Michelle’s cooking vacation with chef Nazlina

Michelle and Nazlina. Picture by: Ann Ravinther

Michelle stumbled upon VAWAA by pure luck… “I’m part of a Facebook group called Girls Love Travel. A girl I met in Colombia, from the same Facebook group, told me about it while we were having breakfast. Someone from the group had posted about it and asked if anyone had done it.” No one had done it, yet. Michelle got intrigued because she fancied learning something new while exploring a place. At that time, she was in Bali, finishing her yoga teacher training. Myanmar was next on her list and she had to fly through Malaysia to get there. So, scrolling through a list of curated artists from around the world on VAWAA, she found a vacation in food capital Penang with Malaysian chef Nazlina. “Nazlina definitely stood out to me because I’m studying nutrition. So, I booked a vacation with Nazlina to learn the art of cooking healthy & healing Malay Food.”

Now, Michelle is not your average traveller. She has managed to turn her vacations into a wholesome, educational journey by learning about health and wellness, and gathering skills along the way. “I think in day-to-day life, there’s not much time to learn new things or experience different cultures,” she explained. With smiles galore and a friendly disposition, we spoke to Michelle about the things she learned while travelling:

You have been travelling for the past 6 months before this — where have you gone?

In South America, I travelled to Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia then went back to Australia for 10 days. Then I went to Bali, because I had my sister’s birthday there — hung out with my family and then I did two months in the woods for yoga teacher training and now here!

So, you flew in from Australia?

Yeah, my route was ridiculous. 6 months ago, I quit my job a week and a half before I left Australia. I love marketing but I also wanted to travel and learn more about nutrition. Also, I’ll be leaving to Melbourne soon so I had to quit my job in Sydney, anyway.

Michelle exploring turmeric and ginger flowers at the market. Picture courtesy: michtakesworld

You’ve done a lot! And over the past 5 days, you’ve added to that. What are some of your fondest experiences with Nazlina?

The night market and just seeing all the different ingredients. Naz showed me a lot of turmeric, ginger and ingredients that are not as common in Australia. We also made fish head curry, which is again out of the norm as to what I would eat at home. So, it was really cool to see something different and unique.

Fish head curry base and an abundant day in the kitchen. Picture courtesy: michtakesworld

Would you make fish head curry, again?

I’m not sure but the skills I learnt are definitely applicable to making another curry!

Picture courtesy: Ann Ravinther

What are some other skills you’ve learnt?

I learnt how to make original tom yam paste which is really good because I’m eating more vegetarian food these days. Making roti, as well, how to spread the bread and make it quite thin and elastic. I’ve never done that before. Never made any bread, actually. Also, I’ve started to identify different herbs. We walked around the whole town and now I know what some of them look like!

Learning mad roti canai skills. Picture courtesy: michtakesworld

You sound like you really enjoyed yourself!

Yeah, and I really just appreciate that most things can be used for health and wellness in some way.

Like what things — give us a tip.

I have an obsession with turmeric — like I’m obsessed with it. Naz told me that you should have it with black pepper so your body can absorb it more efficiently. That’s something that will stick with me forever.

That’s useful! How would you lead a more healing lifestyle?

I had volunteered at a Permaculture farm before this. Basically, organic gardening. Everything is self-sustainable. I’ve been wanting to learn more about this because when I get home, I want a garden. Before I met Naz, I was thinking more about fruits and vegetables. But now — it’s about the spices and the herbs. I’d be more inclined to learn about these things now. And, I like the idea of using herbs and spices to heal instead of over-the-counter medicine. Unless, you really need them!

Besides gardening and learning, what would you do differently in your everyday life?

I must admit, when I was making curries at home, I’d often buy curry paste rather than making it from scratch. I’ve always wanted to make it from scratch but I think I just didn’t know how to. I thought it was going to be too difficult. Too many ingredients to use or a short storage life but that’s not the case. I’ll definitely be doing that at home.

In search of ripe papaya. Picture courtesy: michtakesworld

So, herbs and spices?

Yes, they’re the key things: herbs, spices and the sauces!

Is there anything that was challenging for you?

Maybe the heat! From a cooking perspective, everything’s been good. I’ve started having an appreciation for the simplicity of Malaysian cooking. It’s not necessarily easy but if you keep it simple, you have the proper flavours coming through. That makes it more approachable, I think.

How is cooking an art to you?

I think an art can be anything that requires creativity and it can be unique to the person that does it. With cooking, there’s probably a set of rules you should follow to get the basics. Once you’ve understood that, you can bring your own flavour and spin to it! Thanks to all the experiences I had, my business idea has changed a lot and it has helped me formed what it is exactly.

What is your business idea?

I want to start a health and wellness business, specialising in reducing inflammation. Inflammation causes a whole lot of problems we have in our body like arthritis or heart disease. I’m really interested in that and I want people to feel more healthy, energetic and are less likely to get sick. My philosophy is more about prevention and giving people the best shot of not getting sick.

How would you do that?

There’s three things I want to focus on: nutrition, exercise and stress-relief. With nutrition, it’s about food. With exercise, it’s mainly yoga. And with stress relief, it’s about just getting outside like hiking or travelling.

Quirky Penang street art. Picture courtesy: michtakesworld

We are excited for you! On another note, how do you find Penang?

Thank you! And, I love Penang. It’s been so good. I spent a week here before I started this. I’ve been studying nutrition while I’ve been travelling. So, I’ve been mainly just hanging out, studying and eating.

How do you juggle all that? And, you’ve got to explore Penang as well…

It’s really difficult. When I first started, I was like “oh yeah, I’m travelling by myself, I’ll have so much time” but it’s so hard. I’ve just been going to coffee shops and little restaurants and using the wifi to study. I really like the vibe here.

Yeah, Penang is a laid-back place.

Yeah, I didn’t have any expectations before I arrived. It feels really safe in Georgetown. Easy to get around, really good food. Lots of variety with the mix of cultures. Lots of street food — which has been awesome as well! However, I probably need to go on a diet when I leave because I’ve been eating so much food it’s ridiculous.

You look fine, though!

Oh, thank you — I just need to go on a long run.

Michelle and Nazlina at the spa. Picture courtesy: Ann Ravinther

We spoke while Michelle was stirring a wok of kaya. She had to stir it for 45 minutes straight so that the smooth texture is achieved and it’s not clumpy. We had tried some of this kaya earlier on and it was simply delicious. After their studio session, we followed them to a traditional Malay spa — which was an impromptu plan. Nazlina had suggested going there after realising that Michelle would be interested in it. “By conversation, you’d know what would fit a person. Michelle is flexible and open to ideas plus she wanted to come here too — and it’s a good thing we did!” Nazlina said as we looked at Michelle chatting vividly with the man who owned the spa. It was obvious that Nazlina enjoyed Michelle’s company too. “I quite liked it and I learnt some things from her! It’s good to have someone who’s in the same wavelength to talk to. It’s nice to go in depth in conversations, exchange opinions, learn about what the other party is interested in and appreciate it. We really clicked!”

Rest assured when Michelle returns to Melbourne, she’ll come with a renewed mind and enthusiastic spirit.

Written By Ann Ravinther
To experience the art of cooking and have an adventure of your own with Nazlina — Learn more about a VAWAA studio session with her.

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