CAROL Selva Rajah is a familiar name to Malaysians and Singaporeans who grew up watching her cooking show ‘Citarasa’ in the 1980s.
The Malayan-born-Sydney-based 75-year-old chef has been serving up fusion food long before it became a trend, and placing Asian cuisine on the world map since the 1960s.
She is the first Asian woman to be invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, named one of Australia’s Great Women Chefs and recipient of the Jaguar-Gourmet Traveller Award.
As of now, Carol has 14 cookbooks under her belt, including her latest offering, Dining with Dragons— the first of her books which offer a peek into her life.
This memoir tells not only her story but that of her Amah, who raised her, the history of the places she’s lived in as well as a selection of her personal and heirloom recipes.
The Rakyat Post caught up with her via email amidst her busy schedule while she was in town promoting her book:
Q: Who or what was the inspiration for your latest book, Dining with Dragons?
A: The inspiration for the book was always my Cantonese Amah, Kim, an illiterate peasant woman from Canton, who had the wisdom and traditions of Chinese philosophy firmly grounded in her mind, both from experiences of her life and from her family life.
She was firm about right and wrong, had an exemplary work ethic, was scrupulously clean, intelligent and quick to grasp at concepts in the strange land of Singapore where she came to work as a nanny in the Tiong Bharu General Hospital in the late 1930’s.
She was fiercely loyal to my parents who gave her a home in Klang. I learnt more than cooking from her: (I learnt) honesty, hard work and to excel in anything I did.
I wanted to tell her story and to recall some of her personality, to share an extraordinary story of a time and a place when an ordinary woman rose to meet a challenge, to do extraordinary things. We were fortunate to have her.
Q: How is this book different from your other books (aside from the obvious that it is a memoir rather than a cookbook)?
A: The book tells of my life, my Amah’s life and follows the history of the countries in tandem with wonderful snippets of tales, our fears, our aspirations, our tragedies, when the Dragon, my amah and the other women fly away for good and it describes the lives of people around us.
Our lorong (the little lane in Klang where we grew up) was a haven, a safety net, invisible but there all the same.The war scared us but with friends we formed a passive resistance to the Japanese.
The book tells the story of family but it is also a history of the countries we lived in. It is a truly multicultural book of people who lived in a house where Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil and Malay were spoken all at the same time.
Q: Why the decision to crowd funds for this book?
A: Why not? Why ever not? It was a new concept that has worked.
Books were a new idea and I don’t think many people understood what we were trying to do but we got almost half of our target. It was a success as far as I was concerned. All my friends, loyal and lovely, chipped in trusting me to do the right thing.
Q: Who are your culinary heroes?
A: I have many; in Sydney, I met a winemaker who understood the palate.
He was a hand surgeon, Dr Max Lake, who became my mentor for he encouraged me to write more about food not just recipes, but the philosophy, the balance of spice and herb, and to write about the differences between cuisines.
Other culinary heroes were Margaret Fulton, the Julia Child of Australia, and James Beard, who began food on television and wrote about it in the United States.
And my culinary hero number one was always my Amah and Aunty Siok, whom you will meet in Dining with Dragons.
Q: You are sometimes referred to as a celebrity chef. What do you think of this label and what do you think of other current celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson arid Jamie Oliver?
A: A celebrity is someone who shines in a special area of expertise. Each person has a talent and uses their talent to create great things.
I do not call myself a celebrity: I call myself a writer who is also a chef but I suppose people call me a celebrity because I approach food with great finesse, and I have a flair for writing and for speaking to people about food. I write from the heart. I am honest; I am not sponsored by any food group. I am my own person; I do not do it for the money.
Ramsay is a great chef in his own restaurant, but has made his name for other reasons, with his temper, common in kitchens.
Lawson is beautiful, makes her food sexy and has an appealing way about her; she serves fabulous sweets and desserts.
Jamie Oliver is a wonderful chef who has appealed to the younger generation. He has improved the food in the UK with charm and (is) a direct voice to people about simplicity and fresh ingredients. He is a true celebrity! Integrity of purpose is an important element.
Q: What is your ‘go to’ dish, whether it is comfort food or to entertain guests?
A: Char kuey teow! (Preferably) with garlic chives, chilli sambal, loads of garlic and prawns (and blood cockles if I can get them fresh).
Q: Did you always want to be a chef/food writer/teacher?
A: I was a dedicated teacher but food has always been my escape. I cook when I am sad and happy, excited or angry (without banging pots). My kitchen is a marvellous haven where I can be myself. My happiest times were spent in kitchens all over the world.
Q: Who or what influenced your decision to become a chef?
A: My Amah, of course, taught me how to overcome any fears about cooking; she believed that food and its preparation was something noble, that one can be a better mother, wife, hostess and a rounded person when one can open a house to anyone.
My mother, Sara, was a generous hostess who invited everyone to lunch or dinner, but we were the back-up: Amah, cousin Pat and myself, later. We cooked and served, and she entertained.
This laid the groundwork for the many dinner parties I had in Sydney where I cooked and served, and Selva, my husband, entertained them with his numerous jokes and great Australian wines.
Q: What were the challenges you faced becoming a chef and food writer and how did you overcome these challenges?
A: I love challenges. I invited everyone who mattered (food writers, consultants to large multinational food companies, radio broadcasters and food editors from food and lifestyle magazines) to dinner.
At that stage, no one was coking Asian food imaginatively — it was the ‘80s and I served dinner in courses.
Furthermore, I was an English teacher with a bachelor’s degree from one of the best universities in the world — the University of Malaya in Singapore, where all our lecturers were either from English universities or legends in their time. Writing came naturally to me, and I was already reading about food and food history.
I also travelled extensively later to the US and learnt how they did it there.
And I had met James Beard, Peter Kump and Julia Child — the holy trinity of food greats!
Q: What is your philosophy on cooking?
A: Good food comes from clean well-planted fresh ingredients. Love your food and cook every meal with love for your family and friends. Love keeps your food tasty and well presented. A round table creates good endorphins and everyone eats more, so try to entertain using a round table, for camaraderie, and enjoyment.
Q: What is your advice to aspiring chefs and food writers?
A: Being a chef is no joke; you stand for hours on your feet. But the best, most wonderful reward is to see your guests and your family enjoys your cooking. The books I won awards for also helped so writing is an area you can explore too. But give your best to your recipes. If you are a good cook, you will realise that when you cook the same recipe as someone else, the final result is often quite different. A good cook produces better results because your instinct tells you how to create a fabulous dish, no matter what. Being a chef is hard work but it has its own rewards, you can do your own thing in the kitchen and create lovely food.
Travel to look at other food, in other countries. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Experience is the winner. One old man or woman in the kitchen may teach you amazing things, so ask and learn.
My 6-year-old granddaughter, Sara, dubbed me the “best cook” in the world when she was 4 years old. That was a thousand times more rewarding than hearing that I was a celebrity chef of international fame!
Title: Dining with Dragons
Author: Carol Selva Rajah with Dr Abel Arumugam
Retail: RM86 (Malaysia); S$28
Available at: Kinokuniya (Kuala Lumpur & Singapore); Areca Books (Penang); Akasaa Publishing – www.akasaa.com (global)