It is the school holidays and the Sim household is abuzz with activity. In a corner, Ashley, 11, is carrying her five-year-old brother Jordan piggyback style, as he squeals in delight. Middle child, Jocelyn, seven, bursts into raucous giggles at this scene while dad Julian cautions from a distance, “Eh, be careful, please!”
In her kitchen, busy mum Alesia is hard at work preparing a meal for her family. Alesia is a bubbly woman who is so warm and has such a generous spirit, you can’t help but instantly like her. And boy oh boy, does she love to cook! It’s impossible not to spot the army of appliances that dot her kitchen or the rainbow coloured pots and pans stacked in well-stocked shelves. Even if you’ve somehow missed all that, it’s hard to ignore her cute little apron with her name embroidered on it (daughters Ashley and Jocelyn have matching aprons too!).
Alesia grew up in Melaka in the warm hub of an extended family that believed in the nourishing properties of home-cooked meals. Both her grandmothers and her mother were phenomenally good cooks and she spent much of her formative years in the kitchen, which she describes as being the epicentre of the home.
“I started learning how to cook when I was very young, like nine or 10. My mother was a stay-at-home mum, so she cooked a lot. The first dish she let me cook was stir-fried French beans, and then I slowly moved on to fried rice and gradually I started cooking whatever dishes we liked,” she says.
In secondary school, Alesia’s interest in food translated to an enterprising spirit that saw her waking up at the ungodly hour of 4am to whip up homemade cekodok filled with green beans, peas, onions, carrots and anchovies, which she sold to her friends for 50 sen apiece!
“I sold quite a bit to make extra pocket money. That was my first food business!” she says, laughing.
After she moved to KL, got married and had her first child, she started documenting her dishes and recipes on her Facebook page, Alesia The Home Cook. For a while, she was even an assistant to renowned food writer and cookbook author Rohani Jelani, until the arrival of her second child forced her to stop working to focus on her family.
Despite having to ferry her children to and from school and multiple appointments, Alesia still tries to cook every day. Like her grandmothers and her mother, simple home cooking is at the heart of what she does.
“My style of cooking is very homey. I grew up with that kind of memory of everyone sitting down and eating food, and it’s a very nice feeling to pass down to my family. Sometimes my husband asks, ‘Why do you have to cook so many dishes?’ And I say, ‘So that we can sit down and eat together for awhile’. If it’s just one dish, you finish it faster,” she explains.
There are dishes that instantly hark back to Alesia’s childhood, and given that her maternal grandmother has now passed away, she is now drawn to these meals more than ever. Like the simple dish of ikan bilis in sweet soya sauce, which offers a rich contrast of flavours and textures – crunchy ikan bilis, soft tofu and a sweet-savoury sauce that binds it all together.
“I had it when we were staying in the kampung in Melaka – I think it’s a Malay dish, but my maternal grandmother added beancurd and sugar to make it her own,” says Alesia.
The sweet potato porridge is another dish that brings Alesia back to her childhood, as both her grandmothers made versions of this. “It’s just something tummy-filling that is not expensive to make,” she says.
The dish of black pomfret with sambal is something that Alesia’s mother taught her how to make, and that has now become her signature dish. The sambal here is fresh and fragrant with spicy undertones that do not overwhelm, or in Alesia’s words, “It’s kid-friendly sambal.”
Alesia says although she has multiple appliances to help her cook, she still enjoys doing some things – like making sambal – the time-honoured way, as she finds it therapeutic.
“When I first saw my mum making the sambal, I thought ‘Why is it so tedious?’ But once you cook it and see it from its raw stage until it pecah minyak (a layer of oil emerges), it’s really worth it – the taste is so different,” she says.
According to Alesia, many of her late grandmother’s recipes came about because she was a creative cook who made use of what was available at the time. Her tantalising gula Melaka pancakes, for example, were devised after she came across a packet of coconut milk powder in her neighbourhood sundry shop.
“It was something new that she had never tried before, so she said, ‘Okay, just try some’! And the best gula Melaka is from Melaka obviously and that time, it was quite authentic, so she added gula Melaka to it and sprinkled the coconut powder to make it more fragrant. So it’s like having santan without having santan,” she says of the fluffy, light crepes stuffed with generous chunks of gula Melaka.
Ultimately, Alesia says cooking these heritage dishes helps her remember the women in her life who came up with these recipes, especially her late grandmother.
“My late grandmother was a very quiet person. But through the food that she cooked, we could feel her love – food was her language of love. So I try to pass that down to my kids as well. When my kids say, ‘Mummy, you make the best food!’ it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside,” she says.
SWEET POTATO PORRIDGE
For the shallot oil
200g shallots, sliced thinly
1 cup vegetable oil
For the garlic oil
200g garlic, minced
1 cup vegetable oil
For the porridge
1 cup rice, washed thoroughly and drained
1 medium sweet potato, cubed
3 cloves garlic, crushed slightly
4 cups water, less if you want a thicker porridge
salt to taste
To make the shallot oil and garlic oil (method is the same for both)
In a wok, heat oil and add sliced shallot/garlic. On low heat, slowly fry for 10 to 12 minutes. When it’s just about turning light brown, turn off the stove. The shallot/garlic will continue cooking in the warm oil, so transfer to a plate or bowl.
Leave to cool before keeping in a glass jar with a lid.
To cook the porridge
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, place all the ingredients and bring to a simmer. Cook over a low heat and stir occasionally. It’s ready when the sweet potatoes are tender.
Season with salt and serve hot with shallot oil and garlic oil.
IKAN BILIS WITH TOFU IN SWEET SOY SAUCE
3 to 4 tbsp oil, for frying
1 cup ikan bilis, cleaned, rinsed and drained
2 pieces firm tofu, cubed
1 large onion, halved then sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp dark soya sauce
1/2 tbsp light soya sauce
1 tsp sugar, to sprinkle before serving
chopped scallions, for garnishing
Heat wok or saucepan and add oil. Stir fry the ikan bilis until crispy and set aside.
In the same wok, add the tofu pieces, once they turn slightly brown, dish up and set aside.
Next, saute the onion and garlic in the wok and add the ikan bilis and tofu. Pour in the sauces and give it a quick stir to mix all the ingredients. Sprinkle sugar just before serving and garnish with scallions.
BLACK POMFRET WITH SAMBAL
200g fresh red chillies
3 large onions, quartered
3 to 4 cloves garlic
3 to 4 shallots
1 inch ginger
1/2 cup cooking oil
3 tbsp tamarind juice
salt and sugar to taste
oil, for frying
1 black pomfret, rinsed and dried
5 to 6 tbsp cornflour mixed with salt & white pepper to taste
To make sambal
Blend the ingredients except oil, tamarind juice and seasoning into a paste.
Heat oil in a large saucepan or wok. Saute the chilli paste until fragrant and the oil rises to the top. This will take 15 to 20 minutes but it’s worth the wait.
Add the tamarind juice, continue stirring for a couple more minutes, making sure not to burn the sambal.
Turn off the heat, season with salt and sugar and set aside.
To cook the fish
In a large wok, heat enough oil for frying. Fry the fish until golden brown. To check if the fish is cooked, using the tip of a knife, insert into the thickest part of the fish. The meat should flake from the bone easily.
Remove the fish from the wok and place on a platter lined with a paper towel.
Place the fish on a serving plate and coat the sambal all over the fish.
GULA MELAKA PANCAKES
Makes 8-10 pieces
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tbsp coconut milk powder
1 cup water
a pinch of salt
2 tbsp oil
oil, for frying
1 small piece gula Melaka, chopped
To make pancakes
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, eggs and coconut powder. Gradually add in the water, stirring to combine. Add the salt and oil; beat until smooth. The batter should be slightly thinner compared to regular pancake batter.
Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan. Scoop the batter onto the griddle. Tilt the pan in a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly.
Cook the pancake for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Sprinkle the chopped gula Melaka on top, loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side. Serve hot.