Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)
Susheela Raghavan was born in Malaysia and received an MS in Food Science from the University of Reading. She worked for years in food product development, giving cooking demonstrations, and teaching at New York University before launching her own brand of spice blends, Taste of Malacca. She has also written numerous articles on food, especially ethnic cuisine and spices, for a wide variety of periodicals. I recently reviewed her new book, The Flavors of Malaysia, and found it to be a superb, well-written, and comprehensive guide to the cuisines of Malaysia.
For more information about Malaysian cuisine, as well as a directory of Malaysian restaurants in the U.S., check out this new website launched by Malaysia Kitchen for the World, called Malaysian Kitchen NYC.
Now onto the interview--
How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
Creativity has been critical to my culinary specialty: creating authentic ethnic foods and recipes for modern western tastes. My desire has always been to use creative thinking to break through traditional boundaries and perceptions of ethnic foods. For example stereotyped ideas (Chinese food is eggrolls and fried rice) or that ethnic foods must taste strange and exotic. Only through creativity can I achieve my culinary goals. It allows me to create ethnic foods that are both authentic and true to their origins yet are in some ways familiar and comforting to modern Western palates. The foods must appeal to first generation immigrants, their westernized children and families, and accessible to current Western consumers. Recipes and products must meet the demands of modern living – they have to be easy and quick to prepare as well as being healthy. Ideally, they should educate people about other cultures because we truly “are what we eat and cuisine is one very tangible way for people to experience and learn fundamental lessons about other cultures and communities. So we must be creative in not just in achieving a certain taste, but creative in the methods of preparation and cooking techniques, identifying and when necessary, substituting ingredients.
We also must be creative in how we communicate. For example my current book Flavors of Malaysia is fundamentally different for the average cookbook. While I give lots of great recipes, I also wanted my readers to understand what it is to be Malaysian and how our foods are such an integral part of our lives. So I did what not many cookbooks do, I created a book with a well-researched introduction to the history, regions, cultures and peoples of Malaysia and included throughout the book information of the origins of the recipes as well as personal stories of family and friends as I was growing up in Malaysia. So ultimately the reader will enjoy the cuisine more with a greater appreciation and understanding of it.
What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity?
First and foremost were my parents and my family members who were my greatest inspiration. My mom, for her endless pursuit in providing the best taste and variety for our family meals, and my father, for his great sense of adventure for food, and for us to try all foods. This sense of adventure ultimately propelled me to travel and work around the world exploring different cultures and their foods. In particular whenever I go to a new country, I like to study their culture and foodways. I also want to experience food as local people do every day. Not just in upscale or tourist restaurants, but exploring the local market places, eating in stalls and little everyday places, learning the foods that accompany the special events of their lives such as weddings and religious celebrations, and learning to prepare foods with local cooks, using authentic preparation styles and cooking methods.
What makes those matters so inspiring?
Without understanding different cultures how do I create anything ethnic? Finally all these experiences drive me to share what I have learned and experienced with others through teaching, writing and creating new recipes for people to try. And it is my greatest passion to understand global cultures and cuisines and when possible to transform them and adapt to current palates and lifestyles. I enjoy educating people on authentic cuisines.
Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Through family and friends, from my travel as I described above, through intensive research into foods, ingredients, history and cultures that created regional and ethnic cuisines.
What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
Applying my research and experiences in the kitchen and with repeated testing, till I achieve the taste and preparation I envision.
Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Not so much the ideas for the recipes but helping me perfect them through tastings and feedback.
How do you test new recipes/dishes?
With family and friends, and at get-togethers, parties, and public events and demos.
What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Creating an ethnic recipe that is authentic yet at the same time is healthy, easy to prepare, tastes good and is accessible to broad group of consumers.
Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Yes. Enjoy my beautiful garden, listen to music, paint, watch movies and or practice yoga
Relate an unusual or interesting anecdote about the creation of one of your dishes.
When we were young, my father used to take us to the famous Coliseum café, in Kuala Lumpur as a treat once in a while on a Sunday. Coliseum café was frequented by the Europeans living and working in Malaysia since world war ll as well as by locals. As you entered this place you are transported to a bygone era…with rattan furniture, ceiling fans, aged waiters in white uniforms. The air in the bar section would be filled with smoke and smell of alcohol. Families and women were not allowed in there but ate in the dining section. One of their popular dishes was sizzlers and chops---chicken, pork, steak or lamb, generally seasoned with black pepper, garlic, onions, preserved soybean paste, soy sauce and or spices, and, battered. The chefs then were generally Chinese and Indian Muslims, who prepared these western style dishes with local flavors that were mild tasting. I was always intrigued by this place and its foods…foods generally not found at home, or sold by hawkers. But I always enjoyed their lamb or chicken chops, a favorite with my family. This inspired me to recreate one of the recipes in my cookbook, lamb chops in black peppercorn sauce.