Penang is one of the great foodie hot spots of the world. For such a small place it has the most amazingly diverse range of cuisine – Indian, Malay, Chinese and Nyonya (a mixture of Malaysian and Chinese). Each cuisine has its own distinct flavours and cooking styles and on this tiny island they all sit beautifully together.
The list of things to do is off the scale – you have to head through the packed food markets, bursting with bright colours and smells, to see the all the magnificent local produce. You must eat dim sum on the street, straight out of a giant metal steamer, doused in rich soy sauce and chilli.
It is imperative you wander the streets of ‘Little India’ and eat roti canai from a cart, to the high-pitched sound of Hindi music. Lunch on a Malay-style buffet, where you can choose from endless dishes, laid-out in front of you. Experience the hybrid Nyonya food in all its glory – the Nyonya laksa made with fat rice noodles, courgettes, red chillies, onions, mint and greens, boiled quickly in a hot fishy stock, and then finished off with a rich coconut broth is utter heaven.
With all this to take in, a bit of solid cooking class to help get to grips with the different ingredients, techniques and flavour combinations is the best way forward. Nazlina is the person to go to. This plucky woman, who told me off on the bus for not working hard enough, can cook like a dream and is a pleasure to spend time with. She runs cooking classes from her workshop, or Nazlina’s Spice Station as she likes to call it, from George Town.
We began our lesson making a classic Malay curry – Chicken Rendang. We started off by loading up a huge pestle and mortar with masses of garlic, ginger and chillies, which you only ever snap by hand to keep the taste, and pounding them into a smooth paste for our curry.
Next we needed some coconut milk. Now we are very used to coconut milk. You go to the shop, buy it in a can, open can and pour – voila. Not here you don’t! I was presented with what looked like an instrument of torture, which resembled a stool with a giant spike on it! Fear not, it was actually a coconut grater.
First thing’s first. Opening the coconut. Naz taught me how to do this perfectly. First we removed the husk, which revealed three dots at one end. This was the top of the coconut where the root would have grown from. One hole was bigger than the others and we turned the coconut round so that this hole was on the bottom. Directly above were three lines. The central one was the crack line. Naz directed me along this line to the centre of the coconut. I whacked this line with a small hammer and the coconut began to split open. With a bit more rolling and whacking the coconut opened with a near perfect split. No word of a lie, first time!
Once opened I was set to task grating the snow-white flesh of the coconut into a bucket. We wrapped the precious ingredient in muslin and gave it a good squeeze. This ‘first press’ produced real coconut cream. The flavour was unbelievable. It was rich and smooth, but beautifully fresh at the same time.
The leftover coconut was dry fried until golden and then ground into a rich peanut butter-like substance called kerisik. This was so tasty – move over Sunpat. In a curry it worked like magic, adding epic amounts of flavour and giving the sauce a beautiful silky texture. Once prepped, we fried off our spices and chucked in the kerisik, huge shards of lemongrass, chillies and our coconut cream. Chicken was added and the whole thing was cooked slowly until tender and thick.
As the curry simmered, Naz directed me through a creamy coconut rice with more of our fabulous hand-pressed coconut cream and a tart pineapple salad. It was a beautiful meal and a superb introduction to the fabulous cuisine of Malaysia. Naz even slipped in her own recipes for nasi lemak, a Malaysian breakfast curry served with boiled eggs, as we ate. It was the perfect end to her fabulous cooking class and a wonderful day.
For More information