Friday, July 07, 2006

On the Trail from Penang to Kuala Lumpur

Profile: Florence Tan, Celebrated and Celebrity Chef

by Scott Givot, IACP Board Director
Photography by Elena Hernández

How did I become so blessed?
On a recent journey to Malaysia, a country named by the Malaysian Tourist Board as "the Real Asia", I was afforded the opportunity and luxury of exploring this diverse and culinary rich culture under the tutelage of a true pro. She is renowned for her talents, both through cook book writing and television appearances and still it is her warm and generous spirit of sharing the memories and knowledge of the Malaccan Nyonya (Straits Chinese) family cooking that has left an indelible impression in my heart and on my palate. Everywhere we were together, she is recognized and admired, by young and old and forever humble in their presence. The great chefs of Malaysia treat her like a goddess, endearingly and with admiration.

Nyonya cuisine is authentic Malaysian cuisine. It represents fusion cooking in the truest sense of the word. It is in part Chinese with the incorporation of Malay herbs, Indian spices and prepared in a Malaysian style in an Indian curry pot or Chinese wok. The dishes are enhanced with nuances of fragrant leaves, flowers and herbs along with an intense undercurrent of chili and coconut milk.

In her book, Secrets of Nyonya Cooking, it is explained that "the Peranakan kitchen is the domain of womenfolk, with Mother and Bibik orchestrating the symphony of meals to be served in a large household. Bibik is the commanding presence no Peranakan kitchen is complete without. Her culinary expertise is unquestionable, her repertoire of recipes inexhaustive. She demands the very best from kitchen retainers and cooks. As she flits from flaming wok to boiling cauldron, she sniffs and tastes like a five-star chef. Her culinary standards must never be challenged or disputed."

Thus, I must concur. Whether it was a formal State lunch in the auspices of a preserved home of antiquity or amongst the 50 stations of a fantasy land of Malaysian food culture on the lawn of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's palace, Florence affectionately and painstakingly led me on a journey that I shall never for get in my life. I tasted everything she wanted me to sample and afterwards I received a small anecdotal history about each dish. Fortunately she requested very small portions in consideration of the monumental consumption task ahead of me.

The following is her recipe for Peanut Sauce, also from her book, Secrets of Nyonya Cooking, used in her delicious Chicken Satay recipe:

Peanut Sauce

150 ml/ 3/8 cup cooking oil
1 litre/ 4 cups coconut milk, extracted from 350 grams/ 3 1/2 cups grated coconut and 1 litre/ 4 cups water
350 grams/ 12 1/2 ounces *bilimbi (belimbing buluh), cut into 1-cm/ 1/2 inch sticks and boiled for 1 minute to remove a bit of its sourness
300 grams/ 1 3/4 cups finely chopped pineapple
300 grams/ 2 1/2 cups roasted peanuts, coarsely pounded
1 1/2 rounded tablespoons salt
220 grams/ 1 cup sugar

Finely Ground Paste

25 dried chilies, soaked in water and drained
28 shallots, peeled
2.5 cm/ 1 inch galangal, peeled
1 tablespoon crushed dried shrimp paste


1. Heat the cooking oil and fry finely ground paste until fragrant. Stir in coconut milk and bring to a boil.
2. Add the bilimbi and pineapple, cook for 6 minutes. Stir in peanuts and season with salt and sugar.
3. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until the sauce thickens, stirring constantly.

*For those who may not be familiar with "bilimbi", as I was not prior to my adventure with Florence, here is an explanation.

A friend of mine in Oslo has used lemon or tamarind as substitute souring agent. It's not quite the same, however, may be far more accessible to those in the Western world.

For more on Nyonya Cuisine in SPANISH, visit El Amor por la Cocina.

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