I was excited recently to interview Meena Amavasai, food celebrant extraordinaire, skilled restaurant reviewer, and creator of the food blog A Whiff of Lemongrass. As is typical of my frequent visits to her site, I came away from our question-and-answer session feeling like I’d taken a holiday abroad with a good friend whose eating and drinking tendencies run parallel with mine, and who knows the best places to go for transcendent dining experiences. Her blog, specializing in Malaysian cuisine, has long been a reliable source of great recipes, appetite-whetting food photography, and expertly-spun anecdotes that elevate the simple act of preparing a meal to something warmer, more convivial and unifying. Come on in and see all that we talked about.
Flavorful World: Tell us about the best meal you’ve ever enjoyed within one mile of your home? What made it so?
Meena Amavasai: Within a mile of my home? That would be a plate of Hyderabadi biryani at a small restaurant found in a rather unlikely location where old dilapidated shops with peeling paint are the norm rather than the exception. The biryani is cooked in small clay pots – long grained rice is layered with meat (my favourite is mutton), and the clay pot is sealed with dough and then steamed. What you will get is a plate of fluffy rice, flavoured with a myriad of spices – cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, etc. – and the meat is tender and succulent.
FW: Chef Wan, Sherson Lian, and Malcolm Goh are three Malaysian culinary professionals who are continually doing innovative things for the world of cooking and eating. If given the opportunity to solicit one piece of cooking-related advice from any one of them, who and what would you ask?
MA: I’d probably ask Chef Wan how he’s able to be constantly innovative with Malay cuisine. The preparation of Malay food has always been very traditional, the way our great grandmothers used to prepare it. I presume the evolution of Malay food will involve the use of less cumbersome kitchen gadgets (which I find impossible if you want to stick to authentic flavours, for example, the use of “batu giling” which is a heavy slab of stone for the base and another “rolling pin” made with stone that is used to grind spices on that slab of stone to release the aroma). Many traditional households now use the mortar & pestle for the same purpose, but I can’t see the younger generation sweating it out in the kitchen the same way.
FW: Of the many dishes you’re skilled at preparing, tell us one that you would offer to someone to celebrate good news, and one that you would offer to cushion the blow of bad news, then tell us why you chose those two dishes.
MA: My celebrations have always involved cake, and what better cake than a lovely yellow butter cake sprinkled with fleur de sel. It’s simple, it’s from the heart, and yellow is the colour of happiness. 🙂
When there’s bad news, I look for my comfort foods, one of which is a plate of piping hot black hokkien noodles, which is a recipe that is unique to Kuala Lumpur. I braise thick yellow noodles in a sauce made of black caramel soy sauce, light soy sauce, lard and pork bone stock, and finish it off with deep-fried crispy pork skin. It’s rich, it’s fattening, and it’s joy in a plate.
FW: Your blog’s tagline reads, “A Malaysian Blog about Food, Family and Friends.” What has been the greatest contribution of your “fellowship of friends” to your cooking style and eating preferences?
MA: My friends constantly challenge me to do better. It’s always a question of how we can improve on a particular dish rather than being complacent and accepting something, be it a recipe or a cooked item, just because somebody said so. I have regular Friday night sessions at my place where my friends and I explore different themes. On a lazy day, it can be about creating as many different pizza concoctions, and on a good day, it’s about using one ingredient to create several dishes.
FW: You’ve reviewed a number of restaurants on A Whiff of Lemongrass. Tell us three restaurants anywhere in the world that you have yet to visit but hope to someday, and what aspects of their respective menus attracts you to want to dine there.
MA: I’d like to visit The Fat Duck in the UK, Noma in Denmark, and Tetsuya’s in Sydney. These are the restaurants that have eluded me over the years despite my numerous attempts at making reservations. I guess I just haven’t been lucky. The menus at these restaurants are vastly different from each other, but they all represent one thing – the chefs’ passion. If I could revisit a favourite restaurant, it would be Arzak in San Sebastian. The menu was creative and thoughtfully devised, and I felt like my presence, no matter how small it was, mattered.
FW: What is your favorite cold appetizer or brunch/lunch dish to enjoy on a hot afternoon? With what beverage do you generally pair it?
MA: If you look at traditional Malaysian dishes, we rarely have cold appetizers or mains (despite our perpetual summer!). What we do consume are dishes that are broadly classified as “heaty” and “cooling” based on the inherent characteristics of a particular ingredient. Ginger is considered “heaty” regardless of whether you serve it hot or cold, while cucumber is considered “cooling”. Looking beyond Malaysian food, I’d say that my favourite cold food on a hot afternoon would be raw oysters paired with champagne, of course!
If there is one dessert dish/drink that I crave on a hot afternoon, it is a refreshing bowl of cendol – green rice noodles topped with sweet palm syrup, shaved ice and cold coconut milk. You have to try it. The flavours are all natural. The green noodles derive the colour from pandan, and the palm sugar adds a more rounded, nutty sweetness to the drink.
FW: What’s next on the horizon for A Whiff of Lemongrass?
MA: I’d probably not want to do anything different from what I’m doing now. I am a storyteller and I will always be a storyteller. Circumstances of my life may have changed since I first started blogging, but there is and always will be one constant – my love for good food – and I will seek it out wherever I go (and write about it, of course!). 🙂
Oh, there may be a cookbook in the offing too. My mother has given me all her handwritten recipes, and I’d like to honour her by working on a cookbook that contains recipes and tales of the family.
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: I can’t imagine any name other than “A Whiff of Lemongrass.” This is how it all started – in my mother’s kitchen, decades ago, as I watched her pound lemongrass to scent her curries.
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
MA: Drinking single malt whisky with good friends. It can’t get better than that, I tell ya!
*Note to readers: Are you good and hungry after reading that? Good. Me too. Now go inhale A Whiff of Lemongrass and revel in the wealth of flavors, stories, and striking food pictures awaiting your appreciation. You’re welcome.