Chef Wan: The flamboyant Malaysian food ambassador on staying true to our food culture
No matter how much you love our pride and joy Malaysian food, you’ve got nothing on Datuk Redzuawan Ismail or better known as Chef Wan.
It was a sweltering 36 degree afternoon when I walked into Mandarin Oriental KL to meet the household celebrity chef, who is in town to do what he does best – promote our local food with a special lunch and dinner that he will be having at the hotel next week.
The fast-talking, silver-haired culinary ambassador for Tourism Malaysia spends 9 months a year travelling to share with the world the uniqueness that is our Malaysian food. As we speak, he just got back from filming a cooking show in Brazil.
It literally is his job to love our national cuisine.
“People in South America love our food!” he proudly proclaims with the signature wave of his hand. “It’s flavourful – exotic! – because it is a mix of many different influences from the region."
He may be immensely proud of our local food but he is one to also give credit where credit is due. “There’s really no proper sajian Malaysia. I always believe that we came about with influences from many different regions. I always make sure to credit our neighbours like Indonesia and Thailand and not claim something is entirely ours. Of course we have one or two dishes, but we have many that we borrowed."
"Thank God we have that because Malaysia, truly Asia, right?”
A medley of flavours
To him, food is an evolution that tracks the history of a nation. He reads ours in the nasi bukhari from the Middle-East, the roti canai which roots trace to India and the many rendang and curries that are similarly as popular in Indonesia.
“I am very proud that we can walk down a street and enjoy Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai cuisine all at a go," he says. "There’s so much diversity and it is accessible and cheap. That’s why I always make sure to credit our neighbours.”
“Hilang budaya, hilang makanan, hilang bangsa.”
However, regionally is as far as he’ll approve when it comes to the lending of flavours. Anything further results in fusion food that he cringed at at mere mention. “I really don’t like it when you take something traditional and change it,” he exclaims. “Food, just like culture and people, needs to be respected. It’s important to preserve our heritage by not diluting it with other people’s. I always say “Hilang budaya, hilang makanan, hilang bangsa.”
It goes beyond national pride. Our food, he says, tastes good with ingredients that are native to our land. Adding Western produce like cheese and cream to Asian recipes spoils the authenticity. “These are recipes that have been brought down from generations and should be preserved. If we lose this, then what makes our food, Malaysian?” he implores.
For the love of spices
So what is it exactly about Malaysian food that is driving people as far as South America crazy over it?
“Our wonderful world of spices,” he proudly regales. “Not many countries have so many fresh herbs and spices, like our calamansi, assam jawa, lemongrass and pandan. Only with fresh spices can you cook food with a lot of richness.”
“Our food also tastes better because of the preparation,” he is quick to add. “It takes a lot of work to cook and master, but the result always tastes better.”
Malaysian food is really taking over the globe, just look at the nasi lemak.