The Noodle Bowl of 100,000 Ingredients

I wanted to take another cooking class on this trip. The one I had done in 2015 in Laos had been so much fun! I researched Hong Kong cooking classes, but the one I had signed up for was canceled because of too few students. I was looking for a midweek class, and Hong Kongers are busy, hardworking people, after all. Next opportunity was going to be in Penang, Malaysia, which, frankly, I consider the best place to eat in the world, so that worked out fine.

Surprisingly, there are really only 3 established cooking schools there. One is out at the Spice Garden in Teluk Bahang, one is Pearly Kee’s in Pulau Tikus, and one is Nazlina’s right in the heritage district of Georgetown, close to the Kapitan Kling Mosque. They all get great reviews from satisfied students.

The Spice Garden looked like it would be good, but the class starts very early in the morning and getting way out there on the west of the island was problematic. I can’t remember what was on the menu/syllabus at Pearly Kee’s that week, but Nazlina was doing laksa and roti canai, and I was keen to learn how to make roti canai. And it was walking distance from our hotel.

A view of Nazlina's cooking school (click to enlarge)
A view of Nazlina’s cooking school (click to enlarge)

Nazlina’s cooking school is on the 2nd floor of a heritage shophouse across the street from the old Crawford wholesale wet market. There is a big long table where everyone can eat their work and a number of cooking stations and stainless worktables. Lots of windows provide light as well as street noise that made hearing Nazlina a little difficult at times.

To Market, To Market

She runs her classes with the help of volunteers, all of whom were non-Malaysian. After we were served a light breakfast of spiced rice, egg and sambal, we trooped downstairs after Pieter the Dutchman who gave us a sprightly tour of the old wholesale market and then Chowrasta market. He has been living in Malaysia for many years and knows his markets and foodstuffs. I was introduced to jackfruit juice, which is the only place Pieter knows of that makes it. Terrific stuff — like a mango-banana smoothie!

  • Pieter at the market
    Pieter at the market

Upon our return to the classroom, we got down to work.

Roti canai ingredients: flour, ghee, salt, sugar and water
Roti canai ingredients: flour, ghee, salt, sugar and water

We mixed the flour, water, salt, sugar and ghee for the roti canai dough and kneaded it until it was soft and glossy like a pizza dough (although it is not leavened like a pizza dough is.) Our well-oiled dough balls were left to rest.

100,000 Ingredients to Prep

While the dough relaxed, we all contributed to the ingredient preparation for the components of laksa. The term laksa is derived from the Indian word lakh, which is the numerical unit of 100,000. (Indian languages don’t use the unit ‘million’, they use ‘a hundred thousand’.) So laksa is a dish with 100,000 ingredients. Of course, it doesn’t actually have a lakh of ingredients, but it has quite a few. This is made easier by the use of curry powder.

Malaysian Curry Powder
Malaysian Curry Powder (click to enlarge)

Now, curry powder is not something we use in Pakistan or northern Indian cuisine. It is really a south Indian thing. In Pakistan and the north, where I learned my South Asian cooking, we don’t premix a bunch of spices, but rather we combine spices each time we cook. So the whole concept of an all-purpose, yellow-colored spice powder came to the Malay peninsula (and Europe) from south India. That’s where curry powders tend to have fenugreek and mustard seed in them, and those spices are rarely used in northern cooking.

I asked Nazlina how Malaysian meat curry powder was different from Indian curry powder. Malaysian meat curry powder does not have fenugreek or mustard or coriander in it, but rather has star anise and nutmeg. Penang is famous for its nutmeg. This gives dishes made with it a very Malaysian flavor.

Stirring the laksa curry, one chicken, one vegetarian.
Stirring the laksa curry, one chicken, one vegetarian (click to enlarge)

We chopped and pounded ingredients for the laksa as well as for two sambals (chutneys). Nazlina exhorted us to mince finely, telling us those who chop or pound very finely are said to come from “fine families”.  She has a winning way about her, jolly and cheerful, yet directive, too, as she needs to be in order to keep her social students from getting too distracted. Not surprising that her self-published laksa cookbook is entitled “The Fierce Aunty’s No-nonsense Guide to the Perfect Laksa” (NOT available on Amazon.)

Nazlina Hussin
Nazlina Hussin

It’s All in the Wrist Action

Then while the curry chicken or tofu portions of the laksa cooked, we got to roll out our roti canai (pronounced “Chennai”, as in the new name for Madras in south India, where roti canai came from.) If you have ever watched pizza dough being twirled, or Bulgarian banitsa or Turkish nokul or any other streudel-y pastry being flung and rolled about, then you know that this is a maneuver which requires time and practice to get the hang of.

Nazlina flattened out a dinner roll-sized ball of dough, and then showed us the technique that deftly unfurls the pastry in slaps on the well-oiled stainless counter. In her hands, the dough stretched out magically like an optical illusion, thinner and thinner till it was translucent.

It is WAY more difficult than it looks. We all fumbled through ours and encouraged each other with generous hyperbole (“Not bad!”) It is easy to get tears/holes in the roti, or lumpy edges. However, with practice, I think I’ll be able to produce something passable. Roti canai is served as a flaky flatbread for dipping in curry sauce, or can have an egg cooked in it as breakfast (roti telur) or filled with spiced minced meat (murtabak).

Bowls set up with noodles, baby bok choy and bean sprouts, which will be blanched in the boiling water and topped with the curry sauce and fresh herbs.
Bowls set up with noodles, baby bok choy and bean sprouts, which will be blanched in the boiling water and topped with the curry sauce and fresh herbs. (click to enlarge)

After we cooked our earnest little creations, we topped the noodles & greens with the chicken curry, embellishing each bowl with sliced herbs and wedges of lime. Served with coconut and chili sambals and the roti canai, it was all delicious!

We topped it all off with a dessert we learned to make, called cukur keria. It is basically a deep-fried sweet-potato doughnut in a pandan-flavored sugar syrup. Not for the calorie-phobic.

Sweet potato doughnuts frying
Sweet potato doughnuts frying (click to enlarge)

All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend most of a day. Nazlina’s book is for sale there at her school. The recipes for the dishes were emailed to us, so that we did not have to worry about writing them down. However, I think it would be better if paper copies were available there from the beginning of class. By the time one gets back to the home country, one forgets the tips we got in class and the written recipe seems slightly different than how we made it in class. But you don’t know, because you could be remembering incorrectly.

No matter. With 100,000 ingredients, there is some wiggle room.

Eating our laksa
The reward for having come from fine families! (click to enlarge)