Airline pilot Saravanakkumar Shanmugam gets to enjoy nine days a month at home with his wife Lalithaa and their daughter Sahana. So he makes sure that for five of those days at least, the people he loves get to enjoy his homecooking.
“To see my family enjoy what I cook for them, it really gives me great satisfaction,” he says. “Eating together gives us time to bond.”
Kumar, as he’s known to family and friends, recalls time spent in the kitchen as a child, helping his mother make thosai and the like. His mum and grandmother had a small catering service providing Indian food, and cookies at Deepavali.
As teenagers, Kumar and his cousins would camp out during school holidays and pitch a tent in the backyard, setting up a barbecue for outdoor grilling – probably what led to his love of BBQ today. A small, mobile barbecue veiled in black sits in a corner of his living room, ready to be wheeled out at a moment’s notice.
But Kumar, 35, only learned to cook seriously when he was 18, and he was spurred on by his own appetite.
“Basically, if I wanted to eat something, I would end up finding out how to cook it,” he says. “The first dish I ever cooked was black pepper crab. But I must admit I didn’t clean the crab that time, lah – one of my aunties did.”
Today though, he’s an expert hand at everything from butterflying a chicken to brining a chook to ensure the moisture is locked in. “And he’s very, very particular about hygiene in the kitchen,” says Lalithaa, 34.
Kumar and Lalithaa have a complementary kitchen synergy with different specialities – he cooks more Western food, her forte is Indian. Kumar learns a lot from watching cooking shows on TV, like how to brine roast a chicken for greater flavour and texture.
He’s very much inspired by dishes he discovers when he eats out, like the aglio olio pasta at a neighbourhood restaurant. “People take it for granted because it’s so simple,” says Lalithaa, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that need practice to get right.
After tasting a dish he likes, Kumar will try to replicate it at home dozens of times until he’s satisfied with the results. In the works: perfecting his wantan mee and char kway teow.
Lalithaa tells the story of the elderly uncle in USJ16, Subang Jaya who sold wantan noodles that the whole family loved, and who has since retired.
“It was everything about his dish that made it good,” adds Kumar. “The texture of the noodles, the ratio of fat to meat in the char siew, the chilli served with it – even the seasoning in the soup.”
“As for the best char kway teow I’ve had, it’s from another old uncle in Siam Road in Penang. I don’t feel right asking these old-timers for their secret recipes, so I just taste and try to replicate them at home over and over till I get it right.”
He’s not one for substitutions, says Lalithaa. If he needs a certain ingredient, then he’s going to wait until he has it to continue cooking. “I also like to clean while I’m cooking,” Kumar adds. “I don’t like to accumulate a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.”
Six-year-old daughter Sahana is often lured into being Kumar’s sous chef – basically, stirring the ingredients in the pot.
For Kumar, cooking is his escape from the stress of his daily grind. “I like to take my time, and the biggest payoff is seeing my family and friends enjoying what I cook,” he says.
He’s shared a few of his favourite homecooked dishes with Star2, all simple to prepare but very appealing. “The thing that ties them all together is garlic!” he says. “We all love it. Even Sahana can eat the whole cloves.”
Check Out Kumar’s Homecooking Recipes:
Herbed roast chicken and garlic mashed potatoes
Grilled prawns with garlic butter dipping sauce
Pasta with garlic, chilli oil, anchovies, mushrooms and basil