Interview with 2018 Masterchef UK contestant, cookery writer and a pillar of the Malaysian Kitchen Supper Club team, Zaleha Kadir Olpin.
By Tara Miran, BWV community reporter and Finance and Admin Administrator. Photographs by Mireya Gonzalez
A combination of nerves and excitement rushed through me as I went to meet Zaleha Kadir Olpin, and our dedicated photographer and volunteer of Bristol Women’s Voice, Mireya Gonzalez. I could hardly believe my luck- I was going to meet That Rendang Lady!
Tucked away in the outdoor seating area of The Nectar House, a tranquil retreat away from the hustle and bustle of Gloucester Road, I was greeted with a warm hug from Zaleha and our fresh, cold drinks arrived. As we spoke and laughed under the blazing sunshine, you would have never thought this was our first meeting. Zaleha impressed me immensely, regardless of her huge success since her participation in MasterChef, and the exciting projects and ideas she has lined up, Zaleha struck me as a warm, humble, passionate and extremely funny woman. With a beautifully bright headscarf cupping her friendly face, her smile and zest for life both captured my attention, as her laughter reached the skies.
We continued to bond whilst enjoying a delicious and colourful abundance of lunch options spread across our table. Zaleha began to tell me about her family, with a spark in her eye, she spoke of her pride in her daughters Aiman and Sofea, and her supportive husband Dave. As I learnt more about Zaleha, my respect grew for her, she has travelled the world and has carried and shared her hunger for learning about food and sharing her Malaysian food with her friends. Now settled in the UK, she is eager for her children to be more independent and finish their education so she can travel more! The world truly is her oyster!
Zaleha food journey began when she was living abroad. ‘Of course, when I was living in Malaysia, food was easily sought after, anywhere, everywhere and anytime. My struggle began when I move abroad and missing my local delight and street food. That’s where the desire to learn to cook began because I need my dose of Malaysian food’ she said smiling. “It was so depressing, I couldn’t find my noodles, my Curry Laksa, my Nasi Lemak 1and my other traditional dishes. I couldn’t get it, so I ended up calling my mum to learn from her. a long distance cookery lesson that cost my husbad his phone bills. So that’s where my culinary journey started. I would invite all my friends to come and try my food and they loved it! Through that I improved my cooking!”
She continued to speak of her pride of her husband and his support, even when he criticised her food in her early cooking days. Zaleha laughed as she told me her husband Dave would compare her food to her mother’s!
Zaleha told me her Masterchef journey started when her eldest daughter Aiman applied for her to be on Masterchef UK, as the family would always watch and enjoy Masterchef shows together. After two months, Zaleha received a call from Masterchef, she had impressed the team and was called in to a local hotel in Bristol to bring a plate of food for them to taste. Zaleha took with her chicken Satay, traditional beef Rendang and a peanut sauce.
The Masterchef team finished and loved it. Zaleha then went on holiday to Malaysia and was awaiting a response from Masterchef as to whether she would successfully make it as a contestant. Seeing a UK call arrive on her phone, she was told she had made it, Zaleha told me, “sitting on the sofa, I thought what have I done?!” Zaleha carried her nerves with her whilst her husband and daughters encouraged and celebrated this news!
Zaleha aced her first challenge, the judges enjoyed her Murtabak made with homemade pastry and filling, dal and onion pickles. On the next round, the contestants were then asked to cook a dish that was important to them and Zaleha tells me with pride that she chose to create the iconic Malaysian dishes of nasi lemak with chicken rendang. Masterchef Judge Gregg Wallace, shocked the world, when he stated “the chicken skin isn’t crispy” and that was the end of Zaleha’s Masterchef UK journey. However, Zaleha emphasised this was a traditional dish that is braised and not fried in Malaysia and she had followed the brief which was to cook a family favourite. She continued to tell me that whilst she enjoys and is well versed in cooking international food and fusion food, she remains determined to carry forward and share the traditional ways of cooking Malaysian food. Always returning to Masterchef, she tells me again. “Masterchef’s made me what I am today!”
The world turned to support Zaleha and her method of cooking her traditional Rendang dish, yet she was surprised and overwhelmed by the outpour of support for her. With a giggle, she told me after her Masterchef elimination, she expected bad backlash from people for cooking the Malaysian national dish and being eliminated for it. “But things turned around in my favour, because of the support I got from all around the world, especially from South East Asia, who know what nasi lemak is, what chicken rendang is, they know it shouldn’t be crispy. That is one thing, but also Malaysians from around the world wrote to me, the Malaysian Prime Minister wrote to me, the UK High Commissioner to Malaysia wrote to me, I even went back to Malaysia and cooked with her! She loved the chicken! She tweeted that the chicken shouldn’t be crispy! So it’s really a blessing, overwhelming, but a blessing”.
I asked Zaleha how important it was to her to represent and share snipets of her Malaysian culture through her love of food and cooking. Without hesitation or thought, Zaleha responded “It is very important, I’m really glad I can do something for my country. Living abroad; I chose food, to bring Malaysia to an international level when it comes to food. It’s my contribution. As for my book- it’s a legacy from me to my children and my generation.” It’s clear how supportive and loving Zaleha, her husband and her children are to one another, as I noticed Zaleha refer back to them constantly.
Zaleha’s journey since Masterchef has been been “a crazy life”, she is busy with her Supper Club, pop ups, private caterings and is currently writing recipes for a new cookbook! She teases me as she says “It won’t be a Malaysian cookbook; it will be something different!” She tells me it may be based around her travels of the last 20 years, “maybe a compilation of recipes around the world where I’ve lived before.” If you love bursts of flavours, cooked from scratch, even down to crushing and creating spices herself, look out for Zaleha’s upcoming book.
Zaleha will be cooking for a charity supper club with 91 Ways this evening, on 26th September. Through an intimate dinner, with great pride, she laughs and tells me she will be cooking her Nasi Lemak and Rendang upon request”. It will be an evening of discussion, cookery demonstrations and will give everyone the chance to ask Zaleha questions and see her work up close. Follow the link to book your space! http://91ways.org/an-evening-with-zaleha-olpin-26th-september-6-30pm-sundial-kitchen-bristol/
We continued to talk of her busy schedule and her successes following Masterchef and Zaleha tells me, her book, “My Rendang isn’t crispy” is sold out in Malaysia, Singapore and Jakarta and is due to be launched in the UK next month. With a soft spot for Bristol, she says she may also for a Bristol launch. Zaleha declared the photographs in her book were taken by Mireya Gonzalez. Mireya was not only a hands-on photographer but has clearly become a friend, and family to Zaleha and her family. They spoke with joy about living close by to one another and sharing family dinners together.
I asked Zaleha what advice she would have for a younger version of herself and with much conviction she told me she believed in “qadr of Allah” (decree of God) and that everything happens in good time, but would advice anyone “if you think you that you want to do something, you should go for it! You shouldn’t think oh maybe I’m not ready, you shouldn’t doubt yourself, just go for it! Don’t ever think what is the outcome? Because what you are doing is a good thing. You are not going to rob a bank, you’re going to do a good thing, something that you really want to do in your life, you probably want to change your life. If you wait another 10 years, that’s a lot of time wasted! If it doesn’t work, at least you tried it. You can then leave it and move on”.
My admiration for Zaleha increased as we then spoke of the challenges she has faced as a woman. Finding my own experiences reflected in her responses, I am sure other women can also relate to it. When I asked if she has faced any challenges as a woman, she instantly replied “Oh, of course, even from family members! Being a woman in Malaysia, no matter how perfect your dish is, there is always a male dominant chef who will say ahhh I think you should put more chillis in there, I don’t think there is enough coconut milk in there!”
Zaleha spoke of the challenges, patriarchy and sexism she has faced both here in the UK and worldwide, and expressed most judgement and criticism has been from men, and emphasised that she feels more supported by women, such as Asma Khan, Darjeeling London, who offers her kitchen in Soho, Carnaby street, free of charge to other women to make use of her kitchen. With much gratitude, Zaleha extends her gratefulness to Asma for supporting Malaysian Kitchen and Zaleha on her journey. Not to forget her Malaysian Kitchen team Nafeesa and Fatimah who are always by her side
Zaleha continued to share her experiences and journey as a Muslim woman in this field of work and fame. She shared shocking stories of racism and islamophobia she faces, particularly as a visibly Muslim woman with a headscarf. “this is normal, I get it on social media too, I am stereotyped and I just ignore them now!” she calmly told me. Her solution is “I tell myself, If I want to live as a Malaysian calmly without being provoked, I should go back to Malaysia. That’s what I keep saying to myself. If I don’t want any trouble, I should go back to Malaysia. If not, I just have to take it, deal with it, forget it and get on with it!”
Zaleha is determined, focused and tells me her passion keeps her motivated, “I love cooking, I de-stress by cooking, I know people look at me and think what?! But I go to the kitchen and it de-stresses me!” Once again, she mentions her retired husband Dave supports her and does the school runs and day to day admin tasks, and tells her “It’s your turn now, so enjoy it!”. With a spark in her eye, she smiled and said “It’s a blessing, that’s how I cope, my husband being there to help me”.
As the sunny afternoon came and passed, we looked at the time, and realised we all almost missed the school run! Zaleha, Mireya and myself shared a hug, our contact numbers and parted ways back to family life. Yet, this meeting has blossomed new friendships and support between myself, Zaleha and Mireya. Zaleha and Mireya both carry a humble and content energy with them, yet an aura of female empowerment and motivation follows them as they proceed with their passions.
If you’d like to learn more about Zaleha, her journey and to enjoy her mouthwatering, traditional, iconic and famous dishes, book your space at her intimate supper event with 91 Ways: http://91ways.org/an-evening-with-zaleha-olpin-26th-september-6-30pm-sundial-kitchen-bristol/
You can also follow her on social media and make sure to look out for the launch of her book, ‘My Rendang isn’t crispy’.