It all began on a cold winter’s night in London – with a toss of my spoon in the sink, I decided then and there that I was tired and nauseated of microwavable frozen food. The agony of not being within reach of warm home-food made the winter seem crueler.

I was done – I wanted real food. So I called up my mother, my grandmother and my aunts for advice.

Nenek is my guardian angel inside and outside of the kitchen – born in Malacca and raised in Singapore, she was married at 16 and had five children. I’ve yet to meet anyone else that has perfected the art of being a true woman.

She is the epitome of kindness and love, generosity and grace. And all of these qualities have been intricately weaved into her cooking. Over the years, with her gentle patience in layan-ing (entertaining) my endless queries in the kitchen, and my mother’s reassuring “hantam je lah” (‘just wing it’ attitude) for quantity instructions; I’ve collected a wide variety of traditional recipes in a little recipe book fondly inscribed as CintaMelayu.

“I’ve come to learn that cooking is neither about accuracy nor perfection – rather, it is about the sincerity, intuition and love that goes into each dish.”

I’ve (apprehensively) showcased many of my dishes with my family, and the friends that I met abroad during my studies – trial and error is the best teacher.

And with the matriarchs of my life as my guides, I’ve come to learn that cooking is neither about accuracy nor perfection, rather, it is about the sincerity, intuition and love that goes into each dish.

When food is exchanged between friends and family, it creates a powerful sense of fulfilment and connection. Food feeds the cells and fills the senses. It nourishes the vulnerable and hidden parts of ourselves that may be crying out for encouragement and comfort.

Something as simple as a container of soup passed from my hand to yours, comes with it not just ample nutrients, but so much more. It is a way to deliver care and love that is received in a person’s innermost core. I’m most definitely not a chef – I’m just a girl constantly craving homemade food and the stinging nostalgia that comes with each bite.

CintaMelayu is here to illuminate the regional dishes of Southeast Asia, particularly Malay ones, so you can recreate them and relive the moment of a heart-warming dish you once had with your loved ones.


I must confess, it took me a few sleepless nights to come up with the right dish to present. How can I choose a dish that truly emulates the term cinta (love) and Melayu over every other dish. How can I possibly rank ayam rendang lower than nasi lemak? Which dish won’t offend my deceased ancestors and reap approval from my grandmother?

The answer came out of the blue at a get-together last week at my Italian friend’s house. I was unexpectedly in charge of hosting the evening’s dinner. I racked my brain and contemplated what I could possibly bring to the table, finding palatable harmony for all the different nationalities of people that were there – American, Brazilian, Bangladeshi, Indian, and of course, Italian.

With a crinkled nose, I found myself naturally gravitating towards the fresh produce and picking up a single shallot, a clove of garlic, two large potatoes, chicken breasts (because I found out some people are actually scared of bones) and chili. A can of coconut milk and two stalks of lemongrass later, I realised I could make many dishes.

Photo: Zulaikha Ishak

If I added a bit of curry powder, I can already make curry. Add on some kerisik or fried coconut and I can make rendang.

What frustrated me the most about cooking in my younger years is the fact that I could never get all of the ingredients listed in the recipe book. Two cloves of garlic were not three cloves of garlic — which is true, but it doesn’t matter. Not a fan of ikan bilis (anchovies)? Then it’s fine to use dried shrimp instead.

What I love about cooking is the art of substitution and the flexibility that it inherits. Or as most of my friends constantly hear from me, my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen: the art of “hantam saja lah”.


I love cooking because it allows me to be malleable and creative, to be forgiving to myself and practice making the best out of every situation.

Having said that, you will notice most of my ingredients won’t be too specific or have precise quantities. (At the request of a friend, I’ve had to add baby corn into a dish of ayam kicap — bizarre but it turned out amazing.)

Cooking should never be seen as an assignment or a task to complete. It is an easy and feel-good self-indulgence that rewards your mind, heart and soul… oh and the stomach too.

And coming back to the single shallot in my hands, I decided that this evening I would make ayam masak lemak cili padi.

 Ayam Masak Lemak Cili Padi  

Photo: Zulaikha Ishak


 Chicken (parts are completely up to you – if you like your chicken firm, pan-grill it for a few minutes)
 1 clove of garlic
 Large shallots or onions
 Birds’ eye chilli (enough to burn your eyes out of focus)
 1 teaspoon tumeric powder
 2 stalks of lemongrass, bruised
 Potatoes, peeled and cubed
 Seasoning (I’m a fan of Maggi’s Secukup Rasa)
 Tamarind, lemon, or plum juice (optional)


1. Blend the garlic, shallots, chili and lemongrass in a blender. Set aside the puree.
2. Heat oil in pan.
3. Pour the puree in and cook until aromatic.
4. Add in the turmeric powder.
5. Add the chicken, tamarind juice, water, and let it sit.
6. Once the chicken and potatoes are cooked through, pour in the coconut milk.
7. Finally, add in salt and seasoning.


Zulaikha Ishak is a Bruneian postgraduate student studying environmental sustainablility in Melbourne, Australia. The only daughter in a family of five boys, she’s either vying for total attention from her parents or bringing the best kind of hell to her brothers.