“Why not?” asks Carol Selva Rajah, the grand dame of Asian cooking, when asked why she opted to crowdfund her latest book, Dining With Dragons.

“I have never been afraid of trying new things. I have always pushed boundaries, so … why not crowdfunding?” she says.

“And this book does not follow the norm, either. It is a food memoir that is different as it celebrates women, talks about social justice and about the power of food as an agent of social change,” explains Carol, 75, via phone from Sydney where she lives

New processes, she says, fascinate her – and it is exactly this audaciousness that has made Carol an internationally-recognised chef.

She was the first Asian woman to be invited to cook at the world-famous James Beard House in New York City, for instance. This was back in 1997 and Carol’s menu was innovative and years ahead of her time.

She created a fusion meal even before it became the trend: pre-dinner canapes included water chestnuts stuffed with pomelo, green mango, squid and crabmeat, with lime juice and mint; Tasmanian scallops lightly steamed in Shaohsing wine with lime-marinated eggplant layered with coconut cream on pineapple slivers.

Entrees included otak-otak (using cod and prawns whizzed up with lemongrass, shallots, lime leaves and galangal), laksa and a seared carpaccio of South Australian saltbush dija lamb with a spinach salad and cucumber relish.

Before serving the main dish (rendang on a bed of saffron-jasmine rice with kaffir lime-peppered pumpkin, stir-fried mushrooms, green snake beans and tempe), Carol served the guests a palate-cleanser of jicama (turnip) and Chinese pear with Malaysian asamboi (salted olive) powder. Dessert was black rice pudding with candied ginger and lemongrass creme brulee.

At the time, the James Beard House had been bought over by a group of food writers and chefs – including renowned figures like Julia Child and Peter Kump – to maintain the memory of Beard, the man known as the “American Kitchen God” who died in 1985.

It became a showcase, where chefs were invited to cook for connoisseurs. At Carol’s session, she cooked for some 80 top American chefs, connoisseurs and critics. Many an unknown chef made his or her name in the industry after cooking at James Beard House.

“One had to be invited to cook there,” emphasises Carol, “You could not ask to cook at Beard House, and it was a great honour when I was the first Asian woman chef invited to cook there.

Dining With Dragons begins with how I was arrested for suspected food terrorism when I was preparing for the James Beard Dinner,” Carol adds, but refusing to divulge any more than that. “You have to read the book to find out how that played out.”

One of Carol's biggest mentors was her amah Kim.

One of Carol’s major cooking mentors was her amah Kim.

Learning from the past

In the 1980s, Carol was a household name in Malaysia with her popular cooking show, Citarasa. It appealed to Malaysians from all walks of life as she cooked Malaysian food which was a mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Nonya cuisine.

The show aired for seven years at a time before the term “celebrity chef” was coined. Then, cooking shows on television were made specifically to teach audiences how to make a particular dish – no gimmicks, fancy kitchens or corny banter.

Carol’s show and the 13 cookbooks she produced were all in the same instructional style, but with nuggets on food history to put the dishes into a cultural context.

Dining With Dragons, however, stands apart from her other books. It is a food memoir (with a few recipes included, of course) that “needed to be written”.

“It is a tribute to the ‘dragons’ in my life and writing the book was one way of remembering the women who were my guardians and who shaped the woman I am … which manifests in my cooking. I believe that to cook well, one must first be rooted in love and giving,” she says.

“Writing the stories of these ‘dragons’ is my way of immortalising the values they taught me – through hardship, through war and how to persevere even when things seem hopeless,” she adds. Carol believes the book will serve as a social history document.

Born in Singapore but raised in Port Klang, Carol learnt the fundamentals of cooking from her Cantonese amah, Kim, who was to a large extent her childhood companion.

“I learnt from the best culinary talent, my amah, who had no culinary training. My parents were teachers and their time in school took precedence, so I played in the kitchen or in the garden, wherever amah took herself,” says Carol.

“She was a natural cook with a taste memory. She would taste something and could reproduce it, even though the ingredients were different, by playing around with flavours until they were to her liking. I learnt many practical things from her,” she adds.

“She made cooking interesting and I found that I was interested in the chemistry of food: how flour rose when baking, how food caramelised and changed, even flavours when heated or refrigerated changed, and how the pungent sharp taste of onions changed when sauteed slowly to become sweet.

“I decided very early on to actually learn more about food. I knew that when food was tasteless, I left it on the plate. During the war, we learnt to make simple food tasty without sugar nor much spice as such things were unavailable. I did not want to be a cook, but I had pride in being creative. So I guess that was the first indication that I took pride in anything I did well,” says Carol.

Learning to make tea

“I remember making a pot of tea for my mother’s friends when I was 10. There were about 20 people and I was left in a back room of the church office to work on my own. I guessed just how much tea to use and to heat it to just the right strength, and then to add sufficient milk and sugar to suit most tastes. When I was praised for that pot of tea, I remember thinking that, yes, I could get a job in the tuck-shop!” shares the chef.

Her fondness for her amah is apparent. In every interview she has given, be it for local publications or in Australia, Carol never fails to talk about the woman who helped shape her. (Carol moved to Australia in the 1980s with her three children; her geneticist husband stayed behind at the time.)

“She was the strongest of these dragons that I write about. She was a diminutive woman, a poor peasant woman from the Pearl River in Canton (China) who had more innate wisdom and courage than the strongest male I ever met,” Carol says. “She was uneducated yet knew how to behave, to keep secrets and not to harbour any anger or ill feeling towards anyone.”

The other dragons, she says, are of course her mother and her friends.

“My mother and her ‘sister-friends’, who all came from a small Methodist orphanage and boarding school in Penang, showed strength and courage as well, achieving more than girls from rich homes did. They got married and became towkay neos (ladies of leisure),” she says.

“The orphans, like my Ma, Sara and women like Aunties Siok and Poh, went into important careers like teaching and nursing jobs that were needed in the growing economy that Malaya was becoming in the early 20th century. They led the way for women in Malaya then. This book is very much an unwritten history of what the world was, and how we transitioned into where we are today.”

Selva Rajah's parents with her children, baby Anushiya, Anand (left) and Rajah.

Selva Rajah’s parents with her children, baby Anushiya, Anand (left) and Rajah.

Learning from the best

Carol researched and worked on the book – her 14th – for six years. In the course of her research, she spoke to many older people to jot down their memories and stories which she felt had a part to play in her “social document”.

“One of the people I interviewed was my cousin, Akka Pat, who was over 79 years old when I spoke to her about the war and our home. I edited the book three times but found that with every edit I had added more memories, important stories, traditions, cultures that would otherwise be lost as time goes by,” Carol says.

Carol’s resume is impressive. Though her first and dearest teacher was amah, she went on to train under and learn from a host of other well-respected chefs and cooks.

“I learnt baking from Peter Kump who is regarded as one of America’s finest pastry chefs in New York. At one class, I actually met James Beard. He was, by that time, on television, teaching audiences cooking and baking, and giving table dressing lessons. He was the original Martha Stewart,” says Carol, adding that Beard and Kump, together with food writers Child and Craig Claiborne, did much to expand American culinary horizons to take in European cooking and trends.

She also credits her friends Anne and Marion Shute in Canada for giving her baking tips and fondly remembers her very first baking instructor in Petaling Jaya, Mrs Foenander.

“She was of Dutch origin from Sri Lanka and, having settled in Malaysia, she began a very popular cooking school with students coming to her for baking lessons by the hundreds. She got a tin smith to craft baking tins for us, she had icing tubes ordered for us and was meticulous in her lessons, making us take notes while she also gave us photographs to follow and offered advanced classes on icing a wedding cake complete with copious notes and diagrams.”

Carol also learnt how to “treat” fish in Japan.

“It was most intriguing. I learnt how to treat my knives first before I could even touch a fish. To slice sashimi, it is more important to wipe the knife clean then it is to wipe the cutting board. Now, I treat a slice of fish for sashimi with great reverence – to slice it leaving out the bones is an art in itself, and to treat it simply is harder than my most intricate curry or rendang. It’s a philosophy rather than a recipe or an art,” she shares.

But although technique and knowledge are important, Carol’s satisfaction comes from seeing people enjoy her food. “The fact that I can share my food with friends and family, and with people I cook for – the best gift to a chef is to see one’s food being enjoyed.”

Dining With Dragons will be released in Malaysia in November. To pre-order a copy, visit akasaa.com.