Cooking in Penang is a foodie’s dream. Root vegetables, fresh fish, belacan, dragon fruit, peanut pancakes, coconut milk, nutmeg tea… I could go on!
I recently had the opportunity to participate in an all-day cooking class with Pearly Kee (aka…Kitchen Goddess) from the Penang Homecooking School. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the food industry. Experienced Michelin chefs have come to Penang to learn from her. And she has shared her techniques at top festivals around the world.
Our class began with a tour of the wet market. We were able to touch and smell all types of vegetables, fruits, and more. And we learned the history behind the Nyonya cuisine we would be cooking.
Nyonya is a fusion of Chinese and Malay ingredients as well as Thai influence here in Northern Malaysia and Indonesian flavors to the south. The cuisine dates back to Pearly’s ancestors. When early Chinese settlers married Malays, their cuisines were wed as well.
You’ll actually find that Nyonya dishes in Penang are not as spicy as one may think. When the British took control of the island in the 1700s, they requested that their cooks (Pearly’s ancestors) make the food mild to suit their taste buds.
We also learned about the importance of each ingredient. An emphasis on the medicinal purposes of food is of utmost importance in Malaysia, instead of focusing first on the flavor. Spices are added to enhance the taste, but what a food can do for your body is the foundation of any dish.
Pearly is well known at the market. She’s been teaching 6 days a week for 8 years. Her friendships with some of the street food vendors proved to be a benefit for us. We tasted the most amazing peanut pancake in Penang and had freshly steamed putu mayam.
After the market, we headed to Pearly and her husband, Chandra’s home. There were cooking stations set up on a large patio. The atmosphere and their hospitality were a perfect combination. We enjoyed the comfort of a home and the professionalism of a top-rated cooking school.
The menu for the day was Otak-Otak (fish mouse steamed in a banana leaf), Ngor Hiang Lor Bak (5 spice meat roll wrapped in a beansheet and fried) with a chili sauce, and Kerabu Kay (steamed chicken in a spicy sauce).
We listened intently to Pearly as she graciously walked through each step of the recipes with us. She gave us helpful hints when using certain kitchen tools, shared countless stories that we’ll take with us as cherished memories, and all the while kept reminding us about the importance of each food for our bodies. We walked away with so much more than a cooking lesson and few new recipes.
And for the finale…we gathered at tables in their home and ate what our hands had made. Every bite was better than the next. It can be summed up by the words of a fellow student… “The flavors are dancing in my mouth!”
If you’re in Penang, I highly recommend the Penang Homecooking School. And if you’re like me, you’ll be ready to repeat the class before your first experience ends!
Check out this short video from our cooking class.
by Julie Slagter