Cooking with a Spice Merchant’s Daughter

I have never wanted to take a cooking class.

Wine tasting, conversational Italian, taiko, stained glass, piano, pottery class—yes. But, cooking class? No. Why?—since I love to cook and food is one of my passions. Maybe I felt that I could learn whatever I needed by poring over cookbooks and making some of the recipes. Or maybe there was the feeling that I could never capture an iota of the vast experience of a cook deeply immersed in the culture, history and cooking techniques of another land. I know, rationalizations, all of it. I would have gone on like this forever if it weren’t for a Christmas gift of a cooking class from my sister-in-law, one taught by an expert on Southeast Asian cooking.

Of Indian ancestry but born and raised in Malaysia, Christina Arokiasamy is a descendant of a long line of spice merchants, a pedigree that goes back five generations. Her exposure to spices began early in life as she helped her mother make them in their home in Penang, eventually to be sold at market. With this background and her own passion for cooking, it’s little wonder that she eventually became a consultant for the Four Seasons in Bali and Thailand and penned her own much-praised cookbook, The Spice Merchant’s Daughter. She’s been featured and mentioned in several publications, including Sunset magazine. Christina now lives here in the Seattle area and teaches classes on a range of Southeast Asian cuisines, which she changes once a month. Each class is limited to eight students, a number fitting for her home where the class is taught. She only takes a “break” when she leads some of her students on culinary, historic and cultural tours of selected Southeast Asian countries.

The class we picked was Food of Penang offered throughout the month of April. Many of the students tonight had taken previous classes. Malaysian cooking is something I know very little about. Locally, there aren’t many Malaysian restaurants. I’m guessing that the same holds true throughout America. Seattle and Redmond have Malay Satay Hut to carry the banner, but though the restaurant gets its share of recognition, we haven’t patronized it much for one reason or another. So, here the class was a good opportunity to learn something about the cuisine. As mentioned earlier, Christina was born in Malaysia, so she spoke with authority about its food culture and how the local cuisine was influenced by immigrants from other parts of Asia, mostly China and India. A Penang tourist foldout brochure that Christina showed us lists and locates on a map all the sanctioned street food vendors, mostly in George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage City, who have been serving the same specialty for at least five generations, thus ensuring some measure of authenticity. She told us anecdotally that CNN voted Penang as one of the top ten Asian cities for street food. Its mix of many nationalities, who live side-by-side in relative harmony, results in an unparalleled diversity of food, a melting pot of the cupboards of Asia.

As if this introduction weren’t enough to stoke our taste buds, all the ingredients we would be using in class were attractively displayed on her kitchen’s island like a spread at a Malaysian market: coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, tamarind water, roasted peanuts, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallots, onions, galangal, English cucumbers, red jalapeño chiles, bean sprouts, rau ram, chopped lemongrass, sweet potatoes, limes, jicama, sambal oelek, turmeric, ground cumin, ground coriander, egg noodles, fried tofu.

Ingredients for the cooking class were already prepared
Ingredients for the cooking class

Despite a certain amount of chaos and students crammed in the kitchen, each person not preparing a dish from beginning to end but rather portions of it, everything came together in the end. It was a wonder that Christina was able to manage the entire operation, needing every once in a while to interrupt and demonstrate a technique or teach something.

Reducing the pasembur spice paste until oil separates
Reducing the pasembur spice paste until oil separates
Rau ram leaves for laksa
Stemmed rau ram leaves for laksa

We communally made a laksa, a noodle soup dish in a curry coconut broth, and a refreshing pasembur salad. As a bonus, Christina roasted chicken (chicken in oyster sauce), which she marinated and prepared ahead of time, while we sat down to eat the first two courses, accompanied by a glass of crisp pinot grigio. A dessert of vanilla ice cream topped with Christina’s palm sugar syrup ended the meal.


Normally, the pasembur, with its hard-cooked egg, fried tofu, cucumber and jicama, all topped with a spicy, thick sweet potato and peanut dressing, would be enough to fill you, so the other dishes could test the resolve of mere mortals. But the houseful of gourmands would have none of it, as they gleefully scarfed up everything in front of them.

It’s no coincidence that a class like this would bring together a group of people with common interests, all of whom have had lots of cooking experience, some of them with fascinating occupations in the industry, others having done much traveling, bound together by a love of food.

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