Pamela MacNaughtan

One of the things I have learned to appreciate during my travels is food. Yes, I appreciated food before I started traveling, but traveling has helped me to appreciate foods from various cultures. A few years ago you wouldn’t be able to bribe me to eat Indian food. I wouldn’t go near it. Now, I’m head-over-heels in love with it.

The Tropical Spice Garden in Penang is located north of Batu Ferringhi, in a secondary jungle which used to be the location of a rubber plantation. A stroll through the garden is a recommend on any day -yes, I even enjoy it on a rainy day. The gardens and jungle are beautiful and well maintained. The guides are friendly and knowledgeable, and who can pass up laying in a hammock or riding a giant swing in a tropical jungle atmosphere!

Although the gardens are lovely and a welcome retreat from the city, there is more on offer at The Tropical Spice Garden than garden paths. In May of this year, the Tropical Spice Garden opened a cooking school. The cooking school offers classes in Nyonya, Indian, Cantonese and Malay food, and strives to use the spices grown within the garden. As I food-lover and as someone who loves to cook and experiment, I was keen to check out the cooking school at Tropical Spice Garden. I just love the idea of learning ethnic dishes from locals while travelling.

Due to my schedule this week, my time was quite limited. So, I chose to attend the cooking school this past Tuesday. Once the class was booked, I stopped by the Tropical Spice Garden website to check-out what was on the menu for Tuesday. Nyonya food. Hmmm…I’ve never heard of Nyonya food. After a quick google search of the items on the menu, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cook Nyonya food. However, I decided to suck it up and go to cooking class. I’m glad I did.

The morning began with a guided tour of the Tropical Spice Garden. Bea was an excellent guide, who knew seemed everything about the garden. A former banker, Bea left her job a couple years ago and became a nature guide on the island. Although I’m sure she was a fine banker, I can say without a doubt that she is an amazing guide. In fact, if you’re planning a visit to the garden and want a guided tour, ask for either Bea or her husband Joseph. They are both excellent.

After our guided tour, it was time to head over to the cooking school where we would meet our teacher, Pearly Kee, don aprons and learn about Nyonya food.

Our first dish was Otak Otak -which Google described as a fish cake. I can say, this dish is nothing like a fish cake. After introducing ourselves, we were directed to individual work stations. Each student has their own prepping/chopping area, cooking area, and ingredients.

Pearly is a patient teacher and although many of the students were guides from the garden (guides are learning dishes in order to help them have a full understanding of the spices and how they are used), she took the time to explain and help each student through the preparation process. As Pearly spoke I listened carefully and made mental notes of certain ingredients. The spices are easy to obtain in Malaysia (as they should be), but I’m not sure if I can find all of them in Canada.

Our first step when preparing to make Otak Otak (when saying this, the ‘k’ is silent), was to blanch banana leaves for wrapping and steaming later on. Once the banana leaves were blanched, we gently wiped them down with a clean rag and set them aside for later. Our next step was the prepare the Otak Otak, which would go inside the banana leaves. I listened carefully as Pearly guided us through chopping the garlic, onion, fresh turmeric, ginger, chillies, and lemongrass. Once the ingredients were chopped (Pearly is very specific about this part) each of us placed our spice mixture into a blender and blended them until the mixture was fine.

Once the spice mixture was blended, we poured it into a bowl and added the coconut milk, egg, rice flour, kaffir lime, pepper and some salt and sugar. Then mixed it all together. Once it everything was mixed, we added either shrimp or strips of white fish and mixed until all the fish was coated. It’s important to have 2/3 sauce-type mixture to 1/3 fish. Once everything was mixed we figured out how many pieces of fish per banana leaf bundle (based on the amount of fish vs the number of banana leaf wrappers) and went to work folding and staple our yummy concoction within the banana leaves.

Once our bundles were ready, we placed them inside a steamer for 20 minutes and went on to making our second dish, Jiew Hu Char. Now, this was the dish I was dreading more than the Otak Otak. As soon as I saw it contained cuttlefish (which are dried and in strips and have to be soaked in water a few times first). I enjoy eating fish, but I am a bit of a fish snob. I stick to about 4 varieties. Shellfish is my preferred fish of choice. That being said, I decided to keep my mouth shut and give the dish a go.

Similar to the Otak Otak, we were given the ingredients for the dish and put to work. Chopping Jicama into fine strips was more of a challenge than I thought, and I learned a new way to slice cabbage, finely. Soaking and squeezing the cuttlefish was definitely not my favourite part. When the jicama, onion, garlic, carrot, and cabbage were ready, it was time to start stir frying and getting the dish ready. I listened carefully (once again) to Pearly and made a mental note to buy a wok if I ever have my own place again. When the dish was ready, we poured it into a bowl and lined the edge with a fresh lettuce leaf.

Now that both of our Nyonya dishes were ready, it was time for a class photo with our dishes (I don’t have a copy of that photo at the moment, sorry!) before we walked out to the gazebo to have lunch. Pearly made two versions of Green Mango Salad, as well as Rice and Lemonade to go with the food we prepared.

As we all sat down, we chatted excitedly with one another. Some of us had been cooking with white fish, while others had used shrimp in their Otak Otak. Tracy (who was taking the class with me) had cooked with tofu as she is sensitive to shell fish, which was great (not the allergy) as we had a chance to try a few varieties of each dish.

Lunch was lovely and relaxed. One bite into my Otak Otak and I was IN LOVE! In fact, I have not stopped raving about this dish since. I am definitely tackling Otak Otak back in Canada. The Jiew Hu Char was good, but I’m not a fan of cuttlefish. I think if I make it again, I would leave the cuttlefish out.

Cooking classes are definitely a splurge when you’re travelling, however, they can be a great way to experience and learn local food and culture. Nyonya food is a fusion between Chinese and Malay which occurred when the Chinese settlers came to Penang and started to inter-marry. Unfortunately, Nyonya food is not as popular as it once was, and it’s slowly disappearing from the area. If you’re in Penang and want to learn authentic Nyonya food (or Indian or Cantonese), check-out the classes at the Tropical Spice Garden and look for the classes taught by Pearly Kee (Pearly also holds cooking classes at her homestay/house). Pearly is a fabulous teacher and she is more than happy to share her recipes and foodie advice with you.

Want to try making the dishes I mentioned? Well, thanks to Pearly, I have posted the recipes! Simply click on which recipe you want to be taken to the page. I have made some substitution & measurement notes for those of you who are in North America)


*A big thank-you to Danny, Pearly and all the staff at the Tropical Spice Garden for having me. I had a lovely time.


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