Nyonya kitchen goddess

Picture by Choo Choy May
Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 11 -- With over 17 years of experience in the food industry, Peranakan chef and cookbook author Debbie Teoh is a true-blue Nyonya kitchen goddess. A childhood growing up in Malacca with a Malaccan Baba father and a Penangite Nyonya mother meant she learned from the best of both Straits Chinese cultures.

Besides writing cookbooks and running her own home catering business, Teoh also develops and tests recipes for companies, and contributes food articles and recipes to various magazines. Few can match her affinity for both northern and southern Nyonya cuisines, so it’s no surprise that she is also a Nyonya food consultant for Tourism Malaysia.

What was it like growing up in a traditional Peranakan household?

My father’s family spoke only English and Baba patois while my mother’s family spoke English and Penang-style Hokkien. I grew up in Malacca and always felt out of place as I could not speak Mandarin and Penang-style Hokkien was not widely used.

Peranakans have a very Colonial-inspired way of living. My paternal grandfather built a dance hall behind his house simply for ballroom dancing and playing the piano and violin. His wife, my Ah Ma, played the piano and went to school, which many girls did not do in those days. Ah Ma spoke impeccable English and had maids following her everywhere she went, like a real English lady.

How were you introduced to Peranakan cuisine?

I grew up eating all these authentic Peranakan dishes. When I was younger, we children would get into a frenzy when making huat kueh. We would mix the colours with a bamboo stick to swirl the tops and watch the huat kueh pop open after steaming.

Sadly when I started to work, the so-called Peranakan dishes I found being sold outside did not taste like the original. Back then, I was travelling back to Penang regularly. There, my aunts Annie Lim and Ah Choo Ee taught me everything they knew about Peranakan cooking, such as how to “agak-agak” or estimate the ingredients used.

The highlight of my early culinary journey was being asked to test and weed through a Nyonya cookbook by the Penang Peranakan Association. Even then, I had to go through an interview by the matriarchs of the association so they could check my roots!

How has the public’s perception of Peranakan cuisine changed over the years?

I find that the public is more aware than ever of Peranakan cuisine and its uniqueness, but unsure of what is really authentic. The term Peranakan or Nyonya has also become more “commercialised” with its increased popularity.

Peranakan food takes time to prepare, if it’s the real thing. For example, given two hours, you may only get one Nyonya dish, and that is if you’re a fast worker. Nyonya kueh is so tedious to prepare and it lasts only a day as it has to be fresh, and not refrigerated.

Yet folks would complain that Nyonya kueh costs RM1 to RM1.50 per piece while paying happily RM5 or more for a slice of ordinary cake at any shop! I could skim on the ingredients to bring down the price, but my golden rule of  thumb is only by using the best ingredients will you get the best results.

What’s your most popular Peranakan dish?

It really depends on the person. When I cook for Malaysians from the south, they will ask for buah keluak or pongteh. The northerners, however, will want hu pio (fish maw) soup, acar awak and sambal kiam hoo.

I am surprised that even Mat Salleh diners enjoy my keluak dishes! I had a very good response from them during one of my recent Nyonya dinners. I think they can appreciate the taste as it is similar to truffles.

If you look at the price folks are willing to pay for truffles, I can see how they can appreciate the work that goes into preparing a keluak dish – handpicking the nuts; two days of soaking; knocking at correct position to crack open the nut; removing the flesh, pounding and spicing the mixture before stuffing it back into the shells; and only then am I able to cook the dish!

I see no reason why Peranakan specialties such as keluak should not be on par with truffles and other Western ingredients or dishes. I would like to share with the world how amazing our Peranakan culture and cuisine is. This was fusion long before anyone knew about fusion; it’s so beautiful and colourful!

Debbie Teoh
Website: http://www.debbieteoh.com
Teoh will be doing a free cooking demonstration at the upcoming 26th Baba Nyonya International Convention 2013, Kuala Lumpur. Further details here: http://www.babanyonyaconvention.com

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on October 10, 2013.

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