Malaysia is a huge mixing pot of cultures, with such large populations of immigrants that Chinese and Indian food can be considered typical Malaysian food.
Nasi Kandar is a really popular dish here in Kuala Lumpur and throughout Malaysia: it’s basically rice served buffet-style with different curries, vegetables, noodles, and other sides. ”Nasi” means rice and “kandar” is the pole that vendors use on their shoulders to balance two buckets of rice. One heaping plate of warm delicious-ness that leaves you feeling like passing out costs a whopping 6 or 7 Ringgits (USD $2). Basically its heaven.
Today, my Polish couchsurfing hosts Magda & Jurek took me to their favorite Nasi Kandar restaurant, and I spoke with the owner, Norshaw Izzarudin and her son Raffik. Raffik’s brother in law is the chef and it’s a family business through-and-through.
They’ve been running the business for 7 years, which, like most similar establishments, has no name or address. However, just because they’re not on Google Maps doesn’t mean business isn’t booming.. its a friendly neighborhood shack and the locals use their hands to eat (according to Magda it tastes better this way). A nice cold Lime Ice Tea helps wash down the spicy chilis peppered throughout the curries while you sweat in the shade, karaoke from the wedding accross the street filling your ears.
My favorite dish was Pajeri Nanas (pineapple curry) and Raffik’s is Siakap (fish with coconut milk and chili).
For dessert, we headed right next door to the women cooking up a storm. Colorful squishy blobs made of sticky rice, tapioca, and flour confused but delighted my taste buds.
The photos might do the whole experience more justice:
The youngest of 9 children, Samart attended Primary school until his parents could no longer afford it. At 11 years old he started life in a monastery as a Temple Boy and continued his studies as a Monk after a year. Leaving the monastery after 8 years, Samart continued in his education becoming the only member of his family to have a university degree. Samart now runs a successful adventure tour company along with several community projects which help to raise money for families unable to fund education for their children.
Where are we?
Mae Win, a sub district of Chiang Mai
Where are you from?
Chiang Mai, Thailand
What are we eating tonight?
Bok Choi Jungle Curry with rice, followed by Papaya.
Why/how did you become a chef?
Started from a young age because my parents had to work long hours as garlic pickers. I cooked for them. They would get picked up from the nearest village to start a two hour journey – finish at 5 back home at 7 – late. There was no electricity so after sunset.. the only thing to do is make babies.
What is the food scene like in Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai food and Thai food.. very different. Everywhere has their own food. Me? I’m very picky. I eat 99% only northern Thai food. Pad Thai, fried rice.. maybe once a year for me. I cook all the time. Here, they wrap fish in banana leaves and put them on the barbecue so it steams.. that’s northern Thai food. Central Thai food uses a lot of coconut milk. Northern people hardly use coconut milk–only in pudding. Muslim people use coconut milk a lot. Southern Thai also.. that’s why they’re fat! They use lemon juice, and we use tamarind. Southern Thai food is more about stir fry, northern is more about curry. The ingredients in Tom (like in Tom Yam and Tom Kha) is sliced and boiled. Gang is ground. Masaman is Buddhist/Hindu curry. Penang is more like red curry. Burmese curry – tomato peanuts and ginger.
When you come to Chiang Mai, you must eat the sausage. And chili paste with pork and tomato. Sticky rice and Chiang Mai sausage. The second one is bak choi soup, very simple: in hot water, you cook the bones to make a broth and stock. Don’t overcook! Throw fried garlic in.. perfect. That’s for tomorrow. Chiang Mai food only. No Thai food.
What was the first thing you learned how to cook?
This, what we’re eating tonight–Bak Choi Curry. There’s many different types of bak choi, and they’re all very different. This one is a little bit bitter. It’s called Hamong.
Where and how did you learn to cook?
Just watching my parents, seeing how they did it. My mother liked to cook Thai food, but my Father hated [southern] Thai food. He liked Chiang Mai food, he thought it was healthier becuase it’s steamed in banana leaves. He was a smart. He was a village man but he watched documentaries and the news all the time. He’s 73 years old.
What is your favorite food?
Bok choi curry, I eat it twice a week. I don’t like beige vegetables, only green. I really like stir fried morning glory with oyster sauce. Morning glory is from China.
“MSG stands for MMM So Good!”
Why aren’t there many tomatoes here?
Thai people don’t really eat a lot of it, and it’s not native.
Do you feel fast food joints are ruining Thai food culture?
No, I think it has changed the culture, but it’s still just an option and Thailand cannot really say anything because when we decide to be an open, fair trade country, well that means we have to accept everything. But not many people can afford to eat fast food anyways! It’s so much more expensive.
Families cook, but people living in a dorm go out a lot–its cheaper! It’s more expensive to gather the ingredients and cook at home, unless you share with many people.
Is it usually the mom that cooks?
Usually women cook, the more common foods especially. Unless it’s extra special rare food, like rare beef salad, men cook that.
Is there anything you don’t like or ingredients you avoid?
I just don’t like creamy substances like coconut milk.
Do you prefer cooking here than in your house in Chiang Mai?
It’s a better atmosphere. In the city, I’m alone. This is one of the reasons I participate with couchsurfing, because I like cooking and this way someone eats my food!
“Cooking is my skill, my art. ”
Do you have special occassions that you make food for?
I cook pretty much every day, so I cook for the holidays too. I’d rather have a nice meal than go out, so I cook while the others go out and celebrate. They get home and eat my food. It’s my skill, its art for me. I don’t know how to draw or paint, or music… I know nothing. Cooking is my skill, my art. Most people still follow the old generation’s advice. They link that belief to the idea that a spirit would get angry, perhaps give you diarrhea.
What is it that you’re not meant to do that would anger the spirits?
Well, people do it now, but when I was younger, you would never cook mushroom with meat.
Was there a special diet for the monks?
Basically, the monk has no choice for food, so they have to eat what the people cook for them. Eat to live. And they don’t cook normally, it’s the people’s job. If they don’t like it, they can cook their own or adapt their tastebuds. And that’s very hard.
Is it true that a lot of Thai food has MSG in it?
Oh yes, a lot. But I use chicken stock. But it still has very low levels of MSG in it. But nobody knows for sure still whether or not MSG is bad for you.
Why do they use MSG anyways? It’s tasty enough isn’t it?
Because sometimes you need a sweetness that’s not sugar. Normally MSG is from tapioca, a Japanese company in Kanchanaburi, Thailand makes MSG. It’s not only tapioca powder, but chemicals too, and that’s what they think might be harmful. Lots of people talk about it, but its still not known. You keep hearing, ‘oh it’s bad for the blood, it’s bad for the bones,’ and then a couple years later you hear from American scientists that nothing’s wrong.
How do you feel about MSG?
It’s a drug. People get addicted to it.
Where do you get MSG?
Just from the shop. It’s like a white powder. Started in Japan but there’s a factory in Kanchanaburi. When you study science you learn about MSG from a very early age as if it’s a drug, good teachers try to stop kids from having it and advise against them having it. You can use mushroom if veggie, or chicken or pork stock if not instead.
My Sister and mother are good at cooking but use too much MSG. You can’t change the people in the village or older relatives who are stuck in their ways. I am the first of my family to get a degree, but they dont listen to me about MSG. If they have never been to school then they haven’t ever learned about it, therefore don’t care. I say to my Mother, “If you can’t tell me what MSG stands for then you need to stop using it.” She replies, “MSG stands for MMM So Good!”
Have you tried cooking food other than Thai food?
I cook Italian sometimes. I cook pizza, and adapt it in my way–I make red curry pizza. And Thai lasagna, including chilis, garlics, coriander seeds, spices, tumerics, like what we put in the chili paste we are making tonight. I like red meat so I would put pork or beef in it. Kangaroo meat is the best meat in the world, no fat because they’re hopping all day.
Did you build this place?
Yes, it took 2.5 years. Now they are solar powered and there’s internet. I started in May 2 years ago. I started with only 1 bungalow, I wanted only 1, and then.. more and more.
If you were gonna eat a really fatty meal, what would it be?
Bacon is the worst food that I would eat.
Why isn’t there cheese in Thai food?
Because Thailand is a tropical region–just because it’s hot. Cheese is meant to keep you warm. New chefs bring a revolution in the last 15 years and now lots of people use cheese mixed with Thai food.
Do you ever use cheese in your cooking?
No never.. except for the Thai lasagna.
We’ve ordered the same dish in several places, but they’ve all tasted different. Why?
When cooking, chefs can have the same skills, same ingredients, but the food can taste totally different. The key is that you need the same pot and same heat–bronze and open air fire from a clay oven. If you want to cook lemur or deer you need to cook in a clay pot so it smells like the earth.
How do you know how much of each ingredient to put in since you’re not measuring anything?
You can feel how much you need to put in from your heart. (If you’re a real chef!)
To work, volunteer, or vacation with Samart visit chaingmaiecolodges.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org