Food defines us as Malaysians – from staying true to our cultural identity to preserving the authenticity of our dynamic culinary heritage. We struggle when it comes to bringing forth our unique diversity and Malaysian flavours especially with the confluence of disruptive technology and modernisation in our local context. Similarly, food artisans in Malaysia are also pulling their weight to ensure our food identity is kept intact.
Two artisans share the same sentiment on keeping the identity of Malaysian cuisine from contrasting perspectives – one stresses on preserving true blue traditional cooking to the T and the other looks outside the box to reinvent local flavours into contemporary interpretations.
Meet Baba John Tan, the 75-year-old master cook behind the Nyonya restaurant Limapulo: Baba Can Cook who is still adamant about continuing the dying legacy of Nyonya cuisine and 27-year-old Marcus Low, the inaugural Masterchef Asia runner-up and owner of MadHatter Desserts who is all about introducing familiar flavours of all-time favourite Malaysian dishes into his artisanal desserts.
We sit down with the two self-taught cooks on their food journey and what keeps them passionate in deriving the unique flavours of Malaysia both traditionally and contemporarily.
Baba John Tan, Limapulo: Baba Can Cook
It was tough growing up in the 50s and 60s. It was not like present day where water and electricity were easily accessible. But life was much simpler, and vibrantly peppered with childhood memories, fruit trees and herbs in the backyard, folk games and unpretentious cooking by the matriarch of the family. That was the life Baba John had experienced growing up in the historic city of Malacca.
“I started off as a teacher before joining the rubber research institute in 1963. Then I became a tourist guide with several travelling agencies,” explains Baba John.
In the early 90s, he bought a piece of land in Malacca, built a beautiful bungalow with an orchard, farm and garden – 5.5 acres in total – cultivating everything from durian to mangosteen, fish to ducks and chickens. “Having recreated the kampung lifestyle again, I began to develop a strong interest for fresh backyard produce. I picked up Nyonya cooking very quickly, guided by my wife, who is a reputable Nyonya celebrity chef and my mother,” he shares.
Over the years, Baba John has helped launch several Peranakan restaurants in town and has never curtailed on imparting his knowledge on Peranakan food to those who are open to learn this dying cuisine. “Many young people are keen to learn about cooking, but not cooking Nyonya food,” he adds.
Baba John reiterates that Peranakan food is not Nyonya food – but what’s the difference?
How would you define true Nyonya cuisine?
The taste of Nyonya food has to be profound. What is this taste? It is a taste that I grew up with – a flavour that brings me back to my younger days. Nyonya food is derived from primitive recipes dating before 1825. The Nyonyas of yesteryears created certain dishes like ayam buah keluak (black nut and chicken stew) and pong teh (a sweet and savoury meat stew) before the British settlement. Peranakan food was invented in the late 1800s with the introduction of new ingredients and spices, as well as other regional cooking techniques from the west.
Taste-wise, there is no one measurement to define this, but I can tell you if it’s authentic or not. Some Peranakan people are not able to even cook or identify good Nyonya cuisine.
What does authentic Nyonya food tastes like?
It is a time-accumulated taste. Nyonya food is something that brings back memories – the idea of family and nostalgia. It should remind you of happy times. And that is what I am trying to bring to the table here at my restaurant.
How can we preserve these traditional flavours?
Most people enjoy eating Nyonya cuisine – they like it but they are not bothered to know what goes behind each dish. There’s a lot of hard work; it is not like the dai chow. Nyonya cooking has a lot of steps and preparation from making rempah (spices usually in a paste form), giling (grinding on millstone) and tumis (stir-frying a paste until it’s fragrant). You need the patience to cook Nyonya food.
Many self-proclaimed Nyonya restaurants are also doing false marketing by serving food that isn’t Nyonya food. But that’s the reality: we do not have enough Nyonya cooks with the experience to make good Nyonya food. There is an over-reliance on senior veteran chefs to promote traditional cuisine – young chefs are no longer keen to push this sector. Perhaps culinary schools can help introduce Nyonya cooking in their courses.
What do you think about the preservation of Peranakan cuisine in contemporary dining?
Look, this is a cuisine that comes before the times of fast food. It is not just a mixture of two or three ingredients. There are a lot of steps, trials and errors to undertake before we are able to create such complex flavour profiles. And they are all from natural ingredients, no additives whatsoever. So why do you want to change something that is already so harmonious and delicious to begin with?
Nyonya food especially has flavours created centuries ago; complex combinations that are unique in its own way. And I believe it is a singular food category in the world. Don’t go against the nature of Nyonya food. Buah keluak is buah keluak, pong teh is pong teh – let’s not try to change it.
Will you try something new inspired by Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine?
I would love to try these new interpretations but I don’t believe you can have something as a replacement to the original and authentic flavours. This is our ancestor’s legacy and I believe true Nyonya cuisine is a cultural immersion on its own.
Marcus Low, MadHatter Desserts
You’ve seen him on the first season of Masterchef Asia; Marcus Low cooked his way to second place in the cooking competition. He has been known as the ‘dessert king’ since his public appearance on TV but ten years ago, Low did not fancy sweet stuff.
“I was dining at a restaurant and dessert took too long — I was in a rush. As I was about to walk out and forgo the dessert, the chef came out and apologise; he promised me a dessert that I won’t regret. The meal was okay until the tiramisu was served and it was the first dessert I truly appreciated. That was when I decided that I wanted to specialise in desserts,” reminisces Low. “The first dessert that I mastered was a simple macaron, which took me multiple trials before I got the hang of it. Who would have thought huh?”
The 27-year-old self-taught cook was studying in Melbourne where MasterChef Australia has always been a big thing. Thinking to himself that if these amateur home cooks could do it, so could he. He initially came back and worked in a bank but realised that the dollars and cents weren’t his calling. He represented Malaysia in the first Asian edition in 2015 and made a name for himself. Two years later, he opened his first dessert bar that focuses on bringing local produce and classic flavours to the forefront through his creative palatable interpretation of artisanal desserts.
He is inspired by his mother’s home cooking and Malaysian delicacies. From the likes of bubur cha cha (yam and sweet potato soupy dessert) to an homage to sirap bandung (a rose cordial drink with evaporated milk), Low’s desserts have been nothing but bizarrely remarkable. It is through his imaginative instincts that his cakes are very well-considered and layered with a dynamic blend of flavours and techniques — without losing the integrity and identity of local ingredients.
You centre a lot of local fruits into your menu. Why is that?
We have been educated with
mainstream fruits like mangos and strawberries but to be frank, local fruits have so much more potential. The use of fruit as a key ingredient can be tricky. Traditional recipes use the fruit in a more direct way. We are now looking at all the different unconventional ways to use the fruit — similar to a ‘nose-to-tail’ concept but with fruits.
Can you share with us an example?
I have a dish called the Kedondong. We make use of every part of the kedondong fruit: puree the skin, then cook it into a thick paste to make a cake out of it. The excess juice is used for the sorbet and the offcuts go into my cultured kefir water. This creates a rich liquid that is then reduced into a thick syrup; like a kedondong juice marmite. I sometimes call this dish Kedondong Four Ways — it’s experimental and applying all types of techniques into a complex dessert using just one local fruit.
How do you convince people to embrace this new way of looking at our local fruits?
There’s a balance in what I do. It takes a lot of effort to instil the idea of ‘trying something new’ and we have to explain each element and process that goes into creating the recipe. It goes a long way than just selling your food. But a little bit of ‘explaining’ makes the experience of eating the dish more wholesome.
How do you see local food and traditional flavours as inspiration for your creations?
It is about bringing back flavours that I can remember from a dish. Recreating is not deconstructing. You give a good background of what a traditional dish is — like bubur cha cha for instance — but not change the dish entirely. Perhaps it is an easy way out to just put familiar flavours on a plate. But it is more than that; the element of nostalgia is the factor that connects my food with my customers.
How do you envision the future of Malaysian flavours being preserved in the contemporary dining scene?
I think we are moving forward at a considerable rate. The idea should be about focusing on flavours and ingredients that are prevalent in local cuisine – fresh produce from our backyard and naturalised ingredients that are slowly being forgotten. The demand for the local produce will encourage better yield and from the local farmers and it will encourage food artisans at large to look at traditional cuisine once again. But don’t expect authentic food to die off very soon. It is in our culture and it is something that resembles us.
In support of local artisans, Kenwood Appliances has launched Love Wholesome, a community campaign to highlight food sources, support local produce, and sharing our food culture with friends and families. Preserving our culinary heritage plays a huge part, one spearheaded by other food crafters like Alzari ‘Joey’ Mahshar and Georgina Fernandez.
Let’s make traditional flavours sexy again with artisanal products and easy-to-follow recipes available on lovewholesome.com, from cempedak kek lapis to Indian fruit Kesari. If you have a heritage recipe that you’d like to share, check out their website to find out more.