If you’re searching for a consummate cook, look no further than Melba Nunis. She’s spent nearly her entire life in the kitchen, first braising and baking for her family, then reinventing herself as the chef of Kuala Lumpur’s first restaurant centred on Kristang cuisine, which reflects a Malaysian and Portuguese blended heritage that harks back to colonial times.
“As early on in my childhood as I can remember, I was always with my mum in the kitchen, and that’s where my passion for cooking began,” says the affable 63-year-old, who comes from the Kristang ethnic community in Malaysia’s southern state of Melaka. “We had no iPad, no TV, so I watched my mum, a great cook who learned her skills from my grandma.”
Nunis remembers how everything was prepared before modern technology took over. She started by plucking out the feathers from chickens that her mother slaughtered at home, before crafting her first ginger cake from scratch at the age of eight.
When she married at 19, she discovered her husband shared her intense affection for food. He would purchase an abundance of meat, seafood and vegetables from the market and stock up their freezer for Nunis to cook.
“I enjoyed being a homemaker, preparing my children’s favourite dishes,” Nunis recalls. “I would cook for friends too – I was very involved in church and fund-raising activities, and I would invite the other ladies for tea, and I’d make all sorts of cakes.”
In her heart, Nunis always harboured the hope of someday spearheading her own restaurant, despite never having attended a formal culinary school. Her three fully grown daughters eventually encouraged and helped her to realise that dream five years ago, opening their family-helmed eatery called Simply Mel’s at a retail complex in Bangsar South.
Since then, Nunis has become an unofficial ambassador for Kristang fare – hearty soups, fiery curries and flavour-packed stews that evoke a medley of earthy influences, with aromatic notes of local Malay, Chinese and Indian home cooking alongside Portuguese, Dutch and British nuances, handed down through generations of mothers.
“People would come into our restaurant and ask us, what is Kristang?” Nunis says. “What made me happy in the end was that they really enjoyed the food,” which spanned soulful signatures like seybah galinhia (chicken simmered in sweet-savoury caramelised sauce, tinged with cinnamon and star anise), pesce sambal binagre (deep-fried mackerel smothered in spicy, tangy vinegar chilli sauce) and incimintu karangezu (freshly picked crab meat, prawns, diced carrots, onions and turnips baked in a breaded crab shell).
Nunis’ efforts have been targeted at preserving the Kristang gastronomic legacy, which has long remained obscure even within Malaysia. In late 2014, she marked a major milestone by compiling her own cookbook for publication, a trove of traditional recipes accompanied by intimately personal anecdotes about what each dish meant to her family, like how her mother would prepare epok-epok sayur (shredded vegetable puffs), battered bananas or fried sweet potatoes for her father for teatime at 3 pm every day.
This year, A Kristang Family Cookbook won first place in the Best Woman Chef category at the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards – a victory that caught Nunis and her daughter Cheryl by surprise at the awards announcement ceremony in Yantai, China. “My mum, who always wanted to create her own cookbook too, must have been smiling down from heaven,” Nunis says.
In November this year, the story of Simply Mel’s as a restaurant came to a conclusion – Nunis’ daughters, who helped manage the venue, have moved abroad for work and family reasons, and the family chose to close their eatery. However, Nunis and her husband are staying on in Malaysia, and she plans to embark on a secret new project next year that will continue to keep her busy in the culinary arts.
“I’m not ready to hang up my apron. Life is such that you must make full use of it, and I’m happy doing what I do,” Nunis enthuses. “Cooking brings me so much joy. Whatever time of the day it is, I love to be cooking.”