Sunday, December 17, 2006

What’s cooking, Mrs Balbir?

Thai Takes

At about 9,000m above ground, on the Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu, it was a pleasant surprise to find something Malaysian-made when lunch was served.

Was it the spicy prawn rice which had connection to a Malaysian? The mixed fruit? Salad? Bun? Or naan?

It was the scrumptious naan. And a 50-year-old Malaysian, Mrs Balbir, who is the official caterer of Indian cuisine to the airline, prepared it.

Mrs Balbir has come a long way since her salad days when she arrived in Bangkok from Kuala Lumpur as a matchmade bride for Mr Balbir, a Thai Indian, 31 years ago.

In the 1970s, Harvinder Kaur, which is Mrs Balbir’s maiden name, learnt to cook north Indian food from her husband Vinder, and Thai dishes from the streets.

At the Bangkok market, clutching a Thai cookbook, the KL-born woman interacted mostly by sign language with the fishmongers and vegetable sellers to learn Thai cooking and the Thai language.

Picking up north Indian and Thai cooking came naturally to Harvinder as both were similar to Malaysian cooking – Indian and Malay food.

But in Bangkok, she couldn’t cook Malaysian food as tastily as in Kuala Lumpur. For example, when she cooked nasi lemak, one of her favourite Malaysian dishes, the ikan bilis and cili padi bought in Bangkok were different from those in Kuala Lumpur.

“Mother nature grows them differently,” explained the big-hearted Malaysian.

In the mid-1970s, Harvinder opened a north Indian restaurant called Mrs Balbir in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 11 because she wanted an outlet to release her creative energy. Then, it was one of Bangkok’s handful of Indian restaurants.

She entertained the idea of opening a Malaysian restaurant. She, however, abandoned it as she could not find the necessary ingredients in Bangkok. And there weren't enough Malaysians living in Bangkok for her to establish a core clientele.

In her 31 years in Bangkok, Harvinder remembered only four Malaysian restaurants opening in the city. The first to spring up 25 years ago was a shop that was like a “hole in the wall”.

“The food wasn’t good but we all (Malaysian expatriates) were so desperate for nasi lemak and laksa that we gave the guy (a man who wore sarong) business,” said the operator of

However, the proprietor closed shop as he sold his food “too cheaply”. The next Malaysian restaurant also suffered the same fate as it could not attract enough business.

Aunty Malaysia, another outlet which opened three years ago, was forced to cease operation when the building it was housed in was torn down due to some political mess.

Last month, during the Malaysian Club’s Hari Raya celebration in Bangkok, the members were ecstatic when a Malaysian woman, Georgette, announced the opening of her Kopitiam restaurant.

“We went ‘oh ... at last,” as she guaranteed that it would be a real Malaysian restaurant,” recalled Harvinder.

A word of caution for budding Malaysian restaurant owners. Unlike the thriving Japanese and Korean restaurants in cosmopolitan Bangkok, there is negligible demand for Malaysian food from Thais.

Thais, noted Harvinder, like food which has fresh herbs. They, she explained, do not appreciate Malaysian and Indian food because they do not like anything with ingredients that are not fresh, like curry powder.

But what about green curry, a famous Thai dish?

“Green curry is made of pounded fresh herbs like green lime leaves and coriander,” she explained.

Harvinder should know. She has been teaching Thai cooking for 25 years. It all started because there weren’t many English-speaking Thai cooking teachers. And her added advantage was that she was able to substitute ingredients which were not available in their home country.

Among her students are musician Sting’s chef Joseph Sponzo, and Ainsley Harriott, a British celebrity chef.

Her other claims to fame are: A television show in UBC, Thailand's largest pay television operator, called Bangkok Spice with Mrs Balbir; and she is a former food presenter for Star Plus’ Travel Asia.

And how many Malaysians can claim that the food they cooked was served 9,000m above ground?

(Published in The Star on Dec 17, 2006)