A Modern Day Nyonya
The intermarriage between Chinese immigrants and local Malays in the 16th century resulted in the distinctive culture of Straits Chinese Peranakan. Community members of this cultural merge address themselves as Baba (for the gentlemen) or Nyonya (for the ladies).
Nyonya Su Pei is a modern day Nyonya with a passion for food and an appetite for locally grown, fresh produce. Being married to a Baba and the oldest daughter-in-law, she was bestowed the responsibility to pass on the recipes and groomed to be the next matriarch of the family.
“In the past, cooking rice, fried chickens, fried eggs, cooking instant noodles was ‘cooking’ to me but… I was humbled as the whole family can cook very well including the men.” Under the strict supervision of her grandmother-in-law (Northern Nyonya) and mother-in-law (Southern Nyonya), she went through ‘military training’ where everything was learned from scratch! “Training is hard as I have to wake up early before the rest of the family members to prepare the kitchen and clean the house. It’s a discipline for the daughters and daughter-in-laws to be resilient and hardworking. I have to persevere through the years so that my mentors can entrust their cooking secrets to me… Their cooking techniques are so secretive I thought I am working for the CIA!”
The Nyonya cuisine is about family recipes that have been passed on for generations, along with stories of the people who cooked them with “love and passion because the person eating the food can actually ‘feel’ the mood of the cook…the motherly recipes has to be emulated 100% so the tastes will linger in their minds every time they think about home-cooked food. If the food was not up to par, the men in the family would just leave the dining table. At first, I felt very disheartened after a whole day of toil (which) nobody appreciated and boycotted my food.
For a culture that embodies such harmonious integration which is seen in the uniqueness of not only the cuisine but also in the fashion and handicrafts, Nyonya Su Pei wishes to find new inspirations and mentors in order to bequeath them to the next generations.
With a goal of adapting sophisticated Nyonya cuisine for the public, she collaborated with Straits Chinese (Penang) Association on a two-volume cookbook: Nyonya Flavours which has been best-selling for five consecutive years, sold in major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore. It has since become a standard guide for the Peranakan culinary community.
For her first ever cooking class in Tropical Spice Garden, it was a “daunting experience to demonstrate my signature dishes of Nyonya Gulai Kay (Nyonya Curry Chicken) and Kerabu Snuai Ya (Mango Kerabu) to four experienced (international) gourmands who have probably seen more of the world than I did but I was determined to convert them into Nyonya food lovers. I could see that they were sceptical watching how this young lass could possibly teach them how to cook but as the time went by, I could see in their eyes that they are getting convinced that I am worthy of my salt.”
Spurred by this success, Nyonya Su Pei is keen on sharing more of her recipes with Tropical Spice Garden Cooking School’s guests. During her free time, she tests and compiles various Nyonya recipes and now has a collection of more than 300! With our 10 working stations, we provide a hands-on environment for that personal experience in learning one of our unique local cuisines.