For many Malaysians, food is a central force in their lives. But because of the sheer diversity of recipe ideas, cooking styles and combinations, there is a perennial, interminable question that plagues the average Malaysian: what to cook lah?
This is exactly the conundrum food stylist Annette Isaac is looking to address with her debut cookbook, aptly titled What to Cook Laaa...“I think if you cook every day, after awhile it will be a question of what to cook lah? There are so many options out there, so sometimes it is about going back to the basics and making simple comfort food,” says Isaac.
Isaac is a seasoned food stylist who has always had a deep-rooted interest and love for food. As a child, she tinkered in the kitchen a lot and this then evolved when she went to university to study law and assumed the role of the cook among her circle of friends.
“It was a fun role to have in the house – I had six housemates and we were always having makan parties!” she recalls, laughing.
After graduation, Isaac helped set up the regional office for a university but still dipped her hand in the food world, by catering for friends. Eventually, she landed a marketing role in a frozen food company where she met all sorts of people in the food industry.
This then led to her opening her own restaurant Dish Deli in Kuala Lumpur. After closing the eatery a few years later, the enterprising Isaac then got into food styling.
“I got into it by sheer coincidence – I said ‘Okay’ to helping someone out and found it interesting and challenging and I also discovered that I had a knack for it. So I started building up my food styling experience and got clients from there. These days, I also do recipe development and work with companies to put together international food shows and exhibitions,” she says.
Having her own cookbook is an extension of Isaac’s overall love of food and also a realisation of a long-held dream of hers.
“It’s always been on my bucket list – my original idea began fermenting when I was a student. Initially, I wanted to do a cookbook focused on easy recipes predominantly for students. But this book has culminated with recipes that students, beginners and even experienced cooks might like.
“I wrote this book because I know a lot of students and even young couples who don’t know how to cook. And cooking is a life skill that everyone can and should easily pick up because then you don’t have to rely on anybody for meals. Also I truly believe that everyone can cook,” says Isaac.
To put together the cookbook, Isaac trawled through her recipe arsenal, from childhood favourites to meals that she picked up from aunts, her friends’ mothers and her own mother. She eventually whittled her long list down to about 50 recipes that have special meaning to her and fulfilled her basic dictum of being easy-to-execute.
“The concept of the book is simple: I wanted it to be very accessible to beginners, so I didn’t want to make it too difficult or daunting. Sometimes when you open a recipe book, you can be so overwhelmed! So I made the recipes as easy as possible without losing the flavours,” she says.
The book itself is stuffed full of all sorts of delicious everyday recipes that appeal to the Malaysian palate, from local favourites like chilli brinjal, ayam masak merah, claypot chicken rice, beef curry, steamed egg, porridge, sambal-stuffed mackerel and onde-onde to Western meals like spicy roast beef, creamy scrambled eggs and apple and peach crumble.
Each recipe has an accompanying image – beautifully styled by Isaac herself of course – which also makes it easier to suss out what the final product should look like.
What is instantly obvious though is that this is a cookbook that even the most hopeless cooks will be able to easily navigate. Most of the ingredient lists are very short (a joy for people who love simple home-cooking), so there isn’t the trouble of purchasing and utilising 20 ingredients to make one curry. Everything is very, very simple and refreshingly uncomplicated.
Isaac’s basic ethos – as espoused in the recipes in the book – is that less is more. There is also a conscious effort throughout the book to use and repurpose spices, herbs and other ingredients that can be easily sourced anywhere in Malaysia at minimal cost, like chillies, garlic, tomatoes and limes. This is especially pertinent, given how average Malaysians are currently struggling to cook nutritious meals while swimming against the tide of rising food costs.
“Most of the ingredients are generic, easily available here and cost-effective. I also reuse a lot of the same ingredients, so the same thing can be used for different dishes, so you don’t have to fill up the fridge or freezer with so many different things.
“Because the thing is nowadays even with rising food costs, there is so much of food wastage, so I make sure to tell people that even though the recipe indicates to use a particular vegetable, they don’t have to go out and buy it if they don’t have it. They can just use whatever they have at home.
“I wrote the cookbook this way because for me, as a student, I had to be mindful of keeping to a budget so I have taken that thought process through from my student days till today, and I think many people will find this useful,” she says.
Moving forward, Isaac says she hopes to continue churning out simple cookbooks focused on Malaysian cooking as there is so much richness and diversity in the local culinary tapestry.
“I have always hoped that having one cookbook would lead to other books, because we have a lot of food stories to tell in Malaysia. So I would love to do more cookbooks relating to the Malaysian ingredients that we have, including what’s available in Sabah and Sarawak. And hopefully I will meet interesting people along the way and we can share our stories,” she says.
What To Cook Laaa... is priced at RM60 and available at most major bookstores.
BAKED SEAFOOD PARCEL
30ml vegetable oil
1 fresh green chilli
2 green bird’s-eye chillies
1 green tomato
1 clove garlic
60ml lime juice
salt and sugar to taste
For the seafood parcel
200g fish fillet chunks
3 okra, sliced thinly
3 four-angled beans, thinly sliced
100ml coconut milk
In a pan, heat some oil and sauté the blended items until fragrant. Leave to cool and season further to taste, if needed.
Place all the seafood, okra and four-angled beans in a parcel made of aluminium foil.
Combine the coconut milk with the sautéed blended ingredients and pour it over the seafood mixture. Tuck in the foil all around to create a sealed parcel.
Place the parcel on a baking tray and bake in an oven preheated to 180˚C for 10 minutes.
Transfer to a plate, open the parcel and serve.
SPICY ROAST BEEF
Serves 6 to 8
For the meat rub
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp mixed herbs
1 tsp dried rosemary
2 tsp chilli flakes
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
2 tsp salt
For the roast
2½ kg rib eye
2 red onions, cut into wedges
2 carrots, cut into chunks
1 cup hot water
Mix all the ingredients for the meat rub. Rub it into the rib eye and allow to marinate for 4 hours or longer in the refrigerator.
Take the marinated rib eye out of fridge an hour before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature.
Pre-heat oven to 240°C. Arrange the onions and carrots in a single layer in the base of a sturdy roasting tin large enough to hold the beef. Pour the hot water into the roasting tin.
Roast at 240°C for 20 minutes, then reduce to 190°C.
Roast for 75 minutes for medium doneness (60°C) or 100 minutes if you want your beef well done (71°C).
Cover the tin with aluminium foil for 30 minutes before slicing the meat. Serve with roasted potatoes and other vegetables.