Nyonya Cooking Class with Jackie M at The Grace Hotel

After my recent experience with the Flavours of Malaysia buffet at The Grace Hotel, they invited me back to attend a Nyonya-style Masterclass with the famous Jackie M, unofficial ambassador and spokesperson for Malaysian cuisine in Australia.

I’ve written about my growing love for Malaysian food in my post about the buffet. But did I ever mention the fact that K’s grandmother has questioned me before about my ability to cook good meals for her grandson, and wants to make sure I can cook Malaysian food properly? Did I ever mention that my ability to cook Malaysian food will be the criteria by which she judges whether or not I would be a good granddaughter-in-law? Let’s just say that this Masterclass probably came at a good time!

Jackie spoke to the small group of about twelve wannabe chefs at the start about the cultural basis of the masterclass. Nyonya culture stems from the fourteenth century, when a Chinese princess married a Malaccan prince, and brought an entourage of Chinese servants with her to Malaysia. They intermarried with the local Malays, creating a distinct fusion of Chinese and Malay culture that became known as “Nyonya” culture. What I didn’t know, is that the term Nyonya cannot be applied to any Chinese immigrant to Malaysia, as it refers quite specifically to that particular era in the fourteenth century and the results of that mass migration and assimilation.

We then split into pairs to decide which three of the seven recipes we were provided was going to be our culinary challenge this afternoon. I partnered with Lena of Startled Art (amongst many other writing gigs!) to create Lobak, Ayam Sioh and Onde-Onde.

Our lobak was…interesting. I think that’s what you would call the end result, considering we mistook salt for sugar in the cooking process, and in Lena’s words “it could have gotten rid of a slug infestation”. The actual texture of the lobak itself was really good though as we managed to get the beancurd sheets nice and crispy in the frying process. Next time I make this, it will actually be perfect as long as I don’t mix up my seasonings!

Our onde-onde was a real crowd favourite as one of only a few desserts made on the day. It was actually surprisingly easy to make, with only five ingredients. It’s also a really fun process, as it’s very tactile. You use your hands to mix the dough and pandan essence, you use your palms to roll the balls…it’s the type of dish that really makes you get your hands right into the mixture.

Later comments on Twitter by Craig Hind told me that Lena and I actually found a good balance between the palm sugar inner and the glutinous outer, as the onde-onde wasn’t too sweet, but yet was sweet enough to be a good dessert. This is definitely an easy dessert that I’ll be adding to my repertoire for future dinner parties!

Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of our ayam sioh (tamarind chicken) as we very nearly ran out of time to complete the dish and had to leave it behind for staff to finish for us. Reports are that there was too much tamarind in our dish, adding to our reputation for getting ingredients wrong.

We got to all sample each other’s dishes at the end of the afternoon. Other pairs made dishes like assam laksa, sambal goreng udang, Nyonya fried rice and durian pancakes…it was a veritable feast! We didn’t all get our dishes right – there was a laksa that was too sour and a sambal goreng udang that was also too salty. Practice makes perfect though, and Jackie M provided us all with recipes for the seven dishes so we can cook them at home.

This class was actually fantastic timing, as I leave on Tuesday for a week in Malaysia (and more weeks elsewhere in Asia!). Learning to cook Nyonya food here in Australia just before I get the chance to eat it from street-side stalls in Malaysia has been an amazing experience, and I think it will help give some perspective to my dining experiences in Malaysia over the next week.

Congratulations to The Grace Hotel and Jackie M for running this series of Masterclasses, an excellent way to bring delicious Malaysian food into Australian kitchens. If you are interested in attending, there may still be some spaces left for the following classes (classes are selling out fast though!):

  • Malaysian Street Food 1: Sunday 9 December, 12.30pm – 3.30pm
  • Malaysian Street Food 2: Sunday 16 December, 12.30pm – 3.30pm
  • Malaysian Mamak Fare: Sunday 23 December, 12.30pm – 3.30pm

Contact the Grace Hotel for more information on this series of Masterclasses and their other upcoming promotions and events on keri@nichegroup.com.au or 02 8585 4320 – or Jackie M directly through the website www.jackiem.com.au.

Review: Flavours of Malaysia at The Grace Hotel, Sydney

K is of Malaysian descent on his father’s side. We see his paternal extended family quite often, and of course, we usually see them for a meal in a restaurant. It ties into the whole Asian family method of expressing love through force-feeding, with his grandmother ensuring that we both have fourth and fifth helpings whenever we go out.

Since dating K, I’ve been exposed to a lot more in the way of new Malaysian foods. Items I’ve not tried before like ais kacang, kaya and murtabak are now some of my favourite foods. However, I know that my knowledge of Malaysian food is still elementary at best, especially given the cultural diversity of their various regions, and I’m keen to be better educated!

This is part of the reason why I was so pleased to be able to attend the Flavours of Malaysia buffet at The Grace Hotel for Sunday lunch as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival.

Most buffets I’ve previously attended fall into one of two categories – they either try so hard to cover all cuisines and dishes that they lose the quality, or they limit themselves so much that they lose the variety. The Flavours of Malaysia buffet struck a good balance between having a good selection of dishes and quality. Oh, the quality! I’ve never yet eaten Malaysian food in Malaysia (something that will change with future holidays to Malaysia to visit K’s family), but K assured me that all the dishes we sampled were highly authentic, and similar to what he has eaten in Malaysia.

This no doubt is due to the fact that the Grace Hotel has flown a number of highly regarded chefs from Malaysia to Sydney for the month, to cook the dishes for the buffet. K actually wondered whether they brought particular spices with them to cook with, as some dishes achieved a certain spicy taste that you can’t even find in the most authentic Malaysian restaurants in Sydney.

The selection of cold dishes was particularly varied. I took delight in the “Make Your Own Gado-Gado” ingredients that you could help yourself to, loading mine with white turnip, cucumber, pineapple, bean shoots, pineapple, hard-boiled egg, and topped with satay sauce. It was absolutely beautiful – better than my parents used to make for the take-away shop they ran for fifteen years. I also enjoyed the cold squid salad, but the tripe salad was a bit bland – possibly because all the other dishes were so loaded with flavours that a simpler dish didn’t stand out.

The nasi served particularly well as a base for the dishes like curries that had a lot of sauce. It wasn’t particularly flavourful in itself (not like a standard nasi), but complemented many of the curries well. The roti bread was also good with the curries – but truthfully, I’ve probably had better roti bread elsewhere. The roti really wasn’t anything special, but it served its purpose.

These were probably two of my favourite dishes today – squid in a sambal sauce, and hard boiled eggs in a sweet sauce. It can be really supremely hard to do squid well, and getting the consistency right really requires pinpoint timing. This squid was perfectly soft without being overcooked and chewy. No mean feat, considering that it was sitting in a bain-marie for a while. The egg itself was really nice as well – a standard hard-boiled egg that had been lightly battered and fried (I assume!), then cooked in this subtle sweet sauce. A really simple dish (try this at home!), but effective and a real winner.

I’m a fan of meat on sticks – from the Uyghur lamb skewers I’ve had in Shanghai to barbecue skewers at an Australian backyard barbecue. It’s just such a simple but effective way of cooking and enjoying food. These satay sticks were well spiced but unfortunately they had been sitting on the bain-marie for a while, so had lost much of the best part of a good satay stick – getting to eat it as it comes directly off a sizzling plate. The spices were great though!

There were a large number of curries available – lamb, beef, fish, chicken, prawn, vegetable. I tried a bite of each, and the prawn was definitely the stand out with a touch of sweetness in the sauce. The boneless chicken curry was also well done, with the chicken cooked so well that it practically melted in my mouth when I ate it. Unfortunately the fish was too overdone for my liking, with the flesh quite tough.

You can also go directly to the chefs and get a bowl of har mee made fresh on request. The soup of the har mee was perfect, with a good amount of green veggies and fresh bean shoots to balance the starchiness of the noodles. There was only one prawn in the har mee however, so if you wish for more, you’ll have to request it directly.

Mmm, desserts! Having an insatiable sweet tooth, I tried a bit of the main dishes – bean curd in a rice cake covering, a pandan pancake with coconut and palm sugar filling, banana fritters, and blue glutinous rice cake. The standouts were the pandan pancake (largely for the coconut filling), and the banana fritters. While the fritters weren’t perfect given the slightly thicker batter, it was still amazing. K tells me that there’s a man in Penang who specialises in banana desserts who does it better – I can’t wait to try it one day!

We finished with the “make your own ais kacang” to share – a cool dessert of shaved ice with evaporated milk, rose syrup and various toppings including fruit jelly, lychees and black jelly. I was disappointed that there wasn’t a “make your own cendol” station as I prefer the grass jelly and palm sugar of cendol, but the ais kacang was still really good!

We both ordered drinks to have with our meal – K ordered a “Fresh Young Coconut” drink, and I ordered the Tropical Punch. The coconut was actually a mature coconut so didn’t have the sweetness that young coconuts have, which was disappointing. My tropical punch tasted primarily like orange juice with chunks of fruit – nothing special, but enough to quench the thirst. I would probably recommend ordering standard bottled drinks where you’re guaranteed a certain quality – beers, soft drinks and similar.

In terms of service, there were some administrative issues when we first arrived (my name wasn’t on the guest list) and when settling our beverages bill at the end (they needed a printout of the invitation but I only had it on my phone), but these are not issues that would affect a regular guest attending of their own accord. The service throughout the meal itself was quite attentive.

Overall, I rate the Flavours of Malaysia buffet at The Grace Hotel a 8.5 out of 10.

The food was, on the whole, nearly faultless. any low points were not food-related, so if you’re after hearty good food, Flavours of Malaysia is the place to be!

Flavours of Malaysia is on at The Grace Hotel from October 5 to October 21 as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival. For reservations and more information, visit the website, call 02 9272 6670 or email restaurant.reservations@gracehotel.com.au

Note: I attended the Flavours of Malaysia buffet as a guest of The Grace Hotel’s for review purposes. My attendance was free of charge, but all words and opinions are my own.