Melba Nunis to champion Kristang cuisine at The Datai Langkawi's Chef Series 2024

The award-winning cookbook author is the first Malaysian chef to headline the event.

Melba Nunis will be presenting her special set dinner at The Gulai House, The Datai Langkawi, on April 19 and 20 (Photo: Shahrin Yahya/ The Edge Malaysia)

Options: Congratulations on being the first Malaysian chef to headline The Datai Langkawi’s acclaimed Chef Series this year. How do you feel about it?
Melba Nunis:
It has always been my hope and wish to share Kristang cuisine with the world. So, being chosen to work with The Datai and invited to the island as part of their Chef Series — I mean, it’s such a prestigious resort — is like a dream come true. I feel honoured and humbled, for sure, and it is such a great opportunity for me to share my food in such an amazing setting.

The Datai’s 2024 line-up is also dedicated exclusively to women, hence the tweaked title of The Chef-fe Series this year. How do you feel about this and what do you think of the fact that more female chefs are now finally getting due recognition?
Female chefs are as competent as male chefs, absolutely, so the all-women culinary line-up at The Datai this year makes me happy. It shows that female chefs have a bright future.

What can guests expect from your upcoming weekend in Langkawi?
They will be able to enjoy a first-hand experience trying out new flavours of a different and unique cuisine. Furthermore, I hope they will leave with good memories from discovering a little more about Kristang culture and heritage.


The dinner will be held at The Gulai House (Photo: The Datai Langkawi)

Kristang food is still not as familiar to most people. How would you describe it in a nutshell and which dishes are most iconic to you?
It is true that there hasn’t been as much awareness about Kristang food compared to other cuisines. Not many Eurasians these days are familiar with Kristang food as well simply because there are not many restaurants that serve it. Kristang cuisine consists of strong sambals, complex curries using dried spices, fragrant coconut, tangy tamarind and more. But there are also non-spicy dishes as a result of Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese influences. The iconic dishes, for me, would always be Devil or Debal Curry, a fiery dish that every Eurasian can relate to, and Seybak, braised pork served on a bed of lettuce with cucumber, tofu puffs and chilli sauce.

Your love for food and cooking has a lot to do with your childhood. Tell us about the meals your mother served the family and what a day in a Kristang kitchen was like, particularly leading up to big festivals and celebrations.
Eating out was a rarity back in the day and I remember how my mother, Mercy, would prepare and cook every meal. Every single dish was made from scratch and there would usually be a meat curry, fish or prawns and a vegetable … all to be eaten with rice. The prep would start with peeling onions and cutting up aromatics such as lemongrass, turmeric and galangal. All of these would then be ground into a paste using an old fashioned millstone. Preparations and cooking took many hours in the kitchen daily. Of course, there would be different and special dishes for celebrations and festive occasions, which would invariably take more time and effort than usual.

You published A Kristang Family Cookbook in 2014. What are some of your other all-time favourite cookbooks and authors?
I am so pleased that my first publication won the prestigious global award of Best in the World in the Woman Chef category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (GWCA) 2016 in Yantai, China. I also very much enjoy The Adventures of Fat Rice by Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo and Hugh Amano, and Sharon Wee’s Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen.


Chef Melba’s exclusive Hidang Style Menu celebrates the rich cultural heritage of Melakan cuisine (Photo: The Datai Langkawi)

What are you reading right now?
I enjoy reading all kinds of cookbooks and magazines that revolve around food and travel.

What are you listening to right now?
Golden oldies, with a soft spot in particular for Engelbert Humperdinck … especially The Last Waltz and Spanish Eyes.

Besides Langkawi, where else are you headed to this year?
I’ll be going to the UK soon — London and Wales — to visit and catch up with old friends and family. Then I will be flying to Pittsburgh, the US, to spend time with my daughter and her family. I enjoy travelling very much as it also gives me the chance to try new and different kinds of food.

Describe your idea of a perfect weekend.
Entertaining and having friends over and sharing a good laugh with them sound pretty perfect to me.  


Melba Nunis will be presenting her special set dinner, priced at RM600+ (with non-alcoholic pairing) and RM750+ (with wine pairing) at The Gulai House, The Datai Langkawi, on April 19 and 20. She will also conduct a cooking class on April 21. Book here.

This article first apeared on Apr 8, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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