I have known for a long time that food is important to me. I love to think about it, read about it, look at it, eat it, cook it and even shop for it. I know that when I am having a bit of a down day I can lift my spirits simply by heading to the kitchen and creating something (‘usually a mess’, Ian would say). In fact, it is precisely because I recognise that for me, cooking is meditative and therapeutic that I rarely beg someone else to prepare the supper in the evening. To me, doing this is the perfect wind down. So, it may come as a surprise to you, as it does to me, that, despite all this and despite having written two cookbooks, I have never been on a cookery course. Until Saturday.
I’d heard about Lazat Cooking school and knew they offered a workshop that began with being collected from your home and driven to a market and that ended with eating the food, bringing home leftovers and being driven back again. It sounded right up my alley. And so, Ian, Joshua and I together with Josh’s old friend Joel decided to give it a go.
From the moment I met Ana, our leader, at the TTDI market I began to get excited. For Ana, a Malay through and through, was even more excited about food than I was. At last I had found an ally who could explain what all the funny looking roots were (turmeric and galangal), could name all the green leafy vegetables and explain what the guys were actually selling on the coconut stalls. I learned that the locals eat the leafy veg with spicy homemade sambal made from ground dried fish and chilli. I learned that how you make coconut cream and milk (you squeeze the gratings, would you believe?) and that you can buy a coconut paste called kerisik that’s the colour of molasses and works as a healthy thickening agent. I met the lady who grinds, pestles and mixes her own spice mixes and picked up recommendations about the best fish man, chicken man, nut shop and so on. I’d rather shop here than a mall any day.
Oh, but you want to know about the cooking! Believe it or not, things got even more exciting (to me, anyway) because Lazat’s home is in a wooden building, kampung style, high on a leafy hill, surrounded by fruit trees. Another world was right here in KL and I didn’t even know. We were introduced to Saadiah, our chef demonstrator for the day, who taught us with patience and tremendous humour for someone who was surrounded by all that food but was fasting, as was Ana, because of Ramadan. I was less enamoured by the fact that so much canola and palm oil is used in their cuisine, but delighted to see how they used lemon grass and galangal (bruised) whole star anise and cinnamon in their dishes as well as all those wonderful permutations of coconut.
We made prawn fritters that became spiky with strips of spring onion and bean sprout and ate them with home made chilli sauce.
We made beef rendang, hot with two types of chilli and toothsome with kaffir lime leaf, turmeric leaf, lemon grass and galangal. The spiced cooked cucumber side-dish was a revelation. Who knew you could pound ginger, garlic, shallots and dried shrimp and then fry it with mustard seeds, star anise, cinnamon and clove before throwing in strips of veg, chilli and a splash of vinegar to create the perfect foil for the heat of the rendang.
But it was the dessert that surprised me most. Balls of coconut and palm sugar were encased in a putty of glutinous rice flour and drizzled with a coconut cream before being wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. OMG they were to die for! I have never been known for my ability to wrap one ingredient in another without it all collapsing (never ask me to make a Scotch egg) but mine were a triumph.
We cooked at wonderfully equipped cooking stations overlooking the valley, yes, it was open to the air, but the fans kept us cool. In fact when one of our party said they were a little hot (not surprising with all that oil cooking) they provided us with ice-cold towels for the back of our necks, fresh from the fridge.
An exhilarating day for us all. I learned so much, about shopping and cooking and am not only keen to return to Lazat and learn how to make roti canaai ( lacy pancake with curry dipping sauces) but if Ping can win the UK Masterchef final with her nasi lemak (coconut rice with fried chicken and egg) the country’s most popular breakfast dish, then I jolly well want to learn how to make it too.