Malaysian Homecooking with Spice Station’s Nazlina HussinNovember 1, 2016
- Noni CabreraWords
Stumbling out of bed at 7 o’clock in the morning in Penang means being greeted by a cacophony of loudspeakers from nearby mosques, blaring the early morning call to prayer. It’s still pretty dark out but there is a palpable and audible bustle of activity inside the shuttered shophouses that line the cobblestoned streets. The streets may look empty, but inside these historical structures, there are no idle hands.
I signed up for a cooking class with Nazlina Spice Station, and that meant that I had to get up very early in the morning so that I could join the tour of the local markets. These markets are where the produce that will be cooked during the class are procured. I must have been pretty excited because I arrived at the meeting place at the corner of Campbell and Carnarvon with about half an hour to spare.
Across the street from the cooking studio, the Campbell Street Market was slowly coming to life. I decided to walk around to kill time, and I passed a nearby kopitiam. I got myself a basket of hakaw and a steaming mug of kopi while snapping a few photos of folks cycling back from the market, with ducks and bundles of spinach dangling from their wire baskets.
There’s a handful of other cooking classes in Penang but what drew me to Nazlina’s school was the promise of a unique experience. I read through her website and I was particularly attracted by her philosophy of slow food, which basically aims to recreate traditional recipes that use a lot of local ingredients and make use of cooking techniques and equipment that make Penang cooking so distinctive. Nazlina’s typical cooking class starts with a tour of the market, and the market doesn’t wait for anyone. The early bird catches the freshest produce, hence, the very ungodly call time of 7:30 AM.
Nazlina’s Spice Station attracts both local and foreign students. Her global reach is owed to her social media savvy. The cooking class business started with a blog, and because the site was properly laid out and had useful content, it would come up in organic searches for Malay traditional food. Within a few months, people from all over the world started to write, asking if Nazlina could hold classes and give a tour of the local markets. The idea of the Spice Station was born.
After meeting the rest of my classmates, we were welcomed by the affable Peter, who introduced himself as our walking tour guide. After a hearty breakfast of roti canai and Peter’s special Sumatran coffee, we hit the three markets within walking distance of the studio. Spice Station’s location puts it in the middle of the market and street food district, each of them bursting at the seams with such beautiful produce and enough offerings to allow you to check a number of items from the Penang food bucket list challenge.
Peter started off the tour with a little bit about Penang’s colonial history, which was the perfect preamble to his spiel on the different influences and origins of the ingredients that are commonly found in a Malaysian pantry. Peter’s perspective as a Dutch expat who has been in Malaysia for a long time adds value because he knows the ins and outs of the culture, both from an outsider’s point of view, as well as from the point of view of someone who has had a considerable experience of living among the locals. His tour is hilarious and informative, and my favorite part is talking to the market vendors that have become Peter and Nazlina’s friends throughout the years. It is remarkable how every market has a specific go-to person for just about anything, and when you want to have the freshest and best produce, you better be good friends with your purveyors.
The walking tour of the market also included small nibbles here and there. Peter took us to his friends’ stalls, and every now and then, he would pass us something to taste as he shared juicy tidbits of information about ingredients and some of the people that sold them. For instance, he told us that Penang was the only place in the world that used the entire nutmeg fruit – the rest only get the stone inside, which, when ground, goes into many a hipster’s cup of pumpkin spiced latte. The fleshy part of the fruit is preserved and pickled, and it has a spicy and fruity tang that reminds one of Novocaine. Peter also told us that if you want to slowly poison someone, feed him a raw candlenut every day. We had a taste of some local delicacies sold by folks who have been hawking their stuff for decades, like yummy apam balik and peanut bars wrapped in lumpia wrapper.
The residents of Penang are spoiled because of the fresh produce that is available to them any time. It also helps that they are very resourceful, so nothing goes to waste. This churns out tasty food at a minimal cost. They recycle almost everything here. For example, shells from prawns are kept to be made into stocks for prawn noodles and Hokkien mee. Fish head and bones are also kept to be made into curry and stocks, or salted fish. Chicken blood is saved and made into blood cubes for curry noodles garnish. This frugal mentality gave us some of the funkiest combinations of ingredients that the Penangites have managed to develop into their delicacies over time.
Back at the cooking studio, we started chopping our own ingredients and Nazlina introduced us to the dishes that we were making that day. For the day’s menu, Nazlina wanted us to do nasi kerabu, a veritable feast that is composed of blue rice which is served with different viands and salads. The center of nasi kerabu is blue rice, which gets its color from clitoria flowers, also known as the blue butterfly pea. We made solok lada, steamed chili peppers stuffed with flaked mackerel and coconut. For more substantial proteins, we did a steak encrusted with turmeric and other Malaysian spices, and grilled chicken served with kuah tumis, a candlenut sauce with sweet chilies and lemongrass. We also had mackerel fried in a turmeric batter. For salad, we had chopped greens with ginger flowers and cabbage. Nazlina usually also adds a dish that her students can maybe start a business with, and the day’s planned item was a demonstration on how to make authentic Penang-style char koay teow.
Nazlina is like your funny tita who will joke around one moment, and then smack you with a wooden spoon if you let the shallots burn. She taught us to make shallot oil for a more flavorful saute. Her pedagogy is pretty much hands on: she shows the class how something is done, and then she’ll leave you to it. She interjects her instructions with funny anecdotes and useful tips to keep it interesting. Class approximately lasts 5 hours, and it usually consists of a minimum of four or five items in each session.
Spice Station’s concept is different from other mainstream classes in that it It is more of a give-and-take experience. Students are encouraged to participate, to be active in asking questions and to do all the steps in the preparation of the food. Nazlina is quick on her feet, ready to give instructions, tips, anecdotes, and food history that relate to ingredients or dishes that she has on the daily menu. Nazlina relishes the new knowledge that she gets from her students, especially those who are from a different culture. Some people think a private class is better. Nazlina believes otherwise, saying that if you have students from all over the world in one session, you create an environment that is unique since they socialize and have fun while learning.
According to Nazlina, people commonly ask if they get their own cooking station. While other cooking schools may use that as a unique selling point, she believes that Malaysian dishes are just so complex that it is more fun (not to mention wiser and more efficient) to make them collaboratively. In Spice Station, a curry or a noodle dish with many ingredients is prepared by the entire class, and everyone pitches in at the same time. This way, the entire group can share in the success of a splendid meal. More than getting “your own cooking station”, this setup allows Nazlina to closely watch her students as they work. Her goal is for her students to easily replicate the process when they get back home.
Just like any cooking class, the best part is digging into the goodies after several hours of mincing, slicing and laboring over hot stove tops. My newfound friends and I sat down with Peter and Nazlina to partake of the beautiful spread that we all so gamely prepared. Under Nazlina’s tutelage, the nasi kerabu was a smash. The combination of flavors just worked together so well. In the end, it was a great conclusion to what had been a very tiring yet informative morning. The eating part was, after all, the reason why I dragged my butt out of bed at the crack of dawn.
Oh, one last thing about Spice Station: they send you away with recipes from the class. The only worry now will be finding the outlandish ingredients at your local supermarket.
Location: Nazlina Spice Station at no. 2, Campbell Street, 10100 George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
Fees: RM 225.00 NETT per adult. RM110.00 nett per child between 5- 12 years old.
RM 180.00 NETT per adult for the afternoon class without the market tour. RM 90.00 per child for PM class.