When I lived in the Netherlands there was an annual exhibition of this name that was very much a getting-to-know the country event. I often did a talk, occasionally had a stand there but always attended. I loved the title and how important it seemed to me, a foreign resident of the country, to differentiate myself from the many hundreds of thousands of visitors who go there as, indeed, tourists.
Yesterday, I was definitely not as a tourist, that I attended KL’s first ‘Good Food Show’. Called KL Big Kitchen, the event was surprisingly, to me at least, held outside on the large patch of grass in what many consider to be the centre of the city, Merdeka (which means independence) Square. I was not hopeful.
Anne and I parked in the car park beneath the square and our hopes did not lift when first we found lots of empty spaces and second we found no signs directing us to the entrance. In the end we found a gap in the barrier that had been left open. No one batted an eyelid, while I felt a bit like a criminal.
I had read on the website that the many food stalls would be selling their wares via kupangs or coupons. Eventually we found a sign saying kupang fixed to the door of a temporary building. We tried the handle. It was locked. Not only was it locked but when we did eventually find a way in we learned there were no kupangs. It hadn’t happened. Buying an entrance ticket was possible though, so we bought one. It cost the princely sum of one ringgit. About 20p. We picked up a brochure and discovered what was on offer. Anne and I were on a mission – to eat. So we headed for the hawker stands.
Satay, dim sum, steam boat, biryani, roti canai, all our favourite things were there and no dish cost more than three ringgit. There was nothing for it. Anne and I would have to sacrifice our waistlines, share bowls and try as many things as possible. Better still, or was it worse, there were free tastings everywhere.
Our eyes fell on a stall selling a variety of things we had never seen before. A large saucepan of beautiful salmon pink sauce, fringed with the bright red lace that indicates both chilli and oil, looked enticing. We approached. Soon a man was passing us spoonfuls of things to try, straight out of the pans. It was delicious and so we chose a dish of something called pecal. First they filled the bowl with a mixture of cooked greens, tofu, crunchy tempeh, bean sprouts and rice noodles before bathed them in that delicious pink soup. It was divine and this was when we discovered the sauce was laced with peanuts and the dish resembled a refined gado-gado.
Disaster! We’d after eating just half of one dish each and we were full!
“Never mind,” said Anne. “We’ll just eat anyway.”
From fresh coconut water to Pakistani biryani, fragrant with cardamom and lamb kebab rolls, made sweet and crunchy with fresh tomato and sweet onion, tastes of sambals so spicy they made me slap the back of my head and jump and down, to the irresistible lure of creamy tapioca leaf and durian curry from Sabah, we were paying peanuts and getting Masterchef food. Now we really were full and so headed to the Big Kitchen tent where apparently we could book to watch cooking demonstations. We just wanted a sit down.
Now, there had to be an entrance fee? Sure, we had to sign in and wear a special wristband, but no, it was free of charge. We made for the only spare chairs towards the front of the room, beside a large fan, and took our seats. Apparently some guy called Chef Wan was on next. His name seemed familiar. Maybe I’d seen him on the inflight entertainment channel? The room was soon standing room only, so maybe he was a good one? It was not long before we realized we had struck gold.
Chef Wan calls himself the ‘queen of cooking’ and as this gregarious, camp, grey-hair chap held court at the front of the stage his helpers chopped things up and put them in paper cups. To start with it appeared he had his buttons done up the wrong way on his chef’s whites. He was off! We learned that this Malay celebrity has a Peranakan (this means she is descended from Chinese immigrants who married locals) mother and Malay father, that he is 58 and that he is 60% comedian and 40% chef. No, maybe that is a little unfair, for in 2009 he was voted best TV chef worldwide and recently beat Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes into second place with the best cookbook of the year.
He strutted round the stage and made one risqué comment after another, gabbling 19 to the dozen in a mix of Malay and English that the audience crying with laughter. He proceeded to ask his on-stage assistant if he was a virgin, to tell someone close to the front to close his legs in case ants crept up his shorts and told a young German with dreadlocks that he’d thought he was looking in the mirror for a moment when he’d spotted him. Then he located lots of obvious tourists and asked them where they were from so he could talk to them about their countries’ food. I think we all began to wonder whether he would ever start to cook the soup and laksa we had been promised. His sketch about how many times he needs to get up to pee a night led to him asking an Indian lady in the front row if she had the same problem. When she agreed he declared:
“It’s okay for you women you can just put in a cork!” To which the audience fell about once more.
Not only is he a talented chef and TV presenter, but he is also expert at embarrassing the audience. A word of advice – never sit in the front row at one of his events.
Eventually, about 20 minutes into his allocate hour he started to cook. Well, when I say ‘cook’ he handed ingredients to his assistant so he could tip them into a pan and stir. He also berated them for chopping everything wrongly and for not providing enough noodles, most of it, I am sure, done for laughs, with which he was rewarded.
“Is this a joke?” he cried, holding up a limp handful of precooked skinny rice noodles. “How am I to feed all them?” he wailed, panning his arm across the crowd of hundreds. There were no more noodles. With a pan that would feed a family of six, Anne and I were not hopeful. What a good job we were not hungry.
The tent filled with delicious smells and ten minutes later the chicken soup was ready, so, onto the Nyonya laksa, the spicy noodly soup for which the Peranakan are so famous. He told us how you had a choice. You could pound the ingredients in a pestle and mortar, or you could use a good blender. You can guess which he picked. Soon he had piled the following ingredients into the blender:
Oh no! Where was the belacan? Chef Wan clapped his hands to the sides of his head and moaned.
“Where is the belacan? I need my Malaysian cheese!”
Now, those in the know, i.e. those who are not tourists in Malaysia, may not know exactly what belacan is, but they do know it is not cheese.
An assistant disappeared back stage and returned with a block of the missing ingredient. Chef Wan cut a slice off a dark brown block and held it up.
“Who wants to try some Malaysian cheese?” he called, picking up a small knife and making a beeline for the row of young tourists he’d chatted to earlier.
The non-tourists amongst us began to titter.
He tore off a tiny piece for each of them and told them to put it into their mouths.
“You like our cheese?” he asked as the camera panned to the unfortunate row of young European innocents who, one by one, dropped open their jaws and begged for water. “Sweet, like gorgonzola, right?”
“It’s not fish, is it?” asked one. “I don’t eat fish.”
To which, Chef Wan explained that belacan is made from fermented shrimp. We locals know that it is quite the most pungent, stinky, heady, inedible ingredient in Malaysian cuisine. It is also, however, quite the vital ingredient in many dishes.
And so, popping a chunk of belacan into the processor and topping up with water, the laksa paste was made before being added to a pan along with coconut milk, prawns, tofu, bruised galangal and noodles.
In a matter of minutes, the food was ready and Anne and I picked up our bags to leave. We’d have no chance.
“Now, tourists first please!” he called out. “Let our visitors try our Malaysian food first.”
Now, I bloody well was going to be a tourist. I leapt from my seat and was one of the first in the queue. Was I hungry? No way! Did it matter? Not a jot. This was a celebrity chef and I was going to get a taste of laksa. Anne and I were each handed a bowl and were delighted.
“Take my photo for the blog!” I asked her.
“Go ask Chef Wan to stand with you!” she challenged.
He had already admitted that he adored publicity and so I reckoned I was in with a chance here too.
“May I have a photo for my blog?” I asked and in seconds his arm was round my waist.
Twenty-four hours later I am still giggling. Oh, and yes, his laksa was delicious. Who needs a pestle and mortar!