By Kim Choe
“After my grandmom passed away, a lot of recipes and special dishes just got lost. Nobody knows how to cook them.”
Cooking mee goreng mamak transports Kuang Keng Kuek Ser back to the humid sidewalks of his home city Kuala Lumpur, where street vendors cook generous servings of the fried noodles to order over searingly hot flames, advertising their wares with the ubiquitous clattering of metal woks and sweet aroma.
“‘Mamak’ in Malaysia refers to Indian muslims and this is one of the most popular street foods,” Keng explains.
The dish encapsulates Indian, Chinese and Malay flavours; a satisfyingly cacophonous mingling of Malaysia’s cultures in one dish. Keng learned to cook it by blending his observations of food vendors with recipes he found online.
But cooking didn’t always come naturally. Preparing food was only ever something of occasional utility to Keng and his wife Li Li Liew, until the two journalists moved to New York City from Kuala Lumpur in 2013.
“I never knew that I actually liked cooking,” Keng says.
“I almost never cooked in Malaysia because, firstly, you are working fulltime so you almost never have time to cook, and the second thing is eating outside is not that expensive.”
In addition, traffic jams in the capital Kuala Lumpur are so paralysing that many workers routinely eat dinner out while waiting for the rush to subside.
The lack of motivation to cook meant Keng never took the opportunity to learn from his grandmother while she was alive.
Sadness and regret wash over his face as he recalls her fragrant Chinese New Year stewed duck and pillowy steamed kueh (cakes), the recipes for which were never recorded or passed on.
“Sometimes I miss them; I dream about it. Maybe you can get [recipes] online but things may not appear to be the same as you tasted before.”
In his grandmother’s absence, Keng found himself trying to make his own versions of the dishes that held strong memories. As he did so, cooking – which began as a money-saving strategy when he first moved to New York – evolved into a fully fledged hobby.
“I started to cook a lot because eating outside is expensive. And then I realised that it’s actually quite enjoyable and interesting.
“The best part is keeping experimenting, and then once you do it better it feels like an achievement.”
Li Li, who describes her husband’s cooking style as “bold” due to his penchant for salt and soy sauce, provides some balance to the couple’s diet.
“I don’t care about the taste, as long as I know it’s healthy!” she says. “Less oil, less sugar, less salt.”
But for Keng, the vibrant flavours that punctuate his cooking are a vital connection with home.
“You feel like you’re still having a life in Malaysia, because you are still having the same food.
“It’s comforting. You feel less lonely.”
Although his grandmother’s recipes may be lost now, moving to a new country has given him an opportunity to start a collection of his own. The roadside mamak stalls may be thousands of miles away, but all it takes is the click-click-click of a New York gas stove igniting for the memories to come rushing back.