In April this year, an episode of MasterChef UK Season 14 caused tremors and shockwaves that travelled across the continent and could be felt all the way in Malaysia and its neighbouring brethren of Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. It was probably the mightiest foodquake the region had ever experienced and its seismic aftermath was so powerful that it caused the denizens of these four South-East Asian countries to do something they had never done before: unite.
The resulting show of solidarity was a triumphant lesson in the power of food. In South-East Asia and Malaysia specifically, there may be many areas in which we are lagging behind but food is – and remains – a source of pride. So it was no great surprise that everyone in the region got behind Malaysian-born MasterChef UK Season 14 contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin.
In case you missed the memo on the curious case of the crispy rendang, here’s what went down. Contestants on the 2018 season of MasterChef UK were tasked with cooking meals that were important to them. Zaleha walked up to the judges, gleaming with pride. She had worked hard to create the iconic Malaysian breakfast dish of nasi lemak alongside an equally iconic dish – chicken rendang.
But Zaleha’s smiles soon turned to near-tears when the judges weren’t quite as appreciative of her culinary efforts as she’d hoped. “The chicken skin isn’t crispy, it can’t be eaten,” said MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace of her chicken rendang. And with that, Zaleha was eliminated from MasterChef UK.
“I had sleepless nights thinking I was going to get brutally criticised because I had gotten eliminated making nasi lemak, one of our most iconic dishes. But I was wrong. To have four nations come together and support me was actually unexpected,” says Zaleha in a phone interview.
Zaleha was right about the criticism though. There was plenty of it; it just wasn’t directed at her. The “crispy” rendang comment ignited a hotbed of furious conversation on the online sphere, all unequivocally critical of Wallace and fellow judge John Torode who were derided for their lack of knowledge about a dish that is typically slow-cooked to elicit rich flavours and does not have a crispy skin component in its configuration.
The support for Zaleha in Malaysia was both overwhelming and unanimous and quickly escalated from a national level show of patriotism to a regional affair when neighbours from Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei chimed in to lambast the judges behind the crispy skin debacle.
The backlash against the MasterChef UK judges was so vociferous that it even prompted political foes Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – in a rare moment of concurrence – to agree on the same thing: there’s no such thing as crispy rendang.
Zaleha says her own defence of her dish was lost amidst the cuts and snips that the show had to administer to put together the episode.
“I did argue, I did stand up and say that’s how the rendang should be because it’s a braised dish, it’s not supposed to be crispy. I defended what I’d done and said all those things. But it was edited. So the way they’ve put the show together is as if I agreed with what the judges said, but I did not. I stood up and defended my rendang,” she says.
Open to criticism
And Zaleha certainly knows a lot about rendang – she grew up in Pahang surrounded by a family of good cooks and inherited her chicken rendang recipe from her mother. Growing up, Zaleha’s parents owned a Malay catering business, so her fondest memories were of her mother cooking up giant pots of food for weddings and other events.
After she got married, the trained accountant travelled all over the world (she has lived in Australia, South Korea, the Middle East and Japan) with her husband, which is when she began cooking Malaysian food in earnest, often ringing her mum up for recipes.
“When I moved to Perth 18 years ago, we didn’t have much Malaysian food there, it was very limited and being a Muslim, it was really hard to get halal food, so that’s when I started making dishes like nasi lemak and rendang,” she says.
Zaleha confesses that she has watched MasterChef in all its iterations for over a decade, but it was only after the family moved to Bristol in England that she began seriously contemplating joining the competition.
“I watched the show all the time. When I was in Australia, I watched it and in those early days of MasterChef UK, I watched it too. I did want to join the show, but I kept thinking, ‘I might not be good enough, I don’t know if I can do this.’ It took me almost 15 years before I decided, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I wanted the judges to try my food and tell me if it’s good or not, so that’s basically the reason I joined MasterChef,” she says.
After being put through the wringer to even get on the show – a phone interview, face-to-face interview, cooking audition and camera test – Zaleha made it and did herself proud with a slew of dishes that won the judges’ hearts like chicken satay (which got her onto the show) as well as murtabak, fish cakes and gulai Pahang. Then came the infamous chicken rendang episode.
“When MasterChef gave us the brief for the round, asking us to cook our family or childhood favourite, they gave us two weeks to come up with a recipe and send it to them so they could get us all the ingredients. So that’s why I cooked nasi lemak and rendang, because that’s the truth – it’s a favourite in our family. I make this rendang at least twice a week!” she says.
Given that besides Zaleha and the MasterChef judges, no one actually got to try the rendang, it’s hard to tell what it actually tasted like and if the judges’ comments had any merit or were borne out of ignorance. In any case, according to Zaleha, her cooking process went according to plan and the rendang turned out exactly the way she wanted it to.
“To be honest, it tasted like how it tastes at home. So when I got eliminated, I was fine because I cooked what I wanted to cook. I was disappointed because I didn’t get further in the competition, but I accepted the judges’ decision and I have moved on. MasterChef has been a very, very good platform for me to go further in my cooking passion and even though it was short, it was an amazing experience,” she says.
Life has certainly been interesting for Zaleha since her MasterChef episode aired. She is now hard at work on her cookbook, which will feature a collection of family recipes (slated for release by the middle of next year).
“All the recipes are from my family and a lot of them come from my home state of Pahang. You will find Pahang-style curry puffs, asam pedas Pahang, gulai Pahang and yes, there will be rendang,” she says, laughing.
In many ways, the rendang episode or Rendangate as it has come to be known, has actually worked to Zaleha’s benefit, as she has become far more known to global audiences, an irony that is not lost on her.
“Rendangate has definitely been a blessing for me, because if not for it, I would just be another forgotten contestant on MasterChef, so it’s a blessing in disguise, isn’t it?” she says.