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Saturday September 21, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday September 22, 2013 MYT 10:01:21 AM
by foo yee ping
The real deal: The food Nani cooks at her restaurant is as authentic as it comes, and not tweaked for American tastes.
If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then a Malaysian in New York is indeed serving her diners with the kind of home-cooked meals that are prepared with warmth.
AN American food critic once said that “cooking, done with care, is an act of love.”
That is something that freelance journalist Nani Yusof, 41, knew even back from the days when she was growing up in Penang, watching her grandmother as she stirred, simmered and served her loved ones with painstakingly prepared dishes.
Cooking, as far as she recalled, was often a family affair as almost everybody was a good cook, including mum, dad and a cousin.
“My cousin and I used to spend weekends together, trying out our family recipes,” she said.
And while it was romance that brought Nani to New York City – she married a Barbados-born American nutritionist – it is her love for cooking that has been her mainstay in the past nine years that she has been in the United States.
Initially, she spent time doing regular office jobs besides writing for Malaysian national news agency Bernama and catering food for special events.
Eventually, the call of the kitchen became stronger and she started “Mami PG’s Cooking” where she cooked authentic Penang food and delivered them in lunch boxes to her customers.
“I was doing it for about two years. And it was getting more and more attention through word of mouth and also good reviews from food bloggers,” Nani said.
For example, a site known as Midtown Lunch praised her food for its authenticity, saying: “Don’t expect Mami PG’s Cooking to be tweaked for American tastes. It’s certainly not the type of food you would find on every corner of midtown Manhattan and at US$7, I’d say this is a true gem.”
Another blogger known as Chubby Chinese Girl posted on Oct 26 last year stated: “I’ve never been to Malaysia so I won’t know how ‘authentic’ this is, but from the nasi lemak I’ve tried in NY, this is a step above the restaurant versions. I see myself ordering it again and again.”
By early 2013, Nani resolved to cook up a bigger storm.
“I was inspired to start cooking from a small-scale commercial kitchen. I didn’t have the capital, but in September last year, I made the preparations by registering a company and getting a tax ID,” she said.
In February, she catered for the Chinese New Year open house of Malaysian businessman Danny Lye in New York City who knew of a commercial kitchen for rent.
“I went to check out the kitchen and was immediately captivated by it. I knew this was it.”
Nani said she was able to keep costs to a minimum before she started the operations as she kept the things already available at the place.
“For example, I took over all the tables and chairs. I was just required to pay three months’ rent in advance. I was very blessed.”
Fast forward to May 2013. Mamak House (www.mamak
house.com) opened its doors in Flushing, Queens, branding itself as “the first authentic Penang’s Indian Malay Mixed Halal cuisine in New York City.”
Barely two months after its opening, the restaurant earned a review in The New York Times in which the venerable newspaper pointed out that “These Mysteries Are Serious Business”, referring to the secrets in the culinary style of the Penang Mamaks.
“If (Nani) makes any concessions to Westerners, they are in format, not flavour,” said the reviewer.
Among others, Mamak House offers fish head curry at US$28 (RM93.24), udang nasi kandar (US$16.95/RM56.44), sambal udang petai (US$16.95), ais kacang (US$3.95/RM13.15), cendol (US$3.95/RM13.15), air sirap limau (US$1.95/RM6.49) and teh ais (US$2.95/RM9.82).
The 45-seat restaurant, which opens daily except Mondays, has been doing brisk business with a wide clientele of Asians, Middle Easterners and mat salleh, said Nani.
“It is usually crowded, especially on Fridays till Sundays.”
Initially, she made her dishes less spicy, but her customers wanted them just the way they should be.
Mamak House’s biggest hits have been its murtabak (US$6.95/RM23.14), chicken rendang (US$13.95/RM46.45) and satay (US$6.95 or US$7.95/RM23.14-RM26.47) for four sticks, depending on whether it is chicken, beef or lamb).
“People gushed about the peanut sauce. They kept asking for it,” said Nani.
And to maintain standards, Nani’s restaurant only serves top- quality basmati rice.
To create a feel of “home sweet home”, Nani has displayed at Mamak House a framed cover of Lat – 30 Years Later, a compilation of cartoons from the Malaysian icon.
A friend who visited recently from Kuala Lumpur also brought her two dozen kopitiam-style cups and saucers for use in the restaurant.
Despite having a staff of six, Nani insists in doing most of the cooking. This is despite her being almost eight months’ pregnant. (She has a four-year-old son.)
Her days start at 6am and she does not go to bed until midnight. She would usually go home between 3pm and 5pm for a break.
“It is a bit tiring, but I’m lucky as I don’t have any morning sickness,” she said.
Besides, her passion for cooking is standing her in good stead.
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Lifestyle, Nani Yusof, Mamak House, New York
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