The very words “afternoon tea” conjure up images of gentility, grace and some rather gorgeous nibbles. Although its origin is as English as they come — the result of a duchess who wanted something to eat and drink to fortify her constitution, presumably before a long night of stately entertaining at her sumptuous country pile — Malaysians have eagerly embraced the idea of a mid-afternoon culinary pick-me-up, elevating it even to veritable banquets, as demonstrated by the lavish hotel high-tea.
For something daintier but no less elaborate, Jennifer Ker, the chatelaine of Heeren Mansion, a stunningly refurbished Melakan home in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, is organising her first Peranakan-themed tea party this month. Ker, a trained interior designer, is sufficiently self-aware to realise her true forte lies in doing up houses and creating the most spectacular tablescapes. “I enjoy cooking but an event like this needs professionals,” she says, laughing.
Enter Dinesh Rao, the talent behind @myasiankitchen, and Sharon Ann De Souza of the hugely popular private kitchen Nyonya Supper Club. “I’ve known Dinesh for over a decade,” Ker says. “I was a regular at his former café, Tray, and used to bring my children too. So naturally, he was the first person I thought of and approached when the idea of having an event at Heeren Mansion became serious.”
Rao, of course, could not say no to his former customer-turned-friend. “The deal clincher, to be honest, was the incredible space Jennifer has created,” he says. “I was blown away. In fact, I told Jenn how if Heeren Mansion was mine, I’d put a big padlock on the doors and just lock myself in forever … just to keep the whole place for ourselves.”
“Heeren Mansion was originally meant to be a weekend home, a place where we could host family and friends. But once everything was done up, my husband and I felt it would be wonderful if we could share the space we’ve created with others. Hence, the decision to rent it out as well as curate events where people can come, soak up some Peranakan and Melakan culture, and just have a lovely time,” Ker says. “We want to give people a chance to see it and then decide if they’d like to return for a weekend or a few days — for a relaxing break or even birthday parties, engagements or tea ceremonies. And unless you rent the entire place, it’s hard to get the chance to explore the interiors. I myself live in Kuala Lumpur and only pop down sporadically. So events like these are a great chance to bring like-minded people together.”
Although Rao was onboard from the get-go, he instinctively knew he didn’t want to be the only one in charge of the culinary side of things. “I also wanted to spread out the workload lah,” he grins, “and the person I instinctively thought of working with was Sharon, of course.” A Nyonya Supper Club regular, Rao is effusive of De Souza’s skills, saying he “loves her flavours, menu offerings … and personality. Much as I hate to say it, food alone is, sometimes, not enough. So I am very glad — or perhaps relieved is the better word — that Sharon said yes.”
“It is great fun working with perfectionists,” De Souza weighs in. “Jenn is so meticulous and fastidious. And I think what will really draw the crowd will be the combination of this beautiful home and Dinesh himself, who really has a huge following in the local food scene. As of now, the menu is still being finalised; we keep tweaking and improving. Dinesh and I are constantly playing with plating and presentation ideas, working out which food combos work best and if there is simply too much food. Right now, there’s mee siam, otak-otak, yam cake, pie tee, angku kuih, pang susi and more. Revisions are still ongoing but, rest assured, there will be plenty. Just know that a feast is definitely waiting.”
Rao adds: “We hope everyone makes the most of this rare chance to not just eat but immerse themselves in the beauty of a heritage house that has been so lovingly restored. It is truly the space, not the food, that will be the star of the show this time.”
Heeren Mansion’s inaugural Peranakan Tea Party takes place on Nov 25 and is priced at RM170 per pax. For more information, direct message @heerenmansion on Instagram.
This article first appeared on Nov 13, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.