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A Michelin star for a Nyonya restaurant is recognition of Penang’s cultural heritage, says Auntie Gaik Lean

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

GEORGE TOWN, Dec 17 — If 12-year-old Beh Gaik Lean was told that the tough training her mother put her through in the 1960s would one day earn her a Michelin star, she would have scoffed.

She would have preferred not to have to pound and grind chillies for sambal daily. Today, the 69-year-old is grateful for those tough lessons.

A fourth-generation Nyonya, she reminisced how young Nyonyas back then were required to start learning the ropes in managing the household the moment they hit puberty.

“I had to learn how to giling sambal, slice ulam and prepare the ingredients for all meals,” she said.

She said it was normal for the elders to shout obscenities at the young Nyonyas if they did not prepare the food according to the strict “requirements”.

“Nyonya cooks are very particular, everything has to be sliced and prepared a certain way, even to cut the yams for pengat, it has to be perfectly diamond shaped or you will get scolded,” she said.

Fourth generation Nyonya, Beh Gaik Lean started cooking at the age of 12. — Picture by Opalyn Mok
Fourth generation Nyonya, Beh Gaik Lean started cooking at the age of 12. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

Fourth generation Nyonya, Beh Gaik Lean started cooking at the age of 12. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

It can be said that cooking became almost second nature to Beh as she went on to work in the food industry in her 20s.

She started out as the in-house chef in Motorola’s canteen before she came out on her own and supplied meals to the canteens of various multinational companies including Intel, Seagate and Dell.

Cooking for large groups and catering food to factory workers meant that she had a meticulously organised kitchen.

“My kitchen is always clean and organised where everything is in its place so that food is prepared properly and quality remains consistent at all times,” she said.

Though she learnt to cook from her late mother, Beh refined her skills by learning from the late chef extraordinaire Datuk Lim Bian Yam.

Lim was one of Penang Heritage Trust’s living heritage treasures of Penang awardees as a chef and floral artist.

Beh Gaik Lean with some of her specialty dishes: ‘lor bak’, ‘pie tie’ and prawn fritters. — Picture by Opalyn Mok
Beh Gaik Lean with some of her specialty dishes: ‘lor bak’, ‘pie tie’ and prawn fritters. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

Beh Gaik Lean with some of her specialty dishes: ‘lor bak’, ‘pie tie’ and prawn fritters. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

“I learnt a lot from Lim and continued to meet with him over the years,” she said.

Lim, who was also known as the Master Chef of Chefs, died in 2017.

Beh is affectionately known as Auntie Gaik Lean by many of her customers and that is the name of her restaurant. It was recently awarded a Michelin star at the debut of the Michelin Guide in Malaysia.

“This award is a recognition of Penang’s Peranakan heritage and our Baba Nyonya culinary skills,” she said.

She said the award will put Penang’s Baba Nyonya heritage on an international level so it wasn’t only for her restaurant which she runs with her son, Adrian Tan.

Beh and her son opened the restaurant — Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery — in 2013.

Beh Gaik Lean speaking to her customers at her restaurant. — Picture by Opalyn Mok
Beh Gaik Lean speaking to her customers at her restaurant. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

Beh Gaik Lean speaking to her customers at her restaurant. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

The restaurant offers an extensive menu of Baba Nyonya dishes including crowd favourites Curry Kapitan and Jiu Hoo Char. Beh’s favourite is the simple brinjal sambal which is her mother’s recipe.

“It’s the original recipe from my mother and it’s a very versatile dish with different varieties to it,” she said.

She said everything in her restaurant is made from scratch and locally sourced. “Even our specialty drinks such as nutmeg juice, we brew our own,” she said.

She said they would not offer anything that they can’t make on their own.

“I want to make sure quality control is always there, so if everything is made in my kitchen, the quality will always be there,” she said.

Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery is located on 1, Bishop Street and opens for lunch from 12pm to 2.30m and for dinner from 6pm to 9.30pm. It is closed on Mondays. Call 017-434 4398 for reservations.

Crowds throng the restaurant after it was awarded the Michelin star. — Picture by Opalyn Mok
Crowds throng the restaurant after it was awarded the Michelin star. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

Crowds throng the restaurant after it was awarded the Michelin star. — Picture by Opalyn Mok