropical Spice Garden up in beachy Batu Feringhi as well as the one held in her home nearer to historic George Town. Her home won out because it also included a tour of nearby Pulau Tikus Wet Market. I've been shopping in wet markets for the last few years, but as I suspected, there was still much I could learn from her. Pearly's open, kind nature made spending the morning with her like hanging out with a friend. Her personable husband, Chandra, also joined us, assisting Pearly throughout the class.
Wandering the Wet Market
Pearly led us around the wet market, stopping to point out interesting vegetables and fruits while telling us about their culinary and medicinal properties. Did you know that grouper fish head, large as a dinner plate, is a good source of collagen? Simmered for 2-3 hours, the broth becomes gelatinous. It's the Nyonya secret to looking and moving like a younger person.
|Pearly shows us around the Pulau Tikus Wet Market|
Pearly has been shopping here for decades and knows the market community quite well. Showing us the betel nut that is the island's namesake — "Penang" is the Malay word for "betel nut" — she explained that chewing it gave people both an energy boost and red-stained gums and teeth. Calling over one regular seller, Pearly asked him to give us a big, toothy grin that displayed evidence of years of betel nut chewing.
We also had samples of achar (pickled vegetable salad) and nasi ulum (jungle herb rice) from a bicycle pushcart and even got to each try our hand at squeezing out strands of putu mayong, a south Indian snack, onto the large steamer basket for them to cook streetside. We then all took a seat around a table at the hawker stall and ordered the local kopi (coffee) traditionally made with Liberica beans roasted in butter or teh tarik (pulled tea) which is another iconic Malaysian drink.
Exploring the Home Garden
After the wet market, we all drove to Pearly's home which is only a few blocks away. She showed us around her home garden where she grows herbs to use in her cooking. Torch ginger, lemongrass, galangal, and pandan all had their spot around her small yard. Some of the plants were both decorative and flavorful. Plucking flowers from her blue pea flower vine by the side of the road, she handed them around explaining that Nyonyas soak them in hot water and use the natural extract to color rice and cakes blue. The blooms are high in anti-oxidants, and the roots are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat asthma, epilepsy, depression, anxiety and memory loss.
|Nibbling on Blue Pea Flower freshly picked in Pearly's garden|
Let's Get Cooking
After washing up, it was time for us to get started cooking. Individual work stations were set up under the covered porch by the side of the house. Each person had their own stove, chopping board, and ingredients. I really like this setup as it allows each person to have hands-on experience without getting into each others way.
We started by pounding galangal, a root similar to ginger, to bruise it before dropping it into a large bowl of water that would serve as our veggie wash throughout class. According to Pearly, galangal's medicinal properties include fighting both parasites and fungus. One student had been having a bit of tummy trouble since arriving in SE Asia, so Pearly steeped galangal in hot water for her to drink as an herbal remedy.
|Spices on the shelf|
Today's class included three traditional Nyonya dishes: Ngoh Hiang Lor Bak (5-spice pork rolls), Tau Eu Bak (pork stewed in dark sauce), and Sambal Udang (prawn with sambal sauce). One of the married couples arranged to stay behind and learn how to make laksa noodle soup since that was one of the meals they shared when they first started dating. We received printed copies of each recipe that we could follow and mark notes on as we cooked. They are also available in her excellent cookbook, Pearly's Penang: A Nyonya Heritage, available at shops around town.
Pearly and Chandra distributed ingredients to each person's work station as we chatted about the morning's discoveries at the wet market. Pearly took us through the steps of creating each dish. As with her monthly dinner, each one is accompanied by descriptions of its culinary origins and Pearly's recollections of growing up and living in Penang. This is not just a cooking class; we were learning about local life, too.
Pearly peeked into each person's clay pot as the tau eu bak simmered on the stove to make sure that it wasn't getting too dry or overcooked. "Turn down your fire," she'd tell one person and say "Add a little water" to another. It was the type of cooking help that you can't get reading a recipe or watching a video. She reminisced about her father's claypot that he would use to make his favorite tau eu bak and how black it was on the outside from soy sauce and years of cooking.
|Tau Eu Bak (Pork stewed in Dark Sauce) simmering in a clay pot|
We peeled prawns while Pearly used a blender to grind the spice paste for Sambal Udang. Asking us what level of spiciness we preferred, she adjusted the chiles to suit our taste. As we fried everything together in the wok, the pungent smell of sambal (dried shrimp paste) rose up to scent the air.
|Everyone looks on as Pearly demonstrates prawn cooking techniques|
She demonstrated the technique of tightly rolling the 5-spice pork filling in sheets of dried beancurd to make ngoh hiang lor bak. We each went back to our own stations to try it ourselves, and Pearly had some of us re-roll them tighter so they wouldn't come apart during deep frying.
|Deep frying lor back (pork rolls)|
Time to Eat
The moment we were all waiting for finally arrived. Chandra helped us bring each plate inside to their dining room so that we could all sit down and enjoy our freshly prepared food.
|What a delicious meal!|
I asked the other students what led them to Pearly's Penang Homecooking Class. Some of them were foodies and learning how to cook the local cuisine was one of the goals of their visit to the island. Others had found her through TripAdvisor where it is ranked the #1 activity to do in George Town. The last couple had simply asked their hotel for recommendations and were directed to this excellent class. Our hosts regaled us with more tales of Penang and of their recent travels through Australia and New Zealand where they had been invited to do a cooking class tour to spread authentic Nyonya dishes to the southern hemisphere.
Everyone had more than enough to eat. We stuffed ourselves full and went back for more. As the only student who was not staying in a hotel, I lucked out by the others generously giving me their leftovers to take home. Pearly had a few of her cookbooks on hand, and we purchased them and had her sign them as a memento of our excellent morning. At the end, Chandra drove the other guests back to their hotels where he had picked them up a mere 4 hours ago.
|Myself, Pearly, and Chandra|
I highly recommend Pearly's class if you are visiting Penang for a short stay or even if you have lived here for years. In addition to Nyonya food, she also teaches Street Hawker Food and spicy Indian dishes. While the wet market tour and class at her house is my first choice, I think that her class at the Tropical Spice Garden which includes a tour of the garden would be a fun alternative. If you are not the cooking type but still want to enjoy Pearly and Chandra's food and conversation, look into her monthly Nyonya Makan dinner or arrange for a private set lunch or dinner.
IF YOU GO:
- To book a class at Pearly's home, see her website My Island Penang. If you are the first to book in advance for the session, you may be able to select which 3 dishes you would like the class to learn. Cost: RM250, including transport to/from hotel
- To book a class at the Tropical Spice Garden, see their class schedule. Cost: RM220
- Nyonya Makan dinner is the last Saturday of each month at 7:30PM. Cost: RM50
- Contact Pearly at email@example.com
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