10 things about: Pearly Kee, the Nyonya cook

Picture by K.E. Ooi
Picture by K.E. Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Jan 18 — She is a fifth-generation Nyonya who started cooking at a very young age under the stern guidance of her Nyonya aunts.

Today, Pearly Kee continues to cook Nyonya dishes for her monthly pop-up Nyonya dinners and on top of that, she also teaches Nyonya cooking to locals and tourists.

The 58-year-old published her first cookbook, A Nyonya Inheritance, two years ago and she is in the midst of publishing another on local herbs and spices.

Previously a QA manager in a manufacturing company, Kee only started indulging in her passion for cooking and Nyonya food after her retirement.

However, she only started teaching Nyonya cooking when she received enquiries from readers of her personal blog, my-island-penang.com.

Here, she talks about her passion for food and Nyonya cooking.

In her own words:

  • I’m at my happiest now because I’m doing what I like… cooking has always been my passion. I still remember growing all those herbs and spices from young days. I think we all need to go back to basics, eating simple food, to care for our own health. This is so important because we should always remember that food is our medicine and it should be healing every day.
  • As for what I’m doing now, so far, the last four years have been the peak of my cooking career, teaching, not solely cooking for the sake of cooking but teaching. Teaching people about eating natural food, about eating wholesome food, about eating fresh produce and also encouraging them to grow their own vegetables...
  • We’ve come to a stage where sometimes we waste a lot of things. I would like people to understand that life is about treasuring what we have and eating what we can grow and enjoying it to make us more healthy or else life is meaningless if you are not eating the right kind of food. The right kind of food doesn’t actually mean expensive food. Right kind of food can also mean daun kadok fried with egg omelette, or bitter gourd fried with egg omelette, you know, something simple.
  • There are a lot of benefits from our local herbs, spices and produce that many don’t realise. Like our coconut. The seed inside a very old coconut — in Hokkien its called hongbongif you eat that, it helps you to repair and clear your goiter, thyroid and sore throat. In my garden, we have “bile of the earth” or “akar cerita” or the Chinese call it “khor thim”, it’s a very bitter leaf but it’s good for sore throat, cough, so if you eat three of the leaves, your phlegm will clear up.
  • I’m not saying modern medicine is bad. What I’m saying is that you should find it in your garden, you should eat all these things from your garden. They are not going to taste very nice, they are going to be very bitter, very sour but these things are full of anti-oxidant properties.
  • And we have so many types of roots and our own locals do not eat roots, like, fresh turmeric, fresh ginger, galanggal, spring onion, key ginger, cekur or sand ginger… all these are good for us because it’s full of vitamin B complex and then it’s nerve strengthening. All these roots will strengthen your nerves. You see how wonderful these are? But we are not eating all these.
  • This is where Nyonya cooking comes in because when we are cooking Nyonya food, we use all kinds of roots, herbs and fresh ingredients from our own garden. Malaysia, Penang, we have lots of these in abundance and a lot of people are not making use of it.
  • For me, I want to encourage people to go back to their country, to be more aware of what they grow, all the herbs and spices, it can be anything they have in their country, it should be good enough. But not growing it and not eating it or eating too much processed food, we are not going to be very healthy. It’s foodless food, you know what I mean?
  • When I was young, as a Nyonya girl living at home, your aunties and uncles will make sure you have the four prerequisites of a Nyonya girl; you must be able to sew, you must be able to embroider your clothes, you must be able to make beaded shoes and finally, you must be able to cook and clean. So if you have four daughters, each daughter will specialise in one skill, so when we have two, we have to take our pick so cooking and cleaning became my specialty. When I wanted to teach cooking, it took me a year to prepare myself to be able to teach. Teaching has to be very mindful so that you don’t hurt people, do it carefully. Teaching is important and fun. I’m still teaching cooking classes.
  • I’m also running monthly dinners, a lot of my guests want to eat more than three dishes when they come so for the past two years, I’ve been making eight dishes every month. On the last weekend of the month that coincides with the Penang Global Tourism’s Last Fri, Sat, Sun events. On the last Saturday of every month, we will be promoting Nyonya food so that people will make their bookings and most of the time it’s full. It’s going to end this June because I’ve fulfilled my promise to my publisher to cook 300 dishes. The Nyonya monthly dinners at home will stop in June but we are now working with someone to pair the Nyonya food with wine at another location. So, in the next few months, you will hear about that. I am sure it’s going to be a big hit.

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