They live in different corners of the world but Adam Liaw (Australia), Simpson Wong (United States) and Ping Coombes (Britain) are bound together heart, soul and stomach by their love of Malaysian cuisine.
They were born in Malaysia and have left the country but these #anakanakmalaysia still crave the tastes of their original home.
Each one an accomplished chef, they enjoy eating, preparing, and also earn a living, making Malaysian dishes.
Coombes won the 2014 UK MasterChef competition with her take on nasi lemak and wantan soup, and Liaw is renowned in the Australian food circuit for his version of beef rendang. Wong has served Malaysian cuisine at his Cafe Asean restaurant in New York City to the likes of Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman and Martha Stewart.
So it’s true what they say, you can take a person out of Malaysia, but you cannot take Malaysia out of his or her … erm, stomachs.
We reached out to them via e-mail interviews, and they each share a favourite dish that connects them to the place they call home Malaysian.
SIMPSON WONG: Malaysian food ambassador in Hollywood
He may cook for some of the biggest Hollywood celebrities at his latest restaurant Chomp Chomp in New York City, but Wong’s absolute joy comes from cooking the dishes that transports him back to his days in Tanjung Malim, Perak.
Wong was 22 when he journeyed to the Big Apple in 1988, and despite all the years away from home, he still finds himself talking often about Malaysia and in particular, its food.
Wong serves a list of Malaysian hawker fares in Chomp Chomp – from laksa to char kway teow and grilled sting ray.
“I really enjoy cooking Malaysian dishes not just for myself but also for my friends and restaurant staff who are like family to me.
“Some of the dishes I like to make are char kway teow, a dish I could eat every day. Other favourite dishes of mine are XO sauce fried rice, and curry chicken with potatoes.
“For parties, I like to make beef rendang, which is very festive.”
He shares the recipe for Assam Fish, a dish he grew up eating. Wong prefers to stick to the original recipe which he learnt from his mother.
Nevertheless, he did make one adjustment to the dish: “I use fresh hake fillet as this is the best wild seasonal fish we can find here.”
1kg hake or cod fillet
120ml cooking oil
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp chilli paste
350ml coconut milk
120ml tamarind juice
sugar, salt and pepper to taste
170g ladyfingers, trimmed
170g cherry tomatoes, halved
170g red bell pepper, cut into bite sizes
2 tbsp fried shallot crisps
Spice paste (blended)
4 cloves garlic
3 lemongrass, sliced
2 tbsp chopped galangal
2 tbsp chopped turmeric
Heat the oil on medium heat, and add the blended spice paste. Cook, stirring, until fragrant.
Add curry and chilli powders and continue cooking until fragrant before adding the coconut milk, tamarind juice and water. Season to taste with sugar, salt and pepper.
Add the ladyfingers and cook until tender before adding the fish, cherry tomatoes and bell pepper. Cook until fish turns opaque, about 5 minutes.
Serve garnished with coriander and shallot crisps, with steamed jasmine rice.
ADAM LIAW: Staying true to his roots
“I still have a lot of family in Malaysia and visit at least once a year, and it always feels like home when I get there,” says Liaw.
When he is not travelling the world promoting his cookbooks or working on his various projects, the 2010 Australian Masterchef champion is often in the kitchen, whipping up delicious food.
He cooks Malaysian dishes and the Hainanese blood in him regards the Hainanese Chicken Rice as his “family dish”.
“I have the brown Hainanese homemade kaya in the fridge at all times, and I make dishes like satay, char kway teow, mee goreng, ayam pongteh and chicken curry very regularly,” he shares.
Liaw also loves rendang, a favourite dish from his childhood, and has found a way to modernise it.
And Liaw’s Lamb Chop Rendang recipe cooks faster than the traditional rendang.
“It just happened – as a result of the changes I made to the dish. Australians love curries so I wanted to make a rendang that had a wetter consistency, more similar to an Indian curry.
“I also wanted to use lamb forequarter chops, which are an Australian favourite. Both these changes meant cooking the rendang for shorter than the three to four hours I would normally cook a beef rendang,” he says.
Although Liaw tries to keep the rendang as authentic as possible, he has to adapt the dish to the Australian palate.
“I make sure the ingredients are readily available in Australia so there are fewer spices than I might normally use; I use kaffir lime leaves in place of turmeric leaves, less heat from chilli and the kerisik is made from dessicated coconut.
“It’s also a wetter rendang than I would usually cook, and of course, the big change is using lamb chops instead of beef. But I still think it’s a proper rendang.”
LAMB CHOP RENDANG
1 cup dessicated coconut
6 shallots, peeled
2 large red chillies
4 garlic cloves
3cm ginger, peeled
3cm galangal, peeled
1 tsp turmeric powder
3 tsp salt
2 tbsp oil
1kg lamb forequarter chops
2 stalks lemongrass
3 kaffir lime leaves, whole
400ml coconut cream
1 tsp sugar
1 cup water
2 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
steamed rice, to serve
thinly sliced cucumber, tomato and red onion, to serve
To make kerisik
In a frying pan, dry fry the coconut until golden brown to make kerisik.
To prepare rendang
Blend the rempah ingredients together to a smooth paste. Fry the rempah in the oil for about 10 minutes until very fragrant.
Add the lamb chops, lemongrass and whole lime leaves and fry for a few minutes to coat in the paste.
Add the coconut cream, sugar, and water. Simmer covered for about an hour.
Add the kerisik, stir well and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes until the rendang is thick and oily.
Dish out the rendang and sprinkle with the shredded lime leaves. Serve with rice, slices of cucumber, tomato and onion.
PING COOMBES: Spreading the love for Malaysian food
The UK Masterchef winner would love to work with Chef Wan one day. “He is a colourful character and has extensive knowledge on Malaysian food, so it would be fun to spread the love of Malaysian food with him,” says Coombes.
But Coombes has already put Malaysian cuisine on the international map all by herself by winning the contest that’s watched around the globe.
“I love making Malaysian dishes. They remind me of home,” says Coombes who has lived in Britain for over 15 years.
“I use food to reconnect with my family. I make nasi lemak and char kway teow, my mum’s steamed fish, satay and laksa when I entertain friends. I am still learning really and there are so many dishes to pick up,” adds the mother of one.
She is currently working on publishing her cookbook Ping’s Pantry which will be available in May next year.
“The book features Malaysian food inspired by my childhood,” she says.
Coombes shares the recipe for Prawns and Squid Nonya Kerabu, with a little Italian twist, which she first made on a family trip to Puglia, Italy.
“I wanted to contribute to the feast my friends were preparing, and they had never tried Malaysian food so I packed belacan to make my kerabu nonya only to find out it was really difficult to find bihun (rice vermicelli) in Puglia.
“So I adapted my recipe to get the best of Italian ingredients I could find into a dish I know and love so well.”
The dish worked well, and here she mixes bihun with Italian vermicelli, a fine pasta, to create different textures.
“I use squid in place of octopus and added the Italians’ much loved tomatoes to create a burst of sunshine.”
PRAWN AND SQUID ‘ITALIAN JOB’ KERABU BIHUN
12 shallots, peeled
300ml white vinegar
12 tsp sugar
400g squids, cut into 1cm rings
300g king prawns, peeled
140g Italian vermicelli
140g rice vermicelli or bihun
100g unsweetened desiccated coconut or kerisik
50g coriander, roughly torn
20g mint leaves, roughly torn
20 ripe cherry tomatoes, quartered
10 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
fried shallot crisps
Sambal belacan dressing
8 big red chillies, sliced
juice and zest of 2 limes
1 tbsp belacan
2 tbsp sugar
To pickle shallots
Slice the shallots thinly and place in a glass jar. Stir the sugar into the vinegar to dissolve it completely.
Pour mixture into the jar. Pickle for at least 2 hours before using.
You can store the pickle in fridge for up to 1 week but it won’t last you that long!
For kerabu bihun
Bring a pan of water to boil. Add 1 tsp salt. Poach squid for 30 seconds, remove and plunge into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.
Poach the prawns for 1 minute, remove and plunge in cold water. Drain and set aside.
Bring another pan of water to boil and add 1 tsp salt.
Add Italian vermicelli and cook for 2-3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold running water.
Mix some vegetable oil into the vermicelli to stop it from sticking.
Place the bihun in a large bowl, cover with hot boiling water and soak for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a frying pan, toast the desiccated coconut until golden brown on medium heat to make kerisik. Cool completely.
To make sambal dressing
Place all the ingredients in a small blender and blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Place vermicelli, prawns and squid in a large mixing bowl. Add tomatoes, beansprouts, pickled shallots, coriander, kaffir and mint leaves. Tip in the sambal belacan dressing.
Give it a good mix and squeeze the tomatoes lightly to release the flavour and juices.
Add coconut (kerisik) and mix well. Sprinkle with crispy shallots and serve.