Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly editorial, December 2018
Mr Ong Jin Teong, in his admirable book Penang Heritage Book: Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2010), noted forlornly that many of the home-cooked dishes that he and his generation grew up with are gradually disappearing along with ageing mothers and fathers, and uncles and aunties.
These aged innovative and excellent chefs were generally home-taught or self-taught, or they had learned on the job, as it were, and their art thus tends to pass away with them. Seldom, if ever, were their recipes properly recorded. Passed down through practice and by word of mouth, the particularities of ingredients and of taste have tended to shift and are sometimes lost for good. While this may happen imperceptibly and irrelevantly to some, to connoisseurs (and every other Penang person would consider themselves to be such), this slow loss of what they see as the quintessence of Penang culture is definitely unacceptable.
Indeed, it is in Penang’s street and kopitiam dishes more than in anything else that the island’s social history and cultural pluralismare best captured and preserved; and it is gratifying to see books on Penang recipes appearing in steady numbers in recent years, such as Cecilia Tan’s The Penang Nyonya Cookbook, Julie Wong’s Nyonya Flavours: A Complete Guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine and Pearly Kee’s Pearly’s Nyonya Pantry, just to name a few. There is of course also Ong’s 2016 excellent second book, Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes.
Losing exquisite recipes established through generations of pain and hunger (what else?), and trial and error, is of course a heart-wrenching phenomenon, especially in a society such as Penang’s whose identity is so often framed by the dishes people eat, and the specific environments within which meals are imbibed.
To be sure, written recipes are not necessarily able to conserve the uniqueness of a dish. It comes in as a far second to learning through practice where the passing on of tradition is concerned. It is as with music scores; they are merely digital representations of life. Even more noteworthy than that, creativity comes from the artist only on one hand; it is his interaction with the sometimes fickle consumer which also decides the final and lasting product. No one will deny that cooking is an art, and if the dish is a heritage item, then copying the past as closely as possible becomes the goal more than the creating of a novel gourmet temptation.
The role of the public is clearly vital to any form of art. And so, where Penang street cuisine is concerned, a changing public will inevitably encourage deviations in the recipes and the tastes on offer. A conservative audience will keep an art conserved, while a transient audience will be more accepting and even appreciative of unorthodoxy, and therefore instrumental in the cuisine heresy that is perpetuated.
In many ways, culture is a dialectical movement between the past and the present, between those seeking comfort food and those who are more curious than discerning. And food culture is no exception.
Speaking of the past, I have noticed a fascinating shift in how Penang’s history is written. In colonial times, be it in Captain Norman Macalister’s Historical Memoir relative to Prince of Wales Island in the Straits of Malacca (1803), or Major George Leith’s A Short Account of the Settlement, Produce and Commerce of Prince of Wales Island in the Straits of Malacca (1805), or Captain James Low’s A Dissertation on the Soil & Agriculture of the British Settlement of Penang or Prince of Wales Island in the Straits of Malacca (1836); while Penang’s commerce and produce may be repeatedly mentioned, there is never any description of Penang cuisine.
It will require a proper social history of early Penang for details on what people on the streets ate – and how – to be noted, or at least footnoted. In any case, colonial officers probably did not care to eat on the streets, and thus they remained ignorant of the recipe laboratory that the working classes of Penang lived in, and therefore left it without mention.
To be sure, what we recognise as Penang food today probably evolved in the later rather than the earlier colonial period, and it took quite a while before hybrid dishes developed by the working classes in collaboration with the migrant port’s nouveau riche – often nyonya families – gained enough stability, integrity and popularity to bear proper names and were accepted, recognised and marketed throughout the complex pluralist and plural society that Penang has always been.