Born and raised in Malaysia to a family of cooks and bakers of the Baba Nyonya minority, Chef Kyo Pang has hospitality in her blood. After seeking asylum in New York City, she discovered that food could connect her to her home and family even when she couldn’t be with them. Chef Kyo is the founder and executive chef of Kopitiam, a community-driven Malaysian restaurant in the city’s Lower East Side.
I was born and raised in Penang, a small island in northern Malaysia. I am part of the Baba Nyonya, a vanishing culture in Malaysia. My people are a mix of cultures and histories—Chinese, local Malay, and then traces of the Portuguese as well, and you find influences from those cultures in our food, which as a blend of those things is very unique.
That’s sort of the background for my food as well. I’m the 3rd generation of cooks in my family. My grandfather is a master barista, and my father’s whole family was known for their savory cooking. My mother’s family was known for detailed sweets called kuih. So of course their marriage made sense from a food perspective! Growing up, I never wanted to be in the food industry, or at least I was made to think that. My parents wanted me to study hard and do something else— restaurant work was hard, and they wanted something different for me. What’s funny is that when I was very little, I really loved cooking and loved food, but my family was always telling me not to do it, so I convinced myself I didn’t like it. It took me awhile to get back to the kitchen again.
I’ve been in NYC for 12 years now. Only 5 years ago, I started thinking about what I should be. When you are growing up I think you are maybe torn between the ideal “me” and the actual “me”.
I thought that everything I was doing— working in the fashion industry, doing event marketing, etc— was great. But I was never really me. I stayed in New York as an asylum seeker. It is against the law to be gay in Malaysia. My parents live in a very small town, and it would have been dangerous for me to come out and then stay there, or to return there. So while I did come to the US to study, I stayed because I knew I had to. I haven’t seen my family in person for a very long time. I was homesick a lot, missing mom’s food. I’d search the city for food that tasted the way hers did, but I never found it. You’ll never find soup that tastes as good as the one your mom makes for you! So since I couldn’t find it, and I couldn’t go home, I started cooking. I make food that connects me to my home. The kaya jam I serve at the restaurant— that’s something my grandmother made for me when I was a kid. The belacan wings were something my father used to make. I serve the same kuih that my family made, and bak chang, the blue-and-white glutinous rice dumplings of the Nyonya. Wanting to connect with my family and my home is what ultimately made me realize that despite my studies and other pursuits, cooking and food were in my blood. Can’t escape that!
All of the women in a traditional Baba Nyonya family are under strict family obligation to participate in all aspects of food preparation, especially for holidays. We make special foods and celebrate and pray for blessings for the whole family. I found a lot of peace when I was performing these small tasks at home.
My mother was very strict, and we had difficulty communicating, partly because I was born with Asperger syndrome and I sometimes said things I really didn’t mean. Through cooking, I learned that I could translate intention better. My grandmother and mother would always say the same thing— your hands are the keys, or the bridge connecting to your soul. So when you touch and make food, it is connected to your heart. When I was making these special foods with my mother, I know that she could understand my true feelings without speaking.
Philosophy, religion, and food are all connected for Baba Nyonya families. If you begin a task with good energy, you will end with good energy.
For example, though patience was difficult for me when I was young, I was always taught that if I started a task like cooking with good energy and with an air of calm instead of impatience, the food would turn out delicious, and of course that was important to me! I think the first thing that comes through food is love. And then zen. Love and zen together create harmony. I believe that everyone has their own way of doing things, and is unique, but we can all fit together. Baba Nyonya people believe in creating a harmonious way with one another, and that is directly reflected in our food as well. Each ingredient has its own characteristic and character, and each character is unique— but they work perfectly with one another if you understand them well. We have a dessert that is layered to be salted on top and sweet on the bottom.
Apply that to life— you can’t always have only sweetness, you need something else to make it really perfect.
I love making glutinous rice balls with kids. For a celebration that is usually around Christmas time (this year it is December 21st), we have a gathering celebration for our family. Usually, family members return to their grandparents’ homes from all over the world for a special dinner, and this desert is symbolic as a completion of the meal. We like things to be round because circles connect people. They represent good things coming around. We believe that the round glutinous rice ball is symbolic for the energy of the circle, which comes back to its origins and is continuous from start to end. My return to my origins made me realize who I really am, and I try to express what I learned in my cooking for other people as well.