Chef, author and food stylist Sara Khong wants to bring home-cooking back in style.
At first glance, you would not have guessed that Sara Khong used to study law. Stylishly dressed with side-swept hair, her eyes light up when the conversation turns to food. She has four cookbooks to her name, and actively features her recipes in cooking videos.
To top it off, she runs cooking classes to introduce Malaysian cuisines and cultures to travellers, such as nasi lemak, char koay teow and wan tan mee.
From Case Studies to Recipes
Sara always knew that her passion is in cooking. This is largely inspired by her family and love for travel.
“I was raised in a big family who cooks every day. We have at least five dishes on the table for dinner. When I was young, during the weekends, my parents would drive to Pudu market, get the freshest ingredients, and cook Malaysian favourite hawker food like assam laksa and nasi lemak,” she recalled.
After moving out to pursue her studies, Sara started to miss home-cooked food. Like many youths in this digital age, she channelled this hunger into a food blog. While she eventually got a law degree at the University of London, it was her blog that helped her culinary career take off.
When you are a food enthusiast, the whole world is a kitchen. That was certainly the case for Sara. In every country she visits, she tries to join cooking classes, which helps her understand the culture through food while sharpening her techniques.
Since then, the professional chef has received certifications at Le Cordon Bleu London, Le Cordon Bleu Thailand and Beijing Cooking School.
What stood out the most from her classes was the appreciation towards locally sourced ingredients, which she came to realise is more affordable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. This is why her recipes favour home-grown ingredients that are easily found in Malaysia over imported ones, whether it is dried anchovies, galangal, belacan or fresh vegetables.
“Since I work for food brands in Malaysia, I always propose and develop recipes using local ingredients. For example, I always suggest making local dessert using coconut milk and coconut flakes instead of butter and cheese,” Sarah added.
There is also never a question as to which cuisine she liked best.
Ironically, all my food adventures around the globe made me cook Malaysian food more!– Sara Khong
Saving Today’s Kitchens
Even when she does not have consulting work or classes to teach, Sara is constantly testing out new recipes and cooking for the family. She would learn recipes from family and friends who are good cooks, some of whom are professional chefs, then improve them to her liking. Sara also shares many recipes and cooking tips in her blog at New Malaysian Kitchen.
However, she realises that fewer people are cooking these days, choosing to eat out or have pre-made meals instead.
“A trend that saddens me is that the people in my generation no longer cook or eat at home,” she said.
What will happen to the next generation? They wouldn’t understand the joy and benefits of eating nutritious home-cooked food with family, or the bonding one develops through sharing chores in the kitchen. We think that it doesn’t affect us, but it does.– Sara Khong
It is no wonder her cookbooks, including One-Pot Wonders and Malaysian Meals in 30 Minutes, are geared towards people with busy lifestyles.
“I think that everyone – men or women – should be able to cook. At the very least, everyone should be able to make a simple and nutritious meal from fresh produce for themselves,” she said, emphasizing on home-cooked meals that use real foods.
Sara shares that cooking can be adapted today’s hectic lifestyle, whether it is using hacks to shorten the process, preparing meals with fewer ingredients, or taking advantage of modern kitchen appliances.
Through her recipes, she hopes to encourage Malaysians to cook more, as she believes that this can promote health and happiness.
Becoming the Nasi Lemak Girl
Sara has gotten herself some reputation online as the ‘Nasi Lemak Girl’. This isn’t surprising; in one class, she teaches guests how to cook our national dish using fresh ingredients like coconut milk.
In her Char Koay Teow class, she teaches guests to make this hawker delight the traditional and authentic way: with pork lard and stir-fried in a wok under high-fire, until it becomes caramelised.
True to Malaysian food culture, there would be other side dishes to complement the main meal, ranging from Satay, Spiced Chicken, Rojak, Sago Gula Melaka, Banana Fritters, Teh Tarik and Limau Asam Boi, among others.
“I also believe that cooking should be fun. I try to inject fun activities into my class such as wrapping nasi lemak with banana leaf into pyramids and pulling Teh Tarik,” she said.
Many of the herbs used in the class were harvested in the edible garden she has at home, where Sara would introduce some of the herbs and vegetables native to the country.
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Sara designed her classes through her observations and participations in classes abroad: “From my experience in attending cooking classes around the world, I crafted a cooking class that I would love to attend.”
“So I make sure that there is a printed recipe that students can take home, recipes are correct and clear, cooking is hands-on (not a demo), and a clear introduction to local ingredients through my garden. Guests get to smell, taste, and even harvest food from the garden for their class.”
“I also always allocate long lunch time to chit-chat with my guests about Malaysian lifestyle, cuisine, and places to visit,” she added.
Although it sounds daunting to prepare these dishes at home, Sara adapts the recipes for modern kitchen needs, so that even guests from afar can put them to good use – in their own homes!
I thought that when I have kids, I don’t want them to grow up thinking cooking is done by professional chefs and people in the food industry. I believe I can do something about it.– Sara Khong
If you would like to learn how to cook Malaysian dishes like Nasi Lemak, Char Koay Teow or Wan Tan Mee, join Sara’s cooking classes on LokaLocal.