In one of the chapters of The Penang Palate, author Yeap Joo Kim gives us a glimpse of what it was like for "maidens" growing up in a traditional Nonya household of yesteryear.
"Before the war, training in Nonya cooking was compulsory (Nonya were the female offspring of Chinese-Malay marriages). Even those maidens who went to school, and thus escaped the daily drudgery, had to find time to master the art. Indeed, Nonya cooking was considered an art! In those days, a maiden without such formal training was not considered an ideal bride. It was not sufficient just to be a creature of decorum. Her domesticity must reveal itself as a fine art practised mostly over the stove, preparing delectable cakes and dishes. Therefore, irrespective of one's family background, a Nonya maiden invariably learned to cook …
"The learner had to be very patient because she had to do the menial tasks first, long before she was allowed to produce her own dish. Such menial tasks included nipping off the roots of bean sprouts, shelling prawns, pounding sambal, peeling onions and garlic and snapping vegetables … A learner was often reprimanded for her mistakes or imperfections on the job and a favourite would be, 'You will disgrace your family. Your future mother-in-law will think that you have not been properly trained.'"
She also writes, "A Straits-born meal is a laborious and painstaking affair, but nowadays, modern appliances have helped the newcomer … tremendously."
That doesn't necessarily mean cooking the dishes has become easy. For example, the coconut milk used doesn't come in a can; Yeap writes that it is extracted from grated flesh that has been squeezed through muslin - but at least she doesn't insist that the coconut be hand-grated, as her ancestors would have done.
Recipes in the book include Nonya favourites, such as pickled fish tripe curry and bean curd rolls; celebratory dishes of love letter wafers (which are laboriously cooked in hand-held moulds over a charcoal grill) and salty rice dumplings; and hawker dishes of nasi lemak, oyster omelette, satay and Penang laksa.