Mehereen Agha is the creator of the always-inspiring Malaysian food blog, Chattering Kitchen. Her adventurous affection for cooking and for exploring all of food’s true potential is evident on the first page of that site, and the more time I spend there, poring over her culinary creations and food philosophies, the gladder I am to have discovered it. She recently shared with me on subjects including what ingredients her kitchen is never without, her number one choice of countries in which to take a future food tour, and how the crafting of each new recipe is like a journey filled with fresh sights, smells, and boundless curiosity.
Flavorful World: From what or whom do you take most of your inspiration when creating new recipes?
Mehereen Agha: Creating new recipes is like a journey; one on which you encounter the sights and smells on the way. Every place that I live in or visit becomes an inspiration. As you walk down their food streets, the aromas that encapsulate me invokes my curiousity. Every local restaurant I visit, tasting the food always becomes a mind game as I try to guess the ingredients. I have a family of foodies and last month when they all visited Malaysia, it became an inevitable discussion on every restaurant table trying to decipher the ingredients in each dish. Armed with those ideas, the experimentation begins and hence a new journey towards creating a new recipe that I may never have, had I not visited those places.
FW: What is your favorite beverage that you first encountered abroad? In what country did you enjoy it and what makes it your favorite?
MA: My all time favorite drink is Falsa juice, found mainly in Pakistan. Not many are aware of this tiny berry like fruit called Falsa, its English name sounds very daunting, Grewia Asiatica. It is grown mainly in Southern Asia as well as Cambodia. The juice is taken out by crushing these tiny berries in a juicer, mixing it with sugar and finally topping it off with some black salt. It immediately cools you down on a hot summer day, its violet color is soothing to the eyes and its sweet and sour taste is something that would linger on ’til your next glass.
FW: What restaurant recommendations would you offer to a seafood lover with 24 hours to spend in your town? What food venues are absolutely not to be missed and why?
MA: In Malaysia, the best albeit very touristy place for seafood is Jalan Alor. A narrow strip filled with outdoor restaurants and hawkers selling the best seafood. They have all sorts of fresh produce from various fish, large crabs, prawns, cockles and the list is endless. The best part is you can choose your own cooking method and sauce that goes with it. If you are lucky, they ever allow you to choose your own seafood, as they did with us once. We chose our own crabs from a large selection and they presented it to us with the most divine black pepper sauce. I don’t think I have come across such a large crab ’til now.
FW: Regarding ingredients that you frequently use when cooking, tell us three staples that your kitchen is never without, and why they are so important to you.
MA: Spicy food is my weakness, hence my kitchen is never without various types of chili pastes. From Oriental to Italian to South Asian, I have different types of chili pastes, each with a distinct fiery taste of their own. Good quality Extra Virgin Olive oil is always a must, since I make a lot of salads. Finally, I love experimenting with various Oriental curries such as Burmese Khow Suey, Malay Curry Mee or be it Thai red curry, hence you will always find coconut milk in my kitchen.
FW: As more chefs worldwide discover and embrace Malaysian cuisine, to what extent are traditional Malaysian recipes changing in local restaurants? Do you view these changes as being more positive or negative?
MA: It is simply the way of the world, as new generations replace the old ones, new cooking techniques and ingredients are injected into age-old recipes to create heightened experience and keeping the basics intact as well. However, these fusion cooking techniques or restaurants are one school of thought. There are others who simply cook authentic cuisine with recipes passed down from generations. It is then left up to the discerning palate to judge which they prefer.
FW: What’s in your refrigerator right now?
MA: Prawn Mee Soup bought from the hawker stall, lots of apples and gram flour batter to make pakoras (fritters).
FW: If you could take a food tour of any country in the world to which you’re never traveled, which would you choose, and what aspects of that country’s food makes it your first choice?
MA: The first country that pops up in my mind is Morocco. To me it seems as if their cuisine would be the perfect blend of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences. Using aromatic fresh olive oil, tangy spices like sumac and zatar and fresh herbs such as coriander and mint, it would be like entering food paradise for me. Not only the culture, but the cuisine somehow has an exotic mysticism about it for me.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
MA: Palatable Inspirations From Around the World.
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
MA: Scouring the internet for more travel destinations, watching food shows and spending time with family and friends.
*Note to Readers: Join Mehereen on her ongoing journey through food and cooking at Chattering Kitchen. You can also find (and marvel at) detailed and awe-inspiring accounts on her latest culinary exploits at Chattering Kitchen’s Twitter and Facebook pages. It’s a form of food travel most delicious that begins with a single click.