Tucked away on the idyllic northern coast of Penang island, where the ocean meets the rainforest, sits Tropical Spice Garden, a bio-diverse living museum that honors the intimate relationship between Malaysia’s food, its people and its geography. The Garden’s six acres are home to more than 500 living specimens of lush and exotic flora that showcase Penang’s history as a multicultural trading post for spices.
According to Managing Director Katharine Chua, Tropical Spice Garden was the brainchild of David and Rebecca Wilkinson, who engaged a team that included landscape designer Lim In Chong to transform what was once an abandoned rubber plantation into a microcosm of the Malaysia’s history, both natural and human. Visitors can tackle the two kilometers of walking trails on their own, but what better way to comprehend the influence of spices on Penang’s heritage than a cooking class?
We had a chance to sit down with the Garden’s resident Chef Jamie and ask about her experiences. Her general attitude towards preparing meals is: “You’ve got to cook with your heart; people appreciate that. Worry less about perfection.” In her classes, she follows authentic recipes and traditional methods, but aims to teach in such a way that makes it easy for students to recreate Penang’s trademark flavors at home.
SJ: In the description of your StraitsJourneys experience, you mention recreating the ‘hidden’ menus of Malaysian cuisine. Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?
Chef Jamie: Menus that are not so mainstream. When you talk about Malaysian food, the first thing that crosses people’s minds is rendang, satay, curry, laksa and so on. There’s a lot more to it actually. There are different “popular” or comfort foods in each region. So, what I do is to bring forth those foods by teaching (tourists mostly) and cooking them for others.
For example, I recently taught guests here how to cook banana stems. It surprised them to learn that the banana stem is actually edible. We made curry out of it. There’s a lot more out there that can be explored. It’s up to people like me (chefs and cooks) to bring it forward.
SJ: What is the most common misperception people have about Malaysian cuisine?
Chef Jamie: Haaaaah!! That it is spicy to the extent you might blow off your head or need to drink a carton of milk after eating it. It’s not. At least, not all of it. When you are trying to cook any Malaysian dish, the spiciness of the dish is completely up to you. Sometimes a dish might look really ‘red’ but that doesn’t mean it is spicy.
You have to understand how chilis behave when you expose them to heat. They’re not as spicy as if you were to eat them raw. There are times that you have to put a tiny bit of chili in for the sake of changing the color of your dish. Like for rendang, you have to add a bit of chili paste so it’s not yellow (due to the influence of turmeric in it) but orange-ish.
SJ: How have the tastes of Penang evolved and changed over the course of your life?
Chef Jamie: It’s changed a lot. Back when I was a kid, food used to be rather simple. You would get exactly what you asked for, no surprises. I can safely say now it’s kind of hard to get food that tastes the same as it used to. You have to go to right places, which often are not really well-known or known only by locals. I’m not saying that the food now is bad. It’s just different. Today in Penang, you have fine dining restaurants serving menus of deconstructed local dishes. It tastes good, but like I said, not the same.
SJ: Any other thoughts you feel like you want to add about Penang cuisine?
Chef Jamie: When you talk about Penang cuisine, you’re talking about culture. You’re talking about the Nyonya, the Indian Muslim community and the Malays, many of who come from other states and have very different origins. The Nyonya created Assam laksa and nasi kerabu, among other dishes. They assimilated Malay and Chinese culture, so their food is somewhat spicy but not as spicy as the Malays’. The Indian Muslim (Mamaks) brought curry. There’s a lot of them here, hence why nasi kandar is very popular. And then, the Malays created kueh.
Exposure to these different cultures and their food variations is what makes us special. We have a lot to offer, or else people wouldn’t call Penang food paradise. You just have to be willing to try things. We might surprise you.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.