The cheerful sounds emanating from chef Alvin Tan’s home in Sydney’s east are warm and infectious, and verging on raucous. At one end of the terrace house, a lively battle of mahjong ensues, while in the kitchen, there is a flurry of activity, as herbs, meat, seafood and fresh vegetables are chopped, ground and diced with military-like precision. It is a cold, windy day, but that doesn’t stop Alvin and his 13 guests, a mix of family and friends, from enjoying a traditional Nyonya feast, a blend of Straits-Chinese cooking that has many regional variations and influences. There is an easy intimacy at the gathering, which according to Alvin’s friend Gary Soh, also of Straits-Chinese heritage, is because Malaysians don’t differentiate between family and friends.
“If you drop in to somebody’s house, you are considered part of the family and you eat together. We will drop in unannounced and stay for a meal. People visit each other, it’s just what we do. And the food and rounds of mahjong are what we enjoy,” explains Gary.
There are murmurs of agreement from the mahjong table where Victor Lee, Karen Ong, Irene Soh and Susan Chong are engaged in a competitive battle which – for this match – they’ve decided not to place bets on. The game revolves around players drawing and discarding tiles to make pairs or groups, and according to Victor, it is “70 per cent luck and 30 per cent skill. We play it as much for the mental stimulation as we use it as an opportunity to get together.
It is a game that anyone and everyone can play,” he says.
For Alvin and his family, these gatherings are an important way of keeping their culture alive. Alvin immigrated to Australia in 1990 with his wife Jessica and their two children, to help run Sydney restaurant Taste of Malaysia. After three years, they decided to branch out on their own: they operated Seri Nyonya in Sydney’s south for 10 years before opening My Asian Table cooking school.
Today, Alvin, his wife Jessica, and aunt Ida are preparing a Nyonya feast of kueh pie tee (crisp pastry shells with a vegetable and prawn filling); otak otak (steamed spicy fish in banana parcels); babi sioh (stewed pork with shiitake mushrooms); gulai tumis ikan (a hot and sour fish curry); and sago gula Melaka for dessert (chilled sago pudding with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup). The dishes have their own distinct clean and light flavour, predicated on the balance of sweetness and heat with some common tastes of coconut, curry leaves, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, chillies and pandanus leaves.
As a fourth-generation Nyonya, Alvin is committed to keeping the food traditions of his family alive. He learned the dishes from his grandmother, who, in turn, was taught by a neighbour in their small hometown of Teluk Intan, in the state of Perak in Malaysia. Alvin says his culinary heritage is very important to him. “This is the food of our home and of our childhood. It is very hard to transfer the recipes. The good Nyonya cooks create by taste. They estimate on the quantity of the ingredient and have no need for measures or written recipes.”
Friend Alan Chong agrees: “The old Nyonya cooks have now retired or gone to their happy hunting grounds. Our taste craves the older style of cooking, where the making is as important as the eating. The tongue knows. The younger cooks are not as good because they use modern conveniences. Food processors and ready-made pastes are used instead of batu giling [a stone slab for grinding spices] or the rempah [spicy paste that underpins much of Nyonya cooking] and it tastes different.”
As they chatter, Ida pays scrupulous attention to the grinding and frying of the pastes, her hands moving swiftly as she binds the fish mousse for the otak otak, being sure to stir in just the one direction. Nyonyas have a lot of specific methods, Ida reveals, and says that when she was growing up, she followed her grandmother: “When I cooked, I did as I was told and was taught by my grandmother.”
It would seem Nyonya culinary traditions and healthy competition at the mahjong table are alive and well among this happy group.
Photography by Chris Chen