Where do chefs find inspiration? Do they cook at home? And who would they most like to have dinner with? These are just some of the questions running through my mind when I meet chefs. Yes they are just ordinary people but I love to know what makes them tick.
Jackie M entered the restaurant business back in 2001 when she became frustrated with the lack of good Malaysian food in Sydney. Today she is known around town as the Queen of Malaysian cuisine. Her restaurant, Jackie M Malaysian Cuisine, is open three nights a week – Thursday to Saturday – and it can be difficult to get a table. You can find Jackie and her team at Leichhardt, Marrickville, Concord Hospital and Hornsby-Kuringai Hospital markets (see the schedule for more information). And her fans were excited when Jackie recently started cooking classes at the Grace Hotel (which you can read more about here).
But it doesn’t stop there. Jackie is also a social media guru and you can find her on Twitter, Facebook, online at the official Jackie M Website, her food blog Jackie M Blog, her personal blog Seremban Girl, and Google +! Oh and did I mention she also looks after her 10 month old baby, Noah, who requires full-time, round-the-clock care due to his disability? Jackie is a rather amazing person!
The Queen of Malaysian cuisine was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer my random questions. Here’s what she had to say…
1. What’s your favourite food story?
I remember when I was about 6 or 8 years old in Malaysia, one of my siblings brought an Australian visitor home for dinner. My mom cooked up a more elaborate dinner than she usually did, as a welcome gesture. One of the dishes she made was a fried fish, and the Australian guest thought the whole fish was for him. Which alarmed us briefly because we worried that none of us would get to eat any of the fish. I guess that was the first time I realised the difference between Western and Asian dining styles; we fully expect to share one fish with the whole table, Westerners generally expect to each have their own fish.
2. Where do you find inspiration?
Food-wise, in Malaysia. I discover new dishes and new takes on old dishes every time I go back there. It never ceases to amaze me how diverse our cuisine is; just last week one of the interns at NTV7 (a Malaysian network with whom I filmed a TV show recently) sent me pictures of food in Kelantan, including one called Nasi Air (literally, Water Rice) – I’d never even heard of it and now I’m fascinated to go back and try it.
3. What’s your favourite guilty food pleasure?
Durian – here in Australia, primarily in the form of Durian Smoothie
4. Who are your culinary inspirations?
The street food vendors I grew up with, including my own parents’ beginnings selling street food in our hometown. These people spend years honing their craft and they do it not in the hopes of getting on Masterchef or becoming the next Nigella Lawson, but to put food on the table and to help raise their families for what they hope will be a better future ahead.
5. What’s your pet peeve?
You mean pet peeves, plural; I could fill the pages of War and Peace with them 😛
One of my pet peeves is derived from the fact that a disproportionate number of my fellow transplanted Malaysians fancy themselves as experts in Malaysian food by virtue of having been raised there.
What they’re sometimes blissfully unaware of, is the fact that there are lots of regional and other variations to dishes of the same name – for example, practically every state in Malaysia has its own version of rendang and laksa. Yet, if the version you serve happens to differ from what they were accustomed to in their neck of the Malaysian woods, they write it off as “inauthentic” whereas in Malaysia, the locals would simply see it as a different take on the same dish.
6. I imagine suppliers would be extremely important to you. How do you select suppliers?
I use only halal ingredients so it’s imperative my butcher is halal. Apart from that, availability of some of the more diverse items in my shopping list dictates where I shop – and that invariably means Flemington and Cabramatta, where a lot of the grocery stores are run by the Vietnamese, who share some common ingredients in their cooking with Malaysians – eg. items like lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, yam bean, pandan leaves etc. etc.
7. How important is locality and seasonality of produce in cooking?
Apart from the general wisdom of buying produce that’s in season from a price point and quality perspective, I have to be honest and admit that in the pursuit of using the “right” ingredients for my recipes, I go overboard in hunting down and paying a premium for items even if they’re not in season or are not readily available.
Eg. I’ve been having trouble getting my hands on yam bean aka sengkuang for the best part of the last two months, and that’s affected my ability to have one of my signature items, popiah, on my menu. I’d happily drive long distances and pay double if I could get my hands on it, but I haven’t had much luck so far.
8. Is there any food you hate eating or cooking with?
Yes, pork I can’t stand the smell of it, and I get accused (in jest) of being a traitor to my Chinese heritage because of it, because we all know how much the Chinese love their pork. Then again, I’ve always had a rebellious streak in me – as soon as I’m told I should do something, I almost instinctively do the opposite.
9. Anything you fail at cooking?
I don’t bake; I don’t really eat baked goods myself so I’ve never been motivated to attempt/perfect it. I can see myself failing miserably at something like making macarons – I lack the patience and finesse for it.
10. If you could have dinner with 3 people (dead or alive) from any time in history, who would you invite and why?
I blogged about Peter Kenny on my personal blog – serembangirl.wordpress.com – awhile back, but for want of a better term I guess he became something of a mentor to me with his radical take on marketing and branding. He passed away shortly after I lost contact with him and I’ve always wondered what it would be like if he could see me now, 20 years after we used to talk every day. I’d also be interested in meeting his business partner, John Singleton – Peter told me so many stories about their exploits and I’d be curious to hear John’s side of the story – so if anyone out there knows Mr. Singleton, let him know Jackie M wants to meet him.
My dad has been suffering from dementia for several years; I would love to turn back the clock and listen to his stories at the dinner table about his early years – from the Japanese occupation to how he and my mom first met, and the hardships they went through eking out a living in my little hometown, with 9 kids in tow.