A chef’s culinary odyssey


Aliyaa’s interior follows a sophisticated black-and-white theme.

Having made Malaysia his second home, Sivarajah Suppiah enjoys staying in this country due to its multi-cultural society and freedom to move around.

Recruited to join Aliyaa back in 2008, he was one of five cooks at the restaurant which was then located on Jalan Dungun, Kuala Lumpur. The Sri Lankan chef eventually moved up the ranks to lead Aliyaa’s 10-man culinary team in 2012.

His earliest foray into the kitchen, however, was right after he finished his high school education.

ALSO READ: Sri Lankan symphony of flavours

“I was 18 then and as the eldest child in my family, I had to shoulder the responsibility of cooking our family meals because both my parents were hard at work in the tea plantations.

“Over time, I mastered the art of preparing everything, from string hoppers and roti to rice with curries,” says Sivarajah, 38.

Photo: YAP CHEE HONG/The StarPhoto: YAP CHEE HONG/The StarHis deft cooking skills landed him his first professional cooking stint with a guest house in his hometown Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s tea country hills. Dubbed “Little England” due to its cool climate and colonial era bungalows, Sivarajah spent one-and-a-half years there – until 2006.

“I learned a lot during my time at the guesthouse, so when Brighten Hotel offered me better job prospects, I accepted the offer and moved to Colombo.”

According to Sivarajah, the house specialities at Aliyaa, which is now in Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, celebrate the diverse flavours of Sri Lanka.

“From our famous crab sambol to the soul-warming kothu, each dish is a culinary symphony of Sri Lanka’s vibrant food scene and a testament to its food heritage, the elaborate spices and complex techniques, passed down through the generations.

“Cinnamon, cardamom, chillies and coconut are essential building blocks of Sri Lankan cuisine. Tamarind and curry powder are also frequently incorporated. We have myriad spice mixes and at Aliyaa, we follow typical Sri Lankan cooking techniques to ensure our dishes’ authenticity.

“That’s why many of the essential ingredients such as red rice for kothu and string hoppers, and spices such as cinnamon stick, green cardamom, and cloves have to be imported from Sri Lanka,” he explains.

When asked to name his personal favourite dish from the menu, Sivarajah picked kothu, a home-style Sri Lankan dish of chopped roti (flatbread) stirfried with meat or seafood with curry of choice, egg, onions and chillies.

“Kothu is our comfort food and we grow up eating it, making good use of whatever that’s left over from our meals.”

The congenial Sivarajah shares that popular dishes among Aliyaa customers are fish cutlets, kothu and tiger prawn varuval.

For dessert, wattalappam −steamed coconut pudding sweetened with jaggery (palm sugar) and coconut milk − tops the list.

“Customers also like our drumstick curry and sothi (mild yellow coconut milk curry),” says the chef.

“When it comes to creating special menus, we have to work at least two to three months ahead,” he adds.

“For instance, for Chinese New Year and Ramadan, our team created specialities to suit the festive celebration. We served a Sri Lankan-style yee sang for the recent Chinese New Year and we had a special buka puasa (breaking of fast) set throughout Ramadan.”

Besides Tamil and Northern Singhalese fare, Sivarajah says he’s also familiar with Muslim food as it is available in Jaffna, so adapting certain dishes to suit local palates isn’t an issue.

“When it comes to Sri Lankan food, the culinary basics remain the same but as you move through different parts of the country, you’ll also find variations, just like how you might find different types of laksa in Malaysia.”

Nasi lemak, chapati, roti canai and char kway teow top the list of Sivarajah’s favourite Malaysian dishes. He’ll happily indulge in them on his days off when he doesn’t have to play the role of head chef.Siva personally cooking the kothu roti for guests.— Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The StarSiva personally cooking the kothu roti for guests.— Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

“I’ve travelled to Singapore, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. I also like going out to try different types of cuisine, be it Chinese, Malay or Indian. And whenever I can spare the time, I’d go to Batu Caves and Brickfields for Indian food.”

His long stint at Aliyaa means that he has cooked for many local personalities and international celebrities such as famous Indian actor Sriram Raghavan, the political elite and captains of industry. But Sivarajah says he’s happiest when cooking for his regular guests.

“Close to 70% of our customers are regulars and for them, Aliyaa is more than a restaurant. Family gatherings at Aliyaa aren’t just about sharing a meal, it’s also about celebrations of love and tradition.

“I know most of our regulars’ culinary preferences, and some of them will even call me personally to request for certain home-style dishes such as jackfruit seed curry. I’d try to oblige them when given enough notice in advance.”

Sivarajah’s culinary journey is one of passion and perseverance, and as he continues to champion Sri Lankan cuisine at Aliyaa, he hopes to continue with the time-honoured traditions of Sri Lanka, tweaking them with his personal creativity.

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Sri Lankan cuisine , Aliyaa , StarExtra , Food

   

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