They may have left the country in pursuit of other things but one element deeply connects them to Malaysia – food. Be it running a restaurant that sells the food, or simply writing about our local cuisine in cookbooks, these Malaysia-born chefs and foodies are making a name for themselves all over the world.
Here’s just a brief background of seven of these Malaysians who have made our food known abroad.
Kyo Pang: The pull of pulled tea
Her teh tarik is pulling hordes over to the tiny coffee shop in Chinatown’s Canal Street in New York City. Guess what Pang’s outlet is called? Kopitiam. Cute, huh?
Pang, 31, is a third-generation nonya whose family still lives in Penang, where her grandfather ran a kopitiam, which her father skilfully turned into a legit restaurant.
Pang established Kopitiam in October last year, wanting to keep alive the traditional nonya cuisine, as well as introducing it to the rest of the world. Kopitiam’s nasi lemak, pulut inti, kaya butter toast and other delectable nonya dishes have received rave reviews, and the outlet even got a mention on The New York Times Critics’ Pick.
Simpson Wong: A chef to celebrities
Can you imagine Meryl Streep eating char kway teow? Well, she may just order that dish when she dines at Simpson Wong’s Cafe Asean. The Oscar winner is one of the many A-listers who frequent the restaurant that serves Vietnamese, Thai and Malaysian cuisines.
Wong, who hails from Tanjung Malim, Perak also established Jefferson that got its own 15 minutes of fame after being featured in Sex And The City. However, it had to be closed down after Wong suffered a heart attack in 2005. The chef got back on his feet and eventually opened his namesake Wong, before moving on to Chomp Chomp in New York City. Although its menu – which features carrot cake, Nonya chap chye, assam fish and goreng pisang – is labelled as Singaporean cuisine, it has Malaysia written all over it. Seriously, there is no way anyone can believe that his Sarawak Laksa is Singaporean.
Ping Coombes: A master chef of her own
She put Malaysia on the food map after winning the 2014 UK MasterChef competition with her take on nasi lemak and wonton soup, and she hasn’t looked back since. Although Coombes has lived in Britain for over 15 years, she still looks to her hometown in Ipoh for inspiration in her cooking. Her first cookbook, Malaysia: Recipes From A Family Kitchen will hit the shelves in May, and features recipes for Malaysian food inspired by her childhood. Coombes also keeps busy by partnering with eateries in London, where she prepares Malaysian dishes for the customers. She recently concluded two Laksa Monday sessions at a restaurant in Lower Bristol Road, where she showcased her signature Prawn and Chicken Laksa (that was featured on UK MasterChef 2014).
Azalina Eusope: Answering her life’s calling
The last thing Azalina Eusope set out to do in life was to become a street vendor, like her folks four generations before her. She didn’t want to become a noodle seller like her father in Penang, and escaped to apprentice in a kitchen in Singapore. She eventually worked in Sydney, Hong Kong and Bangkok before finally accepting her fate in the United States. Azalina sold crepes and kaya-glazed banana fritters at a weekly farmer’s market in San Francisco to make ends meet. Her food was good, and she unofficially became the spokeswoman for Malaysian cuisine in the Bay Area. However, her talent couldn’t be contained within the confines of a pushcart. Azalina opened a new restaurant called Azalina’s at Market Street – oh, and it just happens to be on the ground floor of San Francisco’s Twitter building! Here she offers dishes like pineapple tea salad, nasi lemak, hokkien mee and other Malaysian fare.
Norman Musa: Malaysian cuisine ambassador
His recipes are featured in The Sunday Times UK, and in his latest entry, Norman Musa writes of his yearning for Malaysian food. The Penang-born chef has been living in Britain for 21 years, and it was during the first few months as a student at the University of Portsmouth that he learned how to cook Malaysian dishes – over the telephone. His late mother taught him everything he needed to know about making curries and rendangs, which he now features in his restaurant, Ning. In 2007, Norman launched his Malaysian cookery classes through which he promotes Malaysian food to the Brits, teaching them how to make rendang, gulai, murtabak and more. Norman is also a familiar face at food festivals and on television, after hosting a 13-episode cooking series and having a stint as a celebrity chef on MasterChef Malaysia in 2011. After the success of his first cookbook Malaysian Food: A Collection Of My Favourite Dishes And The Inspiration Behind Them, Norman released his second book Amazing Malaysian: Recipes For Vibrant Malaysian Home-Cooking this year.
Christina Arokiasamy: The spice merchant’s daughter
She was known as “the girl with yellow hands” at school, but that didn’t stop Christina Arokiasamy from helping her mother prepare spices for grinding at their mill. She is a fifth generation descendant of a family who traded spices, and she was exposed to the world of spices throughout her childhood.
Christina may have left Kuala Lumpur behind to pursue a different life in the United States, but she always held on to the great memories and food created in her kitchen back home.
She started by teaching her American friends how to prepare South-East Asian dishes, and her small classes turned into cooking demonstrations that took her across the country. Christina is now one of the most recognised teaching chefs in America, known for her unique take on South-East Asian flavours, which she also presented in her cookbook The Spice Merchant’s Daughter. But her biggest achievement so far has to be the day she was elected as Malaysia’s official Food Ambassador to the United States in 2014.
Poh Ling Yeow: Recreating connections with home
When she moved from Kuala Lumpur to Adelaide at nine, Poh Ling Yeow left most of her culture behind. But food has enabled her to keep that vital link to her Malaysian family heritage, and a drive to have something to pass down to her family in Australia. Poh entered the first season of MasterChef Australia, and emerged first runner-up. Although she didn’t win the title, she was nonetheless introduced to a world of opportunities – including her own cooking shows and writing cookbooks. Same Same But Different was published in 2014 and features Chinese and Aussie favourites such as noodles, dumplings, bagels, salads, puddings, pasta and cakes. In 2014, she also collaborated with Malaysia Airlines to introduce her signature Nonya Chicken Curry dish on their Australia and New Zealand flights.