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Foodie Confidential With Wong Ah Yoke

For actress Siti Khalijah, mum's comfort food is best

Stage actress Siti Khalijah says her mother's dishes make her happy and she cannot replicate them or find them elsewhere

When theatre actress Siti Khalijah, 30, was asked to choose a favourite dish to be photographed with for this interview, she thought it over for a few days before picking her mother's ayam lemak chilli padi (chicken cooked with coconut milk and chilli padi).

"I love food so much. I cannot decide which is my favourite," she says. "But when I think about what makes me happy, I think about comfort food... my mum's dishes. She's a good cook."

The bachelorette, who lives in Jurong West with her parents, adds: "I love her rendang, nasi goreng... But if I have to choose just one, it's her ayam lemak chilli padi. I can eat it for days and not be sick of it."

It is not a dish for everyone though. When she is working on a theatre production, fellow cast and crew members often ask her to take her mum's food to rehearsals.

"Sometimes I take this dish, but because of the chilli padi, some cannot tahan (stand) the spice. Those who can would perspire as they eat it and say, 'Shiok, lah.'"

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Nasi ambeng. I love Malay food and this is perfect with samples of different dishes such as urap, rendang, ayam masak merah and begedil. I would go to Ummi Abdullah in Simpang Bedok for it.

More often, she would take her mother's lontong, which can be enjoyed by everyone.

Siti, who won the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards in 2011 for Model Citizens, is nominated for Best Actress again this year for her role as a student battling schizophrenia in Off Centre. The awards will be given out on April 25.

She is also rehearsing for Dream Academy's new play, Meenah And Cheenah, to be held from May 11 to 22 at Victoria Theatre. It comprises sketches with her and Judee Tan playing multiple characters.

What do you like about your mother's ayam lemak chilli padi?

It's hard to find a version as good as hers because they are either lemak without the chilli padi, which is not spicy enough, or the gravy is too watery. I love spicy food. You have to perspire, then you can enjoy it.

Do you cook?

I prefer baking to cooking. I love my mother's cooking so much that I don't even want to try to replicate it. I'm sure I'll fail. I want to enjoy her style of cooking.

Still, I've written down recipes of her dishes, so that when she is away on holiday, I can attempt them even though they never taste the same.

I've tried cooking the ayam lemak chilli padi and though it looked the same, I felt something was lacking. Also, I don't like to eat the food I cook. By the time it is ready, I don't have an appetite anymore .

Do you eat what you bake then?

If it's something I want to try, I'd just eat a slice. I'd distribute the rest to my neighbours or take them to rehearsals for friends.

Do your parents eat what you make?

They are more used to traditional Malay food. When I bake cupcakes, I'd make some without cream toppings for them. And when I cooked bulgolgi beef, they just tried a little.

What do you bake?

I went through a cupcake phase a couple of years ago, but they are now so passe.

On my Facebook feed, there're recipes that people upload and some of them are very simple, with videos. I like them because I just need to know the ingredients and how it's done. I then improvise and experiment. I made a non-baked Nutella cheesecake this way. It turned out okay.

When do you do your baking?

On my days off. Sometimes I'm not working on anything for one to two months and that's when I realise I miss baking.

Or I may bake in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep. I sometimes buy ingredients to store at home for such times. Or I would go to the 24-hour NTUC supermarket in Jurong Point, which is near my home. I love strolling down the aisles with few people around.

Where do you eat out?

I like to go to halal cafes. It used to be a problem finding halal food other than hawker fare. But now, there are a lot of fusion-style cakes and places with Western food. When I have time, I try to visit one every week.

Which are your favourite eateries?

You know how people say it's unfair that there isn't much good food in the west, where I live? So I travel to the east to eat.

Badoque Cafe in Simpang Bedok is family-friendly, has very good service and is famous for beef ribs in American-sized portions. It has different kinds of pastas and a dish called kepak bingbing, which is fried chicken wings coated with chilli padi.

I go to Enak Enak, also in Simpang Bedok, for halal dim sum, and Watsub, a halal sandwich place in East Village. I hear there's a halal dim sum place opening in the west soon.

Do you travel to Malaysia for the halal food?

Kuala Lumpur is a good last-minute destination because it's just a few hours away and I can eat a lot of things there.

A friend recently took me to a restaurant in Bangsar that has good, authentic dim sum that is halal. It's cheaper than restaurants in Singapore too. I also dine at Chilli's, which is halal in Kuala Lumpur, but not here.

I like to try food I can't eat in Singapore, such as Carl's Jr burgers. Floss buns in Breadtalk there are topped with chicken floss, not pork floss, so I can eat them. I once came home with eight boxes of pastries. I also buy home those from Loaf bakery in Pavilion mall.

Where else do you travel to eat?

I visit Bandung, Indonesia, frequently. I like the sate, which has more chunky meat than Singapore satay and comes with a sweet black sauce besides the peanut gravy. And I also like goreng pisang keju (banana fritter with cheese).

I was very happy when I went to New York as I had watched a lot of American food shows. So I had to go to famous bakeries such as Magnolia and Georgetown Cupcake.

Magnolia was closed for the day when I went, so I made another trip the next day. It was worth it because I love its banana cream pie.

Georgetown, surprisingly, did not live up to expectations. The cupcakes on display were so beautiful and we had to beg the staff to sell them to us because the shop was closing when we got there. But they tasted just okay.

If you could choose anyone in the world to have a meal with, who would that be?

Nigella Lawson. She's big-sized, yet so beautiful and elegant. I love her cooking shows. She doesn't bother about healthy cooking. She just cooks and eats whatever she wants, fat and all. Respect!

  • Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Mum's comfort food is best'. Print Edition | Subscribe