When Zaleha was selected as a contestant on MasterChef UK in 2018 she was prepared for cooking that famously “doesn’t get any tougher than this,” but she wasn’t prepared for what came next. In her guest blog, Zaleha, author of My Rendang Isn’t Crispy and Other Favourite Malaysian Dishes, available now on ckbk, talks about #RendangGate and the story behind her book’s intriguing title.
Ask any Malaysian, and they will tell you that food has always been an important part of their life. Be it a wedding, a gathering, a coffee morning or simply an unplanned visit from family and friends, food is always part of our social circles. We will not let guests leave our house without having eaten something, simply because we believe food is so important in everyone’s life.
Growing up as part of a family that runs a restaurant and catering business, I watched my mom and dad cook in huge pots, transporting them in rented vans and serving the food at weddings – but I have never had any interest in cooking until I moved abroad to Australia. The need for getting my Malaysian food fix pushed me into cooking for myself, and that was how the journey started. We moved to Australia, and now I can’t get my curry laksa! As simple as that.
I made innumerable phone calls to my (now, sadly, late) mom and my sister-in-law, explored the oriental supermarkets in Perth, Australia, and quickly started to fill up my pantry with Asian ingredients. I started really exploring Malaysian cooking. Some dishes came out perfectly and some turned out so disastrously that I had to get rid of them before my husband came home from work.
When my girls filled in the entry form for MasterChef UK 2018 on my behalf, never in a million years did I think that I would be walking into the MasterChef kitchen. The selection process was tough, and to be chosen from among thousands of applicants – I knew then that I really can cook! I am no MasterChef but I can cook.
I must admit, if it hadn’t been for the #RendangGate controversy, I may have been just another forgotten MasterChef contestant, and for that I am grateful. As a consequence, the Malaysian Prime Minister tweeted about me, and I got to cook with the British High Commissioner to Malaysia at that time, which was an absolute honour! All that publicity, good or bad has made me who I am today.
The biggest icing on the cake was getting a book deal from Marshall Cavendish, a respected publisher in Singapore. I have been writing recipes for as long as I can remember but signing the contract gave me the push I needed to finish writing my book. The next few months were all about recipe-testing until my children said, ‘Can we please not have Malaysian food everyday mama?’
A time-consuming challenge for me was measuring all the ingredients. As a cook, I don’t follow a specific recipe; it’s all based on ‘agak-agak’ – a Malaysian word that roughly translates as ‘estimate’ or ‘guess’. The word is now famously used by Gordon Ramsay when he cooks his rendang, because that’s how he was taught when he visited Malaysia.
After the hard work of photography and writing recipes came the fun bit: the title. I remember Lydia my publisher asking me if I had any suggestions for a title. I said I was open to suggestions.
I was immediately drawn to Lydia’s idea – My Rendang Isn’t Crispy and Other Malaysian Favourites. Little did I know that the title would cause another stir in the #RendangGate controversy, and that the book would become a bestseller in Malaysia followed by a win at the Gourmand World Cookbook Award alongside Nadiya Hussain’s book Time to Eat. I am absolutely chuffed.
Today, when I look back at my accomplishment in this short span of time, I am very pleased, and I can proudly say that My Rendang Isn’t Crispy will be a legacy to leave to my family, my children and everyone that I love. I am very proud indeed.
Here are a few of Zaleha’s recipes (you can find every recipe in the book available in full on ckbk).
Zaleha Kadir Olpin grew up in Malaysia and was taught to cook traditional Malaysian dishes by her mother from an early age. Today, Zaleha lives in Bristol, UK, with her husband and their youngest daughter, where she runs the successful Malaysian Kitchen UK with friends, and teaches at a cooking school.
Zaleha is well known for being a contestant in MasterChef UK in 2018, where her traditional chicken rendang was criticized by judges for not being crispy, resulting in her being eliminated from the competition. Since then, Zaleha has gained tremendous support from foodies all over the world. Her cleverly titled cookbook is a wonderful riposte to the controversy, as well as a source of accessible and great-tasting Malaysian recipes.