Cooking and the art of becoming a true-blue nonya

  • Food News
  • Friday, 28 Aug 2015

Married into a Penang Peranakan family, Lee Su Pei had to learn how to be a nyonya.

When I got married to a baba who is the eldest son, I was thrust into the world of the Peranakans. The family placed high expectations on the eldest daughter-in-law – that’s ME!

That meant I was in line to be the next matriarch of the family! The pressure was great for me to learn how to be one so that I could assume the responsibility to pass the culture, heritage and family recipes to the next generation.

In my personal opinion, nonya cuisine is all about family recipes that have been passed down for generations, forever intertwined with the stories of the characters behind the dishes, the heritage, and cooking with love, deep from the heart.

In the past, cooking rice, fried chicken, fried eggs, and instant noodles was “cooking” to me but my nonya family disagreed. My husband told me “this is not cooking” by his family’s standards. I was humbled as the whole family can cook very well, including the men.

I had to undergo “military training” under the strict supervision of my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law, learning how to cook from scratch.

Training was hard. I had to wake up in the morning before the rest of the family to prepare the kitchen and clean the house. It’s a discipline the daughters and daughters-in-law have to inculcate, to learn to be resilient and hardworking. I persevered through the years to gain the trust of my elders so that they would entrust their cooking secrets to me.

Learning to cook was not easy as the matriarchs employed the “agak-agak” method, pretty much a “hit and miss” for me. Ingredients were measured by pinches of herbs and spices, to be added here and there. I found it very hard to emulate the authentic taste of the family matriarchs’ cooking and took the initiative to measure every ingredient before it was thrown into the pot.

During my free time, I would sit down to listen to the kitchen tales of my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law whom I regarded as mentors. That’s when I learnt about the ingredients and techniques, and discovered new recipes.

Married into a Penang Peranakan family, Lee Su Pei had to learn how to be a nyonya.
Married into a Penang Peranakan family, Lee Su Pei had to learn how to be a nyonya.

The men of the family – my father-in-law, brother-in-law and my husband – were my food critics. If the food was not up to par, the men would just leave the dining table. At first, I felt very disheartened that after a whole day of toil, sweat and tears, nobody appreciated my cooking and even boycotted my food.

The women would console me and encouraged me to be a better cook. Both my mentors were so proud of their culinary expertise and the men acknowledged their achievements. They also guarded their recipes jealously; they kept their cooking techniques so secretive, I felt like I was working for the CIA.

Cooking techniques and recipes were passed down verbally only to daughters and daughters-in-law of the family and not meant to be shared with the outside world as food was the secret weapon to keep the family together; the yearning for a taste of home cooking being the nostalgic glue sending out a clarion call to draw the whole family back for a reunion.

My two mentors could talk about sambal belacan the whole day, making comparisons about whose sambal was the better and et cetera. The sambal belacan debate could get quite personal! I was often caught in the middle of the crossfire as I would be asked to be the judge. Thank God I have an understanding hubby who would come to my rescue every time I got stuck between the ladies!

The family recipes are unique and my mentors wished me to emulate the “family taste” exactly – to a 100% sameness – so that the particular tastes will be imprinted in the minds of family members and come to mind every time they think about home-cooked food. A taste programming, if you like.

As no one else can cook “like mother”, mother will forever remain the sons’ and daughters’ idol.

I still remember the distinctive tastes of Ah Ma’s Kiam Chye Boey and Mother’s Ayam Buah Keluak, and my mother-in-law telling me “to hold a man’s heart through his palate”. Her intention was to let both of us think of each other all the time through our food.

And she’s so right! I find that every time I dished out nonya dishes, my husband will come running back to my arms.

The day my brother-in-law told me, “Ah So, your Curry Chicken and Lor Bak are exactly like Ah Ma’s!” I knew I had made it; I am “there”.

I cried, and gave thanks to my two beloved mentors.

I am now 40, and the matriarch of the family. I can still remember grandma’s words telling me to cook with heart and passion, because the person eating the food can sense the mood of the cook.

Grandma had this uncanny skill of being able to sense the mood of a character from the tempo of the pounding of sambal belacan using the mortar and pestle ....

Lee Su Pei will be at the George Town Festival this weekend for the North-South Peranakan Cook-off

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