Childhood friends turned cookbook authors
Seasoned cookbook author Marina Mustafa and her childhood friend Chong Woon Lee have put together a cookbook filled with their favourite Malaysian recipes.
THE tight bond between Marina Mustafa and her childhood friend Chong Woon Lee is evident from the moment you set eyes on the pair. They share a close, easy relationship – one that has clearly been formed from years of knowing each other. And they laugh together – a lot!
“We have known each other for about 40 years, dating back to primary school in Kuantan. Both of us also went to Perth together for six or seven years and did our tertiary education, so we’ve got a long history. And it’s so funny – being homesick students, our lives in Perth were really wrapped around food,” reminisces Chong, about her long-standing foodie friendship with Marina.
The friends became even closer in Australia, bound by a shared longing for local food. Their shared interest in cooking meant they were continuously experimenting and making everything from Aussie meat pies to roti canai.
Over the years, their friendship has endured time and geographical barriers – Chong is now based in the United States, while Marina lives in Kuala Lumpur. The two say their many conversations and catch-up sessions over WhatsApp still often revolve around food.
Which is how Marina – an experienced cookbook author with at least 10 cookbooks to her name, Everything Sambal Hari such as and Raya Classics
– realised that there was an opportunity for her and Chong to work together on a cookbook.
“I think a year ago, Ina asked if I would be interested in doing a Malaysian cookbook together. So I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’” says Chong.
Marina and Woon Lee are both proponents of classic dishes with just a few tweaks, and this was one of the things that was important to them in putting together their book Our Malaysian Kitchen. –
“I think Woon Lee and I have the same vision in that we both like food that doesn’t have too many fusion elements. She likes to keep to good, hearty Chinese meals and I like to do the same with Malay food. I think you can get a lot of fusion recipes, but to be able to get the real deal is quite hard. Our goal is to make food the way it was served way back when,” says Marina.
Marina and Chong began their trans-continental cookbook adven- ture a year ago, splitting their workload equally, so that each of them contributed 15 recipes each. They worked on the cookbook over a six-month period, ironing out obstacles like different time zones and Chong’s inexperience in the industry.
“You are talking about two different countries, two different continents, two different time zones. And Ina is actually a pro at shooting and styling food, but I’ve never done it before and that was the hardest part for me. My 7pm is her 7am, and I would call her and be like, ‘Inaaaa, how do I do this shoot?’,” says Chong.
Marina says the geographical barrier was the biggest hurdle they had to overcome and corresponding (or trying to correspond) across the great physical divide really put their friendship to the test.
“That was our biggest challenge. I think if Woon Lee and I didn’t have a strong friendship, this would definitely not have worked out,” says Marina.
The book shines a spotlight on classic Chinese and Malay recipes that Chong and Marina grew up with, like marinated fish in banana leaf, lotus root soup, chicken in soy sauce, tapioca shoots in coconut milk and sambal tumis kerang.
Both Marina and Chong say the recipes reflect heritage dishes they learnt from their mothers and grandmothers; they have made them many times before, and continue to make them for their family and friends. Their favourite recipes in the book are the ones that hold the strongest nostalgic appeal for them.
“I love bread, and my recipe for coconut buns in the book takes me back to my childhood, when the roti man would drive his motorcycle around the neighbourhood and he would have this lovely ‘roti coconut’ – it just brings back all these great memories,” says Chong.
Marina’s favourite recipe in the book is also one that speaks of fond old memories. “To me, the recipe that keeps coming back to me is satay. I know it’s a normal dish but I missed satay so much when we were in Perth and I remember us trying so many recipes to get the satay just right, so it has nostalgic value for us,” she says.
The recipes and methods in the book have been written in both English and Bahasa Malaysia, which is unusual as most cookbooks tend to just stick with one language. Marina says this was intentional, as she wanted the cookbook to appeal to a wider cross-section of readers.
“WewantedittobeaMalaysian cookbook. I think it would be restrictive if we had just one language or the other. Truth be told, both of us are more comfortable with English, but we know there is a huge market who probably cannot relate to the English words. Even I find it unfamiliar sometimes – when I hear the word ‘serai’, I can connect but with ‘lemongrass’, I need a few seconds to connect to the word.
“And especially since it’s a local book, I think we need to have local words and descriptions and names of the ingredients to relate to what we call them,” says Marina.
Ultimately, both Marina and Chong think the cookbook serves a higher purpose, in line with the way things have changed in the country since their childhood days.
“To be truthful, we wanted to have this book because many Malaysians seem to be segregated. We never felt that during our friendship. We’ve never even thought of differences among the races, which are now prominent today. Our underlying reason for doing this book is to show people that we all have common ground,” says Marina.
Despite the distance between them, the two had so much fun Our Malaysian working together on Kitchen
that they are now planning a series of value-for-money recipe booklets and have already finished the first book in the series, which will revolve around tea time snacks.
“We will be doing a series of booklets, more towards basic recipes. They will also be cheaper, so we can reach more Malaysians,” says Marina.
Our Malaysian Kitchen
is priced at RM32.90, available at all major bookstores.
MARINATED FISH IN BANANA LEAF
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
2 1/2cm turmeric root 3 red chillies
5 bird’s eye chillies 1 whole coconut, grated
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 turmeric leaf, sliced
3 Indian mackerel, gutted and cleaned banana leaves
3 calamansi limes
Blend the onion, garlic, turmeric root and both chillies. Pour the blended ingredients into a pan. Add the grated coconut and stir. Season with salt and sugar. Cook until the ingredients begin to thicken and dry up.
Sprinkle the sliced turmeric leaves and mix. When the filling cools, pack it in the fishes’ cavities. Wrap the banana leaves around the fish and grill for 3 minutes on each side or until cooked through. Squeeze the juice of calamansi limes over the top when serving.
SALTED EGG YOLK PAU
Serves 8 to 10 Filling
4 salted egg yolks
4 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened 5 tbsp fine sugar
3 tbsp thick coconut milk 1 tbsp cornflour
3 tbsp custard powder 4 tbsp milk powder a pinch of salt
2/3 cup pau flour 1/3 cup warm water 2 tsp instant yeast 21/2 cups pau flour 1/3 cup fine sugar 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder 11/2 tbsp oil
1/2 cup warm water
To make filling
Steam the egg yolks for 10 minutes. Mash them while they are still warm, then set aside to cool. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Stir in the rest of the ingredients for the filling. Mix until smooth. Push the mixture through a sieve to get rid of any lumps.
Spoon a tablespoon of filling into each cavity of silicone ice-cube trays. If you are using regular plastic trays, lightly brush the cavities with oil before spooning in the filling. Freeze for at least 4 hours before use.
To make the dough
Mix together the pau flour, warm water and instant yeast. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 15 minutes.
In a mixing bowl, sieve the 2 1/2 cups pau flour, sugar, salt and baking powder together. Add in the yeast mixture and mix until a rough dough forms. Add the oil and water. Knead for 10-15 minutes, until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky. If the dough is too wet, add a bit of flour; if too dry, add a bit of water.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise until double in size, about 60-90 minutes. Gently release the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 16 pieces and roughly shape into balls. Cover the dough balls with plastic wrap.
Remove the filling from the freezer and pop them out from the ice cube trays. Roll out each dough ball, keeping the centre thicker and the edges thinner. Keep the unused dough balls covered while you work. Place a filling in the centre and wrap the edges around it. Pinch tightly to seal. Place the pau, sealed side down, on a square of baking paper. Repeat until all the dough balls and fillings are used up. If the filling starts to melt, pop them back into the freezer for a few minutes to harden. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
Steam the pau on medium-low heat for 9 minutes. Do not steam on high heat or oversteam as the filling will ooze out.
CHICKEN IN SOY SAUCE
1 large onion 4 cloves garlic 2 1/2cm ginger 2 tbsp cooking oil 1 cinnamon stick 5 cardamoms 4 cloves
1 star anise 4 pieces chicken
2 cups water
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/3 cup sweet soy sauce
2 potatoes, quartered
1 tomato, quartered
2 red chillies, halved lengthwise
2 large onions, sliced into thick rings 11/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp crispy fried shallots, for garnish
Blend onion, garlic and ginger until smooth. Heat the oil in a pot and put in the cinnamon stick, cardamoms, cloves and star anise. Then add blended ingredients and sauté until fragrant. Put in the chicken pieces and sear them for about a minute.
Pour in the water, tomato paste and soy sauce, then add the potatoes. When the liquid begins to boil, add the tomato, red chillies and onion rings. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat for 8 minutes until the chicken and potatoes are cooked through.
Sprinkle with crispy fried shallots and serve with white rice.
TAPIOCA SHOOTS IN COCONUT MILK
Serves 4 to 6
5 small red onions
4 cloves garlic
2 1/2cm turmeric root
5 bird’s eye chillies
1 1/2 cups water
2 tbsp anchovies, soaked
20 stalks tapioca shoots, plucked, boiled and drained
2 cups thick coconut milk
1 1/2 tsp salt
Blend onions, garlic, turmeric root and bird’s eye chillies.
Boil the water in a pot with the anchovies and blended ingredients. Once the water boils, add the boiled tapioca shoots and cook for 5 minutes.
Pour in the thick coconut milk and season. Simmer over low heat for 5 more minutes. Serve with hot rice.
Chong (right) and Marina have a close relationship, which became even stronger when they had to work through geographical barriers and different time zones to collaborate on their first cookbook.