Nazlina Hussin is no stranger to the overseas market curious to learn about the tricks of the trade for traditional Malay cooking.
Traditional Malay food to Nazlina is defined as cooking with ingredients that don’t need to be imported into the country. Namely, coconuts, chillies, pineapples, curry leaves, or anything that can be grown locally.
“Some might say, ‘okay no, this is Thai, or this is Indian,’ but Penang is a melting pot, so I would say this is Penang food!” she chimed while teaching Masterchef UK’s host, John Torode, to cook pineapple curry in 2016.
At 51 years old, she’s stolen the hearts of audiences from the UK, US, Italy, and South Korea with her expertise in local Malaysian cooking.
Who Is Nazlina Hussin?
She’s a youthful woman of rich history. She first quit an engineering job to own a SCUBA diving company with her ex-husband, which they bought for a reasonable price after it went out of business.
Now a single mum with 2 children, Nazlina couldn’t balance returning to a 9-5 engineering job.
She shared, “So I became a WAHM: work-at-home-mum. I did direct selling, English-Malay translation jobs, and even finding referrals for a real estate agent.”
Nazlina started her own cooking blog, Pickles and Spices, in 2007 as a hobby to archive her ventures in the kitchen. The home cook wrote about ingredients—especially spices—enlightening readers about Slow Food.
Slow Food is a movement that originated in Italy countering the idea of fast foods. Think of the dishes your grandmother would cook at home with ingredients from the market.
Soon, the blog gained traction and her inbox was flooded with requests from potential students keen to learn from her. Not having a venue to accommodate classes, she put the idea on hold.
In the meantime, she volunteered at Penang Heritage Trust which held regular workshops where webmasters like her were invited to attend. At 39, this opened doors that led her to her success today.
Securing a café deck at Tropical Spice Garden, it became her venue for cooking classes. An Australian journalist was her first student in 2009, brought in by Tourism Malaysia.
Upon returning home, the journalist wrote a centrepiece to publish in The West Australian. From then on, crowds of Australians came to attend Nazlina’s classes.
“The timing was perfect too because that year, my youngest daughter was enrolled into her primary school, and I had 6 hours to focus on my cooking classes while the children were at school,” she told Vulcan Post.
“By 1PM, my classes ended and I picked them up from school and ran the household like other single mothers out there. When they went to bed after dinner and homework, I answered emails and maintained my websites.”
Nazlina had already sold the SCUBA diving company by this point. It was something she was thankful for. Hosting cooking classes single-handedly earnt her a much higher profit. It’s also why she decided to pursue teaching over starting a restaurant.
Her classes filled a niche in the market at the time where there were no Malaysian cuisine cooking classes around Penang back in 2009.
“Locals prefer to learn about Western food rather than traditional local food while the foreign tourists are the opposite, they love our local food and want to learn how to make it,” said Nazlina.
Perhaps Malaysians may not be keen on taking classes for local cuisines as they could simply learn them from their elders at home.
But the cook embraces her target audience nonetheless. She smartly capitalised off the interest she got and Nazlina Spice Station’s classes eventually landed on the Eastern & Oriental Express’s itinerary as a tourist stop.
For an RM250 fee, you get a 5-hour class starting at 8AM. The teacher would bring her students on walking tours at the ChowRasta and Campbell Street markets to purchase fresh ingredients.
Upon returning to the class, ingredients are processed with traditional tools like batu giling, lesung batu (pestle and mortars) and kukur nyiur.
“Everything is done by hand. We do things together, gotong-royong style with me as the guide. Then we share the food together like a small kenduri (banquet),” Nazlina said.
Her efforts had her recognised by TripAdvisor, earning her a Winner of Certificate of Excellence 5 years in a row.
12 years in, Nazlina Spice Station has seen an exponential increase in students from 2009 up till January 2020.
“From having an average 4 students a week, I taught 60 students a week at its peak. On average, I teach 120 students a month,” she proudly said. Nazlina herself earns a 75% profit for her business.
During the MCO, classes were halted, but private lessons were taught sporadically in the CMCO. To reach a wider audience, she’s now organising Zoom classes for Airbnb Experiences while building a Facebook community.
“Of course the income is a fraction of what we enjoyed before the pandemic, but you just need to scale down your expenses and just make do,” she concluded.
- You can learn more about Nazlina Spice Station here.
- You can read more F&B articles that we’ve covered here.
Featured Image Credit: Nazlina, Managing Director of Nazlina Spice Station