Aida Ahmad’s love of food is too great to be contained within just her petite personage.
What began as many nights cooking for friends – “it’s exciting when people love your food, I love entertaining!” – soon turned into a more serious effort for the journalist, with the formation of her own underground dining initiative, The Spicy Apron Supper Club.
“I love spicy food, although I don’t wear an apron!” she said.
“I had heard of supper clubs and underground dining starting up in the Klang Valley, and friends had suggested I start one of my own – I thought the name was catchy.”
It’s a sporadic supper club, which springs to life whenever inspiration hits. Rather than host it in her own apartment, Aida, 38, has opted to rent a small space owned by a friend who runs her own catering business – this gives her access to an industrial-grade kitchen flanked by a cosy dining space, usually seating about 10 people only.
“I like my menus to be both eclectic and simple – since I’m the only one cooking, the dishes have to be things I can pull off on my own, with easily available ingredients. But I do have a tendency to get a bit too ambitious and go overboard sometimes!” she said.
“That’s why a dish like the bread and butter pudding is good – it’s simple to make, but at the same time you can put a twist on it by using French toast, which gives it a buttery flavour, and makes it richer. That’s what you need when you’re cooking for a crowd.”
Aida tends to lean towards fusion dishes, gathering diverse flavours and textures that work well together for her – such as a dish of quinoa with sesame chicken and edamame, which she eats with home-made ikan bilis sambal.
“I like putting my own twist on it, such as using the torch ginger flower, or bunga kantan, in a pesto, which is originally an Italian recipe,” she said.
A passion for cooking runs in Aida’s blood. “My mom and my sisters are very good cooks, specialising not just in Indian dishes but in some Mediterranean as well,” said Aida.
“When we were growing up, my mom would always shoo my sisters and I out of her kitchen,” said Aida, the youngest of three girls.
So when Aida finally did pick up cooking, it was when she moved out of the family home about eight years ago – and it turned out to be an intense love affair.
“And it turns out I’m quite territorial in the kitchen as well; I’d rather not have anyone around me when I’m cooking,” she said. “I don’t like eating out a lot, because it’s too expensive. Plus, I need variety – which makes it even more expensive!”
Aida started out with her mother’s recipes, then explored the culinary world online and via cookbooks, as she became more kitchen-confident.
“But I’m not one to measure everything carefully, I cook according to ratios,” she said – that is, one part butter to two parts flour, etc.
That’s also why she’s more confident cooking than she is baking – she’s more about instinct than precision. “You can ‘save’ yourself somehow when you’re cooking – a bit more of this or that – but you can’t do that with a cake, usually. I love doing crumbles and bread puddings, but cakes and breads are not my forte,” said Aida.
In spite of her love for entertaining, Aida has yet to cook for her extended family. “Now that is a lot of pressure, right there!” she said. “But also, it’s been difficult to get the whole family together in one place.”
Hopefully, with the year-end holiday season approaching, the far-flung family will be able to gather and taste the fruits of Aida’s kitchen – after all, the proof is in the French toast bread and butter pudding.
PENNE WITH TORCH GINGER PESTO
Prep time: 20 minutes | Cooking time: 20 minutes
torch ginger pesto
1 torch ginger flower, chopped (reserve 1 tbsp for garnishing)
1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 shallots, peeled and quartered
½ cup pine nuts
½ cup grated Parmesan
½ cup olive oil
2 tbsp olive oil, for sauteeing
salt and pepper, to taste
chopped torch ginger flower, for garnishing
pine nuts, for garnishing
2 cups penne, cooked in boiling salt water until al dente, as per packet directions
To make pesto
Place the torch ginger, basil, garlic, shallots, pine nuts, cheese and a little of the olive oil in a food processor. Blitz until mixture becomes a paste, adding the remaining olive oil in a steady stream until mixture is well-combined.
To prepare dish
In a large non-stick pan, heat the olive oil and add the pesto. Saute for about 4 minutes.
Add in the cooked pasta and mix well. Season to taste.
Sprinkle with chopped torch ginger flower and pine nuts to garnish, and serve immediately.
Prep time: 30 minutes | Cooking time: 1 to 2 hours
10 medium prawns, washed, shelled and deveined
3 kaffir limes, juiced
½ grapefruit, juiced
3 small Serrano chillies, seeded and chopped finely
1 large tomato, seeded and chopped finely
1 medium red or yellow onion, chopped finely
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped finely
1 medium Japanese cucumber, seeded and chopped finely
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
½ cup fresh coriander leaves, chopped
Place prawns in a large mixing bowl and add the citrus juices. Toss well to make sure the prawns are well-coated in the juices.
Chill for 1 to 1½ hours, until prawns are cured.
In another big bowl, toss all the vegetables with the olive oil and lemon juice.
Add the prawns and 2 tablespoons of the citrus marinade to the vegetables and mix well. Sprinkle with coriander and mix well.
FRENCH TOAST BREAD PUDDING
Prep time: 10 minutes | Cooking time: 20 minutes
butter, for greasing
2 slices French toast, cubed
2 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
½ tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp cinnamon powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp orange or lemon zest
2 tsp brown sugar
sliced bananas or blueberries, for garnishing
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Grease two medium ramekins with butter. Arrange cubed French toast in each ramekin.
Whisk milk, sugar, vanilla essence, cinnamon, eggs and salt and pour mixture over the cubed bread until it is submerged.
Combine citrus zest and sugar, and sprinkle over the top of the puddings.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in a bain-marie, until golden brown on top.