With her diverse family background, Carol Selva Rajah brings out a plethora of knowledge on South east cuisine. From TV shows to cookbooks to culinary tours, this versatile Chef is also consulting for food companies in Sydney, and has won several awards including the prestigious Jaguar Gourmet traveler award in 2000.
ASIANCE: You come from a family where your father is Sri Lankan and your mother is Malaysian. Has your background influenced you in your cooking career?
Carol: Certainly! I also grew up in a multicultural society in Malaysia where a neighbor could be Chinese on one side, Malay on the other, Sri Lankan on the opposite and a Eurasian or Portuguese on the back. We spoke many different languages and I think this mix actually enriched the cuisine of Malaysia which today is a glorious blend of cultures and cuisines. Eating curries, kormahs from India, Portuguese curry devil or goan vindaloo, and Malay satays were some of my every day dishes. I am passionate about my food. Ask me about Malaysian cuisine and a million recipes, aromas and flavors crowd my mind.
ASIANCE: We heard that you still treasure your mother's little exercise book full of recipes. Can you tell us more about it?
Carol: My mother's exercise book of recipes was a paradox. She did not cook, but collected recipes for my Cantonese Amah (nanny) to cook and I was part of that wonderful chemistry that took place in our kitchen each night. I was fascinated by food and would help Amah decipher the ingredients. The exercise book still remains a treasured part of my life; it's all in my mother's handwriting with notes. Its endearing quality is the fact that I can almost hear her giving us instructions that Amah and I had to eventually make sense of.
ASIANCE: As the author of 12 cookbooks on South East Asian Cuisine, what is your main attraction to South East Asian Cuisine?
Carol: South East Asia has the most marvelous aromatic spices with fragrances and flavors that will always entice you. Our herbs and spices not only add flavor, but heal the body and add scents to every dish. The history of Asia can be threaded into the history of South East Asian food. My passion will never die as long as these flavors and aromas remain.
ASIANCE: The cookbook “Great Barbecues” is widely acclaimed for its fantastic recipes. Can you talk about how Asian barbecue techniques differ from western styles?
Carol: When I was a child at boarding school in Perth, Western Australia, I used to go to barbecues where the meat was simply thrown on the grill. I would always find some sauce, even Worcestershire or barbecue, to rub into any meat before I barbecued it. Needless to say, my piece of meat was the first to disappear and I ended up eating someone else's charred piece of tough leather! Do I need to say more? Asians are used to marinating, preparing spreads, pastes, ground spices and herbs to tenderize meat. Take the satay for instance, chicken or beef strips are sliced against the grain and then marinated for at least a couple of hours. Tenderizers like lime juice, ginger juice and tamarind are used and the thin pieces are threaded through thin satay skewers. When grilled they are basted with coconut milk or oil, to keep the meat moist. The satays then melt in the mouth!
ASIANCE: What do you think has been your most popular barbecue dish?
Carol: Barbecued sting ray fin or skewered prawns in Thai sauce.
I also grew up in a multicultural society in Malaysia where a neighbor could be Chinese on one side, Malay on the other, Sri Lankan on the opposite and a Eurasian or Portuguese on the back.
ASIANCE: Can you tell us about your culinary tours called “Eating with the Eyes” to Asia?
Carol: A short explanation for Eating with the Eyes: Food is a sensual experience. You look at it first, then you smell it and finally you taste it. We eat with our eyes when we appreciate something beautiful and enjoy looking at someone eating. I feel, a tour of food is only possible if you eat with the eyes first and appreciate all the other senses that come after.
My tours to Asia are run with the same sort of passion I bring to food. Each morning I give the group a rundown of the day's events and the history of the food we will probably be eating. There are hands-on classes which I also teach along with the host chef and we tour markets where I point out different ingredients and tell them how they can be used. These tours are informative. I am a chef with knowledge of the food and ingredients used to prepare each dish.
ASIANCE: How do you manage to handle so many projects – TV shows, cooking classes, cookbooks, traveling, consulting for food companies and organizing culinary tours all at once?
Carol: Passion, passion, passion! I have a routine – I begin my writing at dawn when my mind is clear. The rest comes easily. I've learned to pace myself and I actually enjoy the pressure stress.
ASIANCE: What's next for you?
Carol: I am working on two things at the moment. First, a cookbook called “Heavenly Fragrance” which deals with the aromatics of Asian food. It hasn't been done before, and yet it is the aromatic combination of spices and herbs that creates the special persona of Asian cuisine. My nanny used to say as she popped her nose into a completed dish, “Ho heong”. (A good smell! No good smell, no good food). The book, by Periplus/Tuttle Books, will be out in the Spring of 2007 in the US.
Secondly, I am writing and struggling through an oral history of my passions ” family and food – called “Mothers, Aunts and Amahs”. The book is the story of my life and family as it unfolded across different cultures and different continents. It is also the story of many lives and characters brought together in the great ethnic melting pot of Malay during the dying light of South East Asian colonialism. Beyond this cast of characters, their stories and great recipes, there is an essential message of hope for everyone. The book will talk about family unity, hardships overcome, discovery of new directions even during the struggles of wars and the ultimate upheaval of emigration from East to West.
**Ask our Chef a Question
Can you give some Asian grilling tips and recommend any essential Asian grilling tools?
Carol: Always season meats and fish! Use a pinch of turmeric, tamarind, lime juice and ginger juice for a sure-fire tenderizing agent. My favorite tool is a humble pair of tongs that allows you to turn the meat or to check its “doneness”.
ASIANCE: Please name your favorite restaurants in the US.
Carol: Whenever I'm in Los Angeles I can't pass up a visit to Hamasaku (11043 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.; 310-479-7636) for the best sushi I've ever eaten, or to the tiny and charming Michelia Asian Bistro (8738 West Third Street, LA; 310-276-8288) for delicate but vibrant dishes I've never seen anywhere else.
ASIANCE: Can you recommend your favorite Asian barbecue sauces that our readers can buy in their neighborhood supermarket?
Carol: In the U.S., Kimmy Tang, chef/owner of Michelia, just came out with a line of sauces, including a wonderful Asian BBQ sauce. They're available at Surfas Restaurant Supply & Gourmet Food, 8825 National Blvd., Culver City, CA.; 310-559-4770.
AsianceMagazine.com's monthly celebrity chef interviews made possible through our Cuisine Partner, New Asian Cuisine and Savory Productions, www.newasiancuisine.com. All celebrity chef interviews and recipes are available in their book New Asian Cuisine, shown above.