Nasi kunyit helped me 'travel' to Penang from my kitchen in KL

The glutinous rice is soaked overnight with grounded turmeric and asam gelugor. Photos: CHESTER CHIN/The Star

Call me unadventurous, but some of my best travel experiences have been the year-end school holidays I spent in my home town in Penang as a young boy. I enjoy the journey from the Klang Valley and the sense of familiarity I get once I am back in the island city.

Holidaying in my own kampung gave me the opportunity to explore Penang without succumbing to the usual tourist traps. This includes eating at “hidden gem” hawker stalls that are only known to locals.

Another highlight of my trips back then was getting to spend time with my late grandmother at the old family home.

During the year-end period, my Ah Mah would prepare nasi kunyit for thanksgiving prayers. It’s a dish she mastered, thanks to my great-grandmother’s Peranakan roots.

Preparing the nasi kunyit helped the writer feel a sense of home town comfort.Preparing the nasi kunyit helped the writer feel a sense of home town comfort.For the uninitiated, nasi kunyit is glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and turmeric. It is usually eaten with chicken curry.

The Peranakans regard nasi kunyit as a festive dish. Traditionally, it is served to family and friends during a baby’s full moon celebration.

What I love about preparing nasi kunyit – or any cuisines, for that matter – in Penang, is the trips to the busy morning markets there to shop for ingredients.

Whenever I’m in a different state or country, I make it a point to visit the marketplace. I enjoy listening to buyers haggle for fresh produce and learning about local politics from patrons chatting at the coffee shops, while waiting for their wives to finish shopping.

Chowrasta Market: Where the action is

In Penang, we would usually visit the Chowrasta Market in George Town.

Located off Penang Road, Chowrasta Market is one of the busiest and oldest morning markets in George Town. This is a great place to get a glimpse of community life as many Penangites throng the market for their daily needs.

Chowrasta Market is very popular among locals and is a great one-stop place to shop for all your needs. - FilepicChowrasta Market is very popular among locals and is a great one-stop place to shop for all your needs. - Filepic

In fact, the market is a bit of a one-stop centre. Chances are you will find whatever you need in the vicinity – whether it’s Indian spices, fresh seafood, ulam, pajamas or joss sticks.

Tourists often stop here to shop for souvenirs like nutmeg products, pickles, medicated oils and other typical gifts such as T-shirt and keychains featuring the street art of Armenian Street.

Apart from shopping, the market is also a great place to feast on local delicacies such as chee cheong fun, wantan mee, char kuey teow and Hokkien mee (which is different from the Klang Valley Hokkien mee) at the kopitiams here.

Chowrasta Market went through a restoration for several years, but it still managed to retain its old world charm. Stalls line a long street which is flanked by old shop houses.

For travellers to Penang, the market is a great addition to their itinerary. I truly believe that visiting markets and supermarkets on your travels is a great way to broaden your cultural – and cooking – horizons.

At Chowrasta Market, the vendors are usually very accommodating and would happily respond to your queries. You might learn about new recipes and new ways of cooking through conversations with the sellers and other local customers.

It helps that the market and its surroundings have other touristy charms too.

The view of Komtar, Penang’s tallest building, juxtaposed against the shophouses, make for very beautiful photography.

And if you’re a foodie, the famous Penang Road cendol is just a stone’s throw away. We would usually stop for a bowl of the dessert after shopping for our nasi kunyit ingredients.

Hometown flavours

I didn’t travel back to Penang much last year due to the pandemic and movement control order. To honour my past hometown travels, I ventured into the kitchen recently and learned to cook nasi kunyit from my mother.

Instead of Chowrasta Market, we shopped at the neighbourhood grocery store. Sourcing for ingredients was easy as we were replicating a local cuisine. Since we were doing it in time for the year-end thanksgiving prayers in the morning, preparations started the day before.

My mother insisted on making the chicken curry from scratch. That meant preparing the spice mixture beforehand, to tumis (saute) the next day. As for the glutinous rice, we soaked it overnight with ground turmeric and tamarind peels.

The writer’s mother insisted that they make chicken curry from scratch, to complement the nasi kunyit.The writer’s mother insisted that they make chicken curry from scratch, to complement the nasi kunyit.

Cooking nasi kunyit is not too difficult though it does involve many steps. There were certainly some frustrating moments in the kitchen too.

My cooking skill is rudimentary at best, and Peranakan dishes – as my mother has reminded me many times – require finesse.

“Your chopping is so unrefined, ” my mother chided when she saw my haphazardly cut garlic and onions.

“You need to pay attention to your ingredients. Nyonya cuisine is fine because it also reflects the cook’s character. Besides, do you want people to choke while eating your food?” she jokingly added.

I definitely have a long way to go to meet my mother’s exacting standards in the kitchen!

The next morning, we woke up at 6am to begin cooking nasi kunyit. We started by preparing the chicken curry.

Once the curry was cooked, we drained the glutinous rice. After soaking overnight, the rice had been dyed in a beautiful yellow colour.

The glutinous rice was then scooped into a steaming tray, lined with banana leaves (which we harvested from our own garden).

After about 20 minutes of steaming, we poured coconut milk onto the rice and steamed it again. The nasi kunyit is ready after 20 minutes of cooking.

Savouring it later once the prayers were done, I am transported to the carefree school holidays period once again.

I’m counting down the days to when I can visit Penang and Chowrasta Market once it’s safe to travel.

If you’re thinking of replicating your favourite meals from your international or domestic travels, we’d love to see what you whipped up. Post your culinary creations on Instagram and tag us on @StarLifestyleMY.

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