Chef Christina Arokiasamy, host of Food Network's Bespoke Malaysia Kitchen, brings Malaysian food to Americans

Christina Arokiasamy loves working with Malaysian ingredients but has adapted her recipes to factor in what Americans are able to source in local supermarkets.
Christina Arokiasamy loves working with Malaysian ingredients but has adapted her recipes to factor in what Americans are able to source in local supermarkets. PHOTO: THE STAR / ANN

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ANN) - Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Christina Arokiasamy vividly remembers the spices which formed the cornerstone of her childhood. Her mother, a fifth generation spice merchant, would often put spices out to dry in the sun and as a little girl, she was enthralled by the whole routine.

“I was fascinated by the spices. My mother always had plates of spices drying out in the sun. So sitting under the trees, and smelling the spices became sort of like my comfort zone,” she says.

And it was that comfort zone that formed the building blocks for her first book, the suitably titled The Spice Merchant’s Daughter, which came out in 2008. The book was well-regarded and offered intrepid Americans a glimpse into the depths of Malaysian food (and lots of recipes for making DIY powders and spice rubs).

Interestingly, Arokiasamy (who has worked as a chef with The Four Seasons in Bali and Chiang Mai) moved to the United States over 20 years ago and built her career through a string of popular cooking classes where she taught Americans the subtleties and nuances of South-East Asian cuisines.

“I feel joy doing what I love to do. I feel connected to the people and the food and there’s this sense that I am sharing – it’s not just about cooking dishes, it is this world of creativity. So my classes come with stories – at the time, it was a whole new concept, it was travelling with your palate. So you get to learn about a destination, you get to travel there vicariously through the cooking classes and taste the food, but the best part? You can learn how to cook the way South-east Asians cook,” she says.

 

In 2014, as Malaysia’s food ambassador to the United States under the government-initiated Malaysian Kitchen programme, she went on the  cable channel Food Network to host Bespoke Malaysia Kitchen. The show proved to be a hit.

On the strength of her appearance on Food Network, she was offered a cookbook deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the largest publishing houses in the United States, based on the idea that she would be introducing and teaching Malaysian dishes to Americans.

On March 21, that cookbook, the aptly named The Malaysian Kitchen: 150 Recipes for Simple Home Cooking, debuted in the United States.

The cookbook is a labour of love that took Arokiasamy nearly two years to put together and has already received positive early reviews from book publishing website Publishers Weekly. It was photographed by Penny De La Santos, whose work has been featured in publications like Saveur, Newsweek and National Geographic.

The book shines a spotlight on classic Malaysian dishes, with rigorously researched historical information – Arokiasamy even worked with history professors and museums to get additional details about local food culture.

Although Malaysian in nature, many of the dishes have been given a distinctly American spin, a move designed to appeal to American food lovers who may find unfamiliar ingredients daunting or difficult to source.

“This has never been done before – it was always a Malaysian writing a book based on what a Malaysian would want to cook. This book is for people living in the United States who have travelled and love Indian, Chinese and Malaysian food, and know the flavours. For people who don’t know the cuisine, they can also follow this cookbook, knowing that they can open their cupboards and buy just a few ingredients from the grocery store and make sumptuous, easy dinners every night. And if they’re lost, I teach them how to come back,” she says.

The book has lots of recipes of familiar Malaysian staples with some of their ingredients swapped, like laksa with butternut squash, and mee goreng fashioned out of spaghetti and enhanced with kale. Other recipes are more western, but feature Malaysian ingredients, like jackfruit clafoutis and pandan crème brulee.

Arokiasamy says tweaking classic recipes like laksa to suit the American palate is necessary, as most Americans don’t even know what Malaysian food is, so easing them into it by including familiar ingredients like spaghetti and fettucine is the easiest way to get them to take the first step – reading the recipes.

“So my second cookbook takes Malaysian food and changes it for the Western audience; in this way, it’s unique, because now the whole of the United States is not going to say, ‘What’s that?’ They’re going to say, ‘I love that’.

“There are recipes for laksa with fettucine and mee goreng using spaghetti. People can come back home, mix sambal ulek with mayo and make a delicious dip for their chicken wings,” she says.

“So really, it’s all about positioning of the food. So the women in Alabama or the busy urbanite in New York can cook Malaysian food based on the ingredients found in the United States, and the time and equipment that they have. Incorporating ingredients that Americans love to eat will make them want to try the recipes. That is the only way to succeed in this market,” she says.

Arokiasamy’s recipes also advocate time-saving methods that go against the grain of the laborious processes involved in making classic Malaysian dishes from scratch. Like the pounding of spices to make rempah pastes, for instance.

“Most Americans don’t own a mortar and pestle, so my book teaches the American novice cook that you can achieve good results in a cinch by dry roasting your spices, cutting everything tiny, and putting everything in the blender. And you can get your sambals and rempahs, which is the foundation of all Malaysian cooking,” she says.

Ultimately, Arokiasamy says she hopes that The Malaysian Kitchen will strike a chord with Americans, as she thinks it is time for Malaysian food to have its moment in the sun.

“Americans are famous for their marketing concepts – you say Starbucks, I say coffee – that sort of thing. When you say Malaysia, people can’t connect. They’ll say ‘What is Malaysia?’ So we need to have something to show them what our food is all about. As an author, that’s what I’m doing. I think it is due time and I really want to see Malaysian food take off. We deserve this limelight,” she says.