When the car wound up the steep driveway, into the dense tropical jungle, I thought, where in the world are we having this Malaysian cooking class? This just doesn’t seem right. We’ve experienced cooking classes in Michelin star restaurants, in cooking centers, and in someone’s apartment, but this location was unique.
Chef Shuk, and his friend Johnny, welcomed us with open arms, and a nice glass of cold, white wine, in the open air seating area underneath their traditional Malay house. The house was impressive, and traditionally built in the Malay style, with dark elaborately carved wood. As Langkawi modernizes, fewer and fewer houses remain in this traditional style. Chef Shuk’s house may have been the last one to be built. Before we started our Malaysian cooking class, though, we received a history and culture lesson.
Johnny provided a tour of the house, showing off the traditional elements, as well as the modern elements, including modern bathrooms and a stunning kitchen. These are the parts of the house that were, well, non-traditional. That’s not to say the house was not traditionally Malay. They even had a Bomoh, or medicine man involved in the building to keep with traditions.
After our tour, we sat with Chef Shuk and Johnny to discuss the house, history of Langkawi, wedding traditions, and more. They provided a unique perspective on the changing landscape of the island, but I was eager to start our Malaysian cooking class. As if reading my mind, at one point, Chef Shuk interrupted Johnny and exclaimed “let’s cook satay!”
Learning About Satay in a Malaysian Cooking Class
We observed the cooking of the satay, more than learned how to make it, which was fine with me. We watched the fire grow on the outdoor grill, as the satay were consistently turned, over and over, to ensure even cooking. Chef Shuk prepared the satay with cumin, coriander, shallots, and turmeric, most of which was harvested from the herb garden that surrounds the house. Chef Shuk served the plates of chicken and beef satay along with the requisite peanut sauce, and, my favorite, pressed rice cakes.
As we bonded over satay, I continued to become increasingly more mesmerized by the chef, who is now retired from his restaurant business. He is a calm man, very poised, yet passionate about food, both Malay and international. We continued to chat, while eating our satay, until once again he proclaimed “now, we go cook.” We were ready to Cook With Shuk.
Our Malaysian Cooking Class
We moved our little party to the well-equipped kitchen upstairs, where all of the ingredients were laid out to make our dinner that night. We learned the complexity and history of the ingredients. I finally understood the difference between galangal and ginger. How to prepare turmeric, which has a lovely flavor, but the distinctive yellow color stains anything that gets in its way.
We also used unique ingredients like turmeric leaves, curry leaves, kafir lime leaves, roasted coconut flakes, cardamom, and star anise. I was in heaven just walking around the prep table smelling each of the ingredients. The shear number of ingredients and seasonings involved highlighted the complexity of Malay cuisine as well as the influence of the Chinese and Indian cultures in Malaysia.
Most interestingly, we learned all of the ingredients that go into making garam masala, the Indian style curry powder. Garam masala was one reason why we never tried to cook Indian food when living in the US. There are just too many ingredients.
Eric and I traded off taking the lead on each dish, with Eric mixing up the beef rendang and preparing the baked fish in banana leaf. That left me cooking up the curry, and stir-frying the Chinese vegetables. It also left me preparing the sambal, the spicy Malay chili sauce.
It was fascinating to learn how to cook beef rendang, which is one of my favorite Malay dishes. We watched as the curry turned from a bright red, to a yellow, to a thick bubbling brown sauce, until it almost disappeared. The cooking process allows what is often a tough meat to become a lot more tender and flavorful.
As for the sambal, I was stuck pounding the red chillies, shrimp past, lime, and sugar with a mortar and pestle until my arm was definitely tired. I don’t know how Malay women do this every day. Chef Shuk also explained, over my loud pounding, how young Malay woman make sambal almost as an audition for their future mothers-in-law. I was suddenly relieved that my mother-in-law did not have to approve of my cooking before I married The Husband.
After we finished making each of our dishes, we returned back downstairs, where a large dining room table was set up for the four of us to eat together. This is when we learned what a small world the Malaysian chef scene really is.
During the final night of our 2009 round the world trip we had a brush with celebrity, when we met the famous Malay chef, Chef Wan, at the Westin in Nusa Dua, Bali. Who would have thought that just five years later, we would be in a private Malaysian cooking class in Langkawi, with another well-known Malay chef, who at one point during our meal let out “Chef Wan was one of my students.” I quickly realized we are very well versed in the celebrity Malay chef scene, probably more so than most Americans.
Chef Shuk has operated restaurants in Malaysia for decades. He is more or less in a retirement now, but there is no better way to spend a retirement than living in a traditional Malay stilt house, offering traditional Malaysian cooking classes.
Being invited into a traditional Malay home for a Malaysian cooking class with a well-known chef was a perfect foodie experience in Langkawi.
We were supported by Naturally Langkawi during our trip, but all opinions, and yummy sounds, are, as always, my own. You can book a cooking class with Chef Shuk, but do so before your trip, as he only offers them about once a week.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.