Malaysian Heritage Cuisine and THAT Eggplant Sambal

It was the morning of LAUNCH DAY – the culmination of months of planning, meetings, negotiations (some more intense than others) – and I woke up to a message from my one remaining volunteer (the previous one backed out a couple of days prior) to say she wasn’t going to make it after all. 

Today was the day I was going to take a bunch of food, cooking equipment and tech gear to Alkira Terrace on the rooftop of the The Grace Hotel in the city.

It was the first of 4 Days | 5 Countries | 8 Live Cooking Demonstrations to be done onsite while livestreamed by the chefs in my Masters of Malaysian Cuisine group in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries of Malaysia (MAFI).

(More info about the campaign can be found here >> https://malaysianchefs.com/mafi-partners-with-the-masters-of-malaysian-cuisine-to-promote-malaysian-ingredients-to-the-world/)

As the Malaysian Heritage Cuisine project lead, my event was the first one out of the gate.

The Malaysian Heritage Cuisine poster greets visitors at the foyer of The Grace Hotel in Sydney

I was scheduled to do my cooking demonstration of Seremban Beef Noodles (Ngau Lam Fun) in front of some 35 Australian media/bloggers/influencers along with food and fruit (Malaysian Musang King Durian/Jackfruit/Pineapple/Nangchem) sampling.

Malaysian Musang King Durian sampling by the Agriculture Counsellor Office, Sydney at The Grace Hotel

The session would be concurrently broadcast to multiple online platforms and channels on Facebook, YouTube and Twitch, after which I would head down to the Grace Hotel Brasserie on Level Two to cook Char Kway Teow for 100 guests.

Well, it was meant to be just Char Kway Teow, except there was a late request for vegetarian options for one of the reporters who wanted to come – and since I’d already spent the entire catering budget and finalised the menu with our two caterers, I had to produce the additional vegetarian dish myself – and cook enough of it to feed 100 guests.

 So, I picked up 5-6kg of eggplant and 4kg of tomatoes (negotiated a discount with my supplier – I’m Chinese after all) along with all the other ingredients I would need to pull together a simple vegetarian sambal – onion, garlic, chilli, mushroom seasoning, salt, sugar and tamarind extract. I was going to slice the eggplant and grill it at the hotel, but now I’d lost my volunteers. 

After trying to rope in other helpers with no success, I posted in our Tang family WhatsApp group as a last resort (I’m usually too proud to ask for help), offering a free feed in exchange for anyone who was willing to give me a hand.

My sister Jessica answered the call but requested a free parking spot which required more manouvering of my resources – though on the plus side, she managed to coerce my stepmom to come along.

Yours truly with stepmom preparing for the cooking demonstration & food sampling

In the meantime I still had to sort out Noah while waiting for his support worker to arrive, and also load up everything in my vehicle – most of which could only be done right before I headed out and not the day before, since they consisted of perishable ingredients.

I didn’t want to get my “camera-friendly” clothes dirty, so I picked the cheapest, baggiest, old clothes I could dig out of  my closet, and threw my keys in my pants only to have them fall right through because of a big hole in my backpocket. Somehow it made perfect sense in the rush of the morning, for me to grab a needle and thread and sew it up, instead of changing into my camera-ready pants – it was that kind of day.

We arrived, got set up, and an hour before go time, I realised I couldn’t connect to the hotel’s fast internet because there’s no ethernet port on my laptop. The very helpful function manager pulled out all the stops and finally got ahold of another laptop I could use, but it meant I had to set it up and re-download all the content I would need for the live broadcast, while prepping the food and my cooking demonstration.

Switching everything across from my Lenovo laptop to the (coincidentally also) Lenovo loaner organised by the Grace Hotel function manager

Both caterers called close to start time; one couldn’t find the place and I never knew why the second one did because the line kept dropping out. Then when it was time to get changed, I couldn’t find my “camera-friendly” clothes – apparently I’d left them at home.

It was go-time and thankfully there were no audio issues (always a bonus). Our guest of honour, the Acting High Commissioner of Malaysia, Mr. Fareed, gave a welcome speech to the group, which we livestreamed online. 

Mr. Mohd Fareed Zakaria, Acting High Commissioner of Malaysia, giving his welcome message. TV host Lyndey Milan to the left and Maheran Zahari (Agriculture Counsellor, Sydney) on the right.

I started my Seremban Beef Noodles presentation and apologised for looking like a homeless person, but our guests were just the best group of people I could want at an event like this, and I don’t think they particularly minded or noticed.

The Malaysian Agriculture Counsellor Office of Sydney had set up a “durian station” at the far end of the terrace, and Mr. Mukhlis of Zeal Trading, the durian supplier, was on hand to cut the fruit open for tasting. I’d also prepared durian and nangchem kaya, durian fritters and durian cream to showcase the flavours and versatility of these Malaysian fruits. 

Mr. Mukhlis of Zeal Trading, who supplied the Malaysian Musang King Durian for the event, seen here cutting up some mouthwatering Malaysian pineapple

The Seremban Beef Noodles turned out to be more popular than I had anticipated, and every last scrap was cleared out by the end of the tasting session.  Then it was down to the Grace Hotel Brasserie for Round Two.

Quick group photo with media, influencers and other guests before heading down to the Grace Hotel Brasserie to cook CKT for our dinner guests

I was met with a huge array of food delivered by the caterers, including some I didn’t actually order (one of them decided to gift us some curry puffs). 

Caterer Yoshida Salim on the left, who supplied the mains in the buffet (apart from my CKT and Eggplant Sambal). A separate cook made the “kuihs” or finger foods.

I was there to cook my Char Kway Teow – something I hadn’t done commercially in one whole year thanks to Covid-19 shutting down my one remaining weekly pop-up – and also to prepare the vegetarian eggplant sambal.

One of our guests, Aziz Shukor of Halal Enterprises, being served at the buffet

Ideally I would have liked the eggplant sliced and grilled and served topped with the sambal I’d made earlier, but because of time constraints we went with cutting them into chunks and deep-frying them. We then tossed the sambal through, which had the effect of turning it into something that resembled grey porridge. 

I hoped it would get lost amongst the dozen other sweet and savoury dishes on offer and we could just throw it out at the end of the evening.

(L to R) En. Shafiq (First Secretary of the Agriculture Counsellor Office, Sydney), Ms Lini Febri Meswari and her husband Mr Arya Putubaya (Consul from Indonesian Consulate General), Mr. Mohd. Fareed Zakaria (Acting High Commissioner of Malaysia, Canberra), Jackie M., Ms. Maheran Zahari (Counsellor of Agriculture, Sydney).

At some point, one of the hotel buffet staff told me that someone had complimented the eggplant sambal – I figured I either heard wrongly or  the person was a vegetarian and they didn’t get to try the other food for comparison. There were a few more mentions of it over the course of the evening, but I remained in denial – in fact, when asked which of the dishes I cooked, I would only own up to the Char Kway Teow.

Days after the event, people continued to talk about that eggplant sambal online, and our blogger guests, Kurt and Sarah of The Where To, even wrote about it (I never tasted, let alone ate it). And, for the record, the vegetarian journo ended up being a no-show, which would have irked me but for the fact that the dish turned out to be an unexpected hit.

(ps. I didn’t take any photos of the eggplant; except for the poster at the top, these pics are courtesy of Jax Fong, whose works you can find at jaxphotoworks.com. I’m still chasing photos from our other volunteer photographer for the day but at the time of publication I’ve yet to hear back.)

Some of the volunteers from the Malaysia Festival organising committee

The Malaysian Heritage Cuisine campaign was a partnership between the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries of Malaysia (through the Agriculture Counsellor Office, Sydney) and my Masters of Malaysian Cuisine group. I’d like to thank every person who was involved, including the volunteers who gave of their time so freely to help us pull this together. Now if I’d only had time to sample more of the beautiful fruit from the day!

 

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