People are familiar with Nonya, or Peranakan, food, but what is Jawi Peranakan? "'Jawi' is the word Arabs used to refer to Muslims from Southeast Asia. 'Peranakan' means offspring of people who came to the Malaysian Straits and married locals. So, if they are of Muslim origin then they are considered Jawi Peranakans, like me. My mother's side is fifth generation Pakistani. We've stopped speaking Urdu and Hindi [and now just speak] Malay. The base of the food's flavours is Malay but there are influences from north Indian spices and Arabic herbs. Jawi Peranakan is a small community, but there are certain dishes that many other locals don't know how to make."
What's your cooking background? "I have a culinary arts diploma and a degree in hospitality management from [a school in] Switzerland. After graduating, I worked in a fine dining restaurant in Kuala Lumpur called Cilantro. It's a French restaurant run by a Japanese chef named Takashi [Kimura]. It was confusing sometimes because the [names of the] dishes were French but he always referred to ingredients by their Japanese names. Initially, I did focus on French cuisine and that was a very good thing. It's important to understand the basics. [The French] are the culinary pioneers of classic and nouvelle cuisine. If you want to learn how to experiment with flavours, you have to learn the foundations first. If you have learned Cookery 101 for potatoes or eggs, you'll know not to over boil your eggs. Modern French cooking takes temperature very seriously. In Asia, we don't use some of these techniques; for curries, we just cook the heck out of things. And learning about European ingredients was tough. I never grew up with ingredients such as marjoram, sorrel or wild rice, so that was quite challenging."
How are you updating Jawi Peranakan cuisine? "My food is still not that modern. The flavours are authentic and I just do things slightly different. My advantage is I was cooking with my Mum even before I went to school. I know what she does and surely Mum is always right."
Tell us about your family café, Jawi House. "While I worked in Kuala Lumpur, my mother and brother purchased a pre-second world war house in Unesco [World Heritage site] Georgetown, Penang. Initially, it was a gallery and coffee house. It was nice but it wasn't generating the income needed for its upkeep. My mother, who is also a university professor, wrote a book about Muslim culinary heritage. It was quite academic, without many recipes, so people asked, 'How do we get to try this food?' So, I decided to quit my job, come back and help beef up the menu a bit with Jawi Peranakan dishes, but also some French desserts."
Do traditionalists criticise your cooking? "I have had some criticism but usually it's from old ladies. I take their opinions seriously and you have to consider what tradition is, but I think you just need to hit a few poignant flavour notes to spark the nostalgia of traditional foods. I do try my very best to be authentic but certain traditions or types of ingredients just take too much time to prepare daily or they don't make scientific sense any more. As for creating an identity, I think we've done that already with a few signature dishes which I know for sure no other cafes in Penang have. If you want to taste similar cuisine, you probably have to wake up really early and find some old lady cooking under a coconut tree."
Most people associate Malaysian food with hawkers. Do you think people are ready to embrace this indigenous cuisine in a restaurant setting? "Malaysians enjoy European or continental food and I think paying a higher price is worth it. But they won't pay more for local food. That's my main struggle. I want to do something traditional but nice, so I have to charge a little more, but a lot of people don't see it that way. I've kind of come to terms with this situation. I think people want good, proper food and service in a modern casual setting - but not fine dining, with a sommelier."
Can wine or alcohol be part of the cuisine? "In my current restaurant that's a non-factor because it's halal. Some people think it's OK if you burn off the alcohol in cooking but the original product is still non-halal, so for certification we can't do that. Personally, I do partake a little bit when I am cooking for friends and I would consider serving alcohol in my own restaurant in the future, but not in my family's. I think chefs, regardless of religion, have to understand wine and alcohol is all about flavour and taste, and about the complexity of the liquid. That knowledge can help a lot in the kitchen. I may come from a Muslim background but I work in a modern culinary environment, so I am not going to take knowledge and throw it away."