I’ll never forget my visit to Penang, a busy island on the west coast of Malaysia.
I’d been invited by the Sydney-based food writer Carol Selva Rajah to join a group of foodies on a tour and although I knew something about Malaysian food, I’d not then discovered the spicy, aromatic Nonya cuisine.
Carol is one of the foremost exponents of Malaysian and Nonya cuisine in Australia and has written many cookbooks.
So when she invited me last week to a special Nonya meal followed by a play based on the life of a Nonya woman, I couldn’t refuse.
The play, Emily of Emerald Hill, has received rave reviews in Singapore and Malaysia – and after its premier in at the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston (Wollongong) last week, I understand why.
Actress Pearlly Chua takes us inside the home of a wealthy Nonya household in located near Orchard Road Singapore, skilfully moving with grace and ease from frightened young girl to shy child to domineering woman.
Her performance is mesmerising. In one scene she cooks a dish (without props), taking us through the recipe step by step and is so convincing that you can almost smell the food being cooked.
Carol’s banquet before the show included satays, curry puffs and crab rolls followed by Ikam Assam Joo chiat, Achar Penang, Nasi Lemak, Kambing Manis, Nonya Prawns and Beef Rendang. For dessert, she offered sticky black rice with coconut milk and tropical fruit.
Carol explained to me that Nonya food has been difficult to document because the dishes are complicated and measurements were done by guessing (agak) and learnt by watching and practice. It is hot and spicy, calling for the use of a lot of pungent roots, aromatic leaves, chillies, red eschalots, candlenuts and shrimp paste.
Pounding these spices to the right consistency (rempah) takes years to master, which is why Nonya food is difficult to find in restaurants and even in hawker stalls. Prospective brides were judged on the quality of their rempah. Most Nonya food is cooked in the home but with smaller families and women going out to work, it’s becoming difficult to find even in Penang.
Some locals predict it will die out soon, a good reason to hurry to Penang and Malacca – and to catch Pearlly Chua in this wonderful play which will be staged at the Zenith Centre, Chatswood , first week of March.
Cost: $110 per person and includes a Peranakan Dinner.