PETALING JAYA: A Malaysian chef drawing on the complex culinary heritage of the Portuguese Eurasian community and combining it with warm family memories and a dash of creativity has whipped up the Kristang cuisine at the world stage.
On Sunday night, Melba Nunis’ A Kristang Family Cookbook was deemed Best in the World in the Woman Chef category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (GWCA) in Yantai, China.
The book was up against contenders from France, Italy, Britain and Morocco, among others. Past winners in the category have included such renowned names as French chef Anne-Sophie Pic.
Malacca-born Nunis called her win “unexpected”, saying “I am honoured that Edouard Cointreau (founder and president of the GWCA) and his panel felt that my simple collection of memories is worthy of such an award”.
“My book includes precious memories of my family and childhood. I wrote it as a gift to my family, to my heritage and to the world,” she said.
Nunis said being onstage at the awards in China was incredibly moving.
“Behind us, onscreen, there was my book cover ... including a photo of my mother holding me as a child, for the world to see! I could not hide the quiver in my voice as I struggled to remember all I was supposed to say. I hadn’t prepared a speech.
“My (late) mother would be beside herself with glee if she were here,” said Nunis.
Co-written by two of Nunis’ daughters, Cheryl Victor and Alison Elfwing, with recipes tested by youngest daughter Stacey Jane Victor, A Kristang Family Cookbook sprang from a collection of over 200 handwritten recipes once hidden in a shoebox in Nunis’ closet.
These belonged to Nunis’ mother, Mercy, and were given new life in Nunis’ own kitchen – especially when she opened Simply Mel’s in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur, in 2011, a restaurant specialising in her own brand of Kristang cuisine.
In addition to recipes for traditional dishes like kari debal (debal or “devil” curry, a unique curry with lashings of vinegar), the book also includes original family favourites, like the black sotong sambal created by Nunis’ grandfather.
Portuguese Eurasians, or the Kristang, are a unique Eurasian minority in Malaysia and Singapore whose roots could be traced to 15th-century Malacca when Portuguese sailors and traders married local women. The Dutch later replaced the Portuguese as the dominant colonial power in the area, adding to the cultural mix. There are some British influences as well, due to inter-marriage.
“This win is not just personal but for the Kristang community. People will come looking for Kristang food, and they will go to Malacca!” said Nunis.
A Kristang Family Cookbook was published by Marshall Cavendish in 2014.
Nunis plans to launch a second book at the end of this year.
“I hope one day to see Kristang food being spoken of in the same way as we talk about our other wonderful cuisines in Malaysia.”