Penang Nyonya cuisine is famous for its Thai, Malay and lndian influences. To me, this is the true beauty of Penang and Nyonya food, how a vibrant community made up of different cultures and ethnic groups built trust, became friends and eventually created great food that continues to be enjoyed today. – Pearly Kee
French novelist Marcel Proust once claimed, in one of his books, that a person’s olfaction possessed the power of unleashing a flurry of vivid memories, some from as far back as one’s childhood. Known today as the Proust phenomenon, this sensation isn’t the product of a famous writer’s fertile imagination, it has in fact been proven by research as a potent trigger for recollection – much more so than cues from other bodily senses.
This is probably what endears and attracts Nyonya cooking to many foodies from around the world – it’s rich taste and intoxicating aroma. These two characteristic features are a result of the key ingredients used in classic Nyonya dishes. Many recipes call for a myriad fragrant roots and herbs, some of which can be found growing wild. The combination of taste and aroma makes a lasting impression on the diner’s memory, long after a meal is over. “In Penang especially, we have Nyonya ingredients in abundance and many people are not making use of it,” says chef-author-teacher Pearly Kee, the star behind this week’s featured book Pearly’s Nyonya Pantry. “We have so many types of roots and our local folks don’t seem too fond of eating them, such as fresh turmeric, fresh ginger, galanggal, spring onion, key ginger, cekur or sand ginger… all of these are good for us because it’s nutritious and beneficial.”
Classic Nyonya dishes bring back delicious memories for many people. Thus the main focus of this book is to introduce the reader to the author’s childhood favourites and to share them. Pearly says that good Nyonya cooking is not complicated, and as long as you can find fresh, quality ingredients there’s nothing to stop you from recreating these wonderful recipes in your own kitchen. The inclusion of many photos of essential Nyonya kitchen ingredients is a helpful touch in identifying them, as some are rather unusual and seldom used elsewhere.
To motivate the would-be chef, Pearly has also thrown in priceless tidbits on the health benefits, superstitions and traditions associated with these ingredients and educate them about the food that would otherwise be taken for granted.
Have fun whipping up a gastronomic storm!
Pearly’s previous cookbook A Nyonya Inheritance, featuring 35 ho chiak (delicious) traditional Penang Nyonya recipes is still available at Areca Books.