On Armenian Street in the heart of George Town, Penang, the Jawi House Café Gallery occupies the type of traditional shophouse that is the trademark of the UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site: a two-storey dwelling with a five-foot walkway in the front and air well in the middle of the house.
Like the Peranakan Baba-Nyonya, whose culture was born of the marriage of Chinese and local Malays, the Jawi Peranakans can trace their roots back to Muslim traders from the Middle East, Persia and northern India. They brought with them many of the spices that are now widely used in Malaysia. They also brought the Arabised Jawi script, the traditional form of writing the Malay language.
Chef Nurilkarim Razha, who officiates in the kitchens of Jawi House, grew up very aware of his dual Jawi heritage, with his mother, a fifth-generation Malaysian whose family came from Lahore in modern Pakistan, and his father, originally from Malaysia’s northern Kedah state, both respected academics. Of course, that translated into the food he grew up with.
“With my mum's background being Peranakan and Pakistani, we grew up eating chapattis and curries,” he recalls. He also remembers the treats that she would bring back from her frequent international trips that opened his eyes to a world of culinary possibilities. And his dad? “My father's actually quite a good cook. But because my mum is quite fussy in the kitchen, he only feels comfortable to cook when my mum is not around,” he says, smiling. “On my dad's side, we ate more laksa, rendang … kampung (Malay for 'village') food.”
“Growing up, the place that had the most vibrancy and activity was the kitchen,” he recalls. “I would try to emulate what my mum was doing.” Despite his interest in cooking from a very young age, his parents didn't see restaurant work as a viable option and insisted that young Nuril enrol in pre-law. It didn't take long for him to see that this was not the path he was destined for, but it took longer for his parents to warm to his chosen career. After taking a degree in events management, he trained at Penang's legendary E&O Hotel, before moving to Kuala Lumpur to work at French restaurant Cilantro under Japanese chef Takashi Kimura.
In 2013, his mother, the anthropologist Wazir Jahan Karim, who had just published the book Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage, opened the Jawi House Café Gallery as a showcase for Jawi culture, including food. Nuril saw the opportunity to share the specialities of his childhood and returned to Penang. Though he credits his mother particularly for forming his curiosity and taste for everything from Sunday roasts to foraged food eaten by indigenous Orang Asli communities, “working with my mother was something I never expected, I never planned on.” He considers his words. “It is very much of a challenge to work with your mum,” he confides, but he also sees it as a responsibility. “You need to carry on your family heritage in a way.” A chef might cook French or Japanese cuisine without being French or Japanese, but “it is very important for a chef to understand what their heritage is and (what) you are connected to.” Are there disadvantages? “My mum has a very high standard in cooking. She comes to check and tells me all the time what I've done wrong. But that's good because chefs can be very arrogant, right?” he grins.
It was also his mum who encouraged him to join the R.AGE's Food Fight competition to find Malaysia's next food celebrity. He wowed the judges and won not only a cash prize but the chance to host the web programme, The Local Kitchen, where he explores food cultures and unusual ingredients all around Malaysia. If it were up to him, he'd do another season about the food of Borneo in Sabah and Sarawak. “There are so many things to highlight. I would love to do more episodes,” he muses.
So, what is next for the young chef who turns 29 this year? “We want to expand the business in Penang or KL as there’s no real Jawi Peranakan restaurant in KL.” He is writing a couple of recipe books due out this year “[if] I can be disciplined enough to finish up my book-writing, while my mum is still free to assist me.”
“Being a millennial, I have a lot of things I want to achieve before I turn 30.” He reels off his wish list. “Apprentice in a kitchen outside of Malaysia. I'm quite an avid scuba diver, so definitely diving in more places. I think it’d be quite interesting to go to India, or Kashmir or Pakistan to see my origins.”
His passion for sharing culinary traditions and local ingredients that are part of his heritage are reflected in dishes like his nasi lemuni, rice cooked with the flowers and leaves of the chaste tree found in northern Malaysia. The dish was “traditionally consumed by ladies in confinement and is supposed to revitalise your body with nutrients,” he explains. The spices would “warm up the body and help expel wind” but Nuril considers them to be optional and doesn't usually add them at the restaurant. The butterfly pea flowers are not traditional in nasi lemuni but were suggested to Nuril by his mother to brighten up an otherwise dull-coloured dish.
“In Malay, we say taat setia (a reminder to be loving and obedient). You have to listen to your mum!” he says with a smile.