Khairolarziman Mahmood, known in Madison as “Chef Ken,” is already planning the menu for his brick-and-mortar restaurant, although it’s likely several months away from becoming a reality.
Mahmoud is the owner of Kerol’s Kitchen, a food cart and catering business. On a recent weekday, he leaned back in his white chef coat after serving a delicious lunch based on a typical Malaysian wedding feast.
“You must have nasi lemak,” he said at his restaurant, “that will be the signature dish.”
Malaysia’s unofficial national food, nasi lemak, translates literally to “rich” or “creamy” rice, and for good reason. The central part of the dish is rice cooked in coconut milk. This is traditionally served with peanuts, cucumber slices, hard-boiled eggs and some kind of protein in a rich curry sauce.
Mahmoud said: “And pink milk.” “You want this. It’s milk mixed with rose syrup. It’s so refreshing. And Malaysian coffee with a thick foam on top is sweetened with honey. You can’t have a Malaysian restaurant without it.”
One day, Mahmoud would like to serve his food in every major university town in the country.
While in the city looking for a good location at a reasonable rent, Mahmoud remains a culinary Bedouin. For the past two decades, Mahmoud has been cooking and delivering dishes from his homeland to eager diners who learn about his Malaysian cuisine by word of mouth.
“I’m very well known on campus,” he said. “I don’t have many orders now in September, but wait a month. By that time all the Malaysian students at the university will have run out of the food they brought with them. They will start feeling homesick and will research what kind of cooking they are used to. The other students will send them to me “.
In an average week during the school year, Mahmoud delivers dozens of takeaways to excited and hungry students waiting in front of the Memorial Union. Serve them spicy curry with layers of ginger, onion, hot red pepper, garlic and fragrant rice mixed with saffron, cardamom, cloves, anise and pandan leaves. Pandan is a tropical plant with a herbal flavor that some say evokes vanilla and coconut.
Mahmoud laughs: “I am like an old man in society.” “They know me. They all call me ‘Uncle’ and my wife ‘Aunt’.”
After booking a few small festivals, weddings, various catering jobs, and cooking classes in private homes, Mahmoud has started branching out over the past year. Earlier this month, he was a first-time foodie at Taste of Madison.
At Kerol’s Kitchen, he served 1,600 bowls of beef or chicken curry and 1,500 Malaysian spring rolls, a dish he made with his wife. Spring rolls won the Taste of Taste Award for #1 for Asian Food.
“It was wonderful,” he said. “I don’t have a regular staff, so some Malaysian students I cook with came to help me with customer service over the weekend.”
Mahmoud sells out at Boneyard Dog Park and Biergarten Wednesday nights on Madison’s East Side, along with many other food carts. There he makes fried rice and fried noodle dishes to order, along with award-winning spring rolls.
“I make everything fresh,” he said. “Nothing frozen. I drive to Milwaukee once a week so I can have fresh herbs that I can’t buy here.”
Malaysian food requires patience
Wandering among the dishes he served me at the luncheon, Mahmoud explained the origins of Malaysian cooking and the philosophy behind it. As a country full of immigrants from the surrounding area, Malaysian food has been influenced by the food routes of Java, China, India, Indonesia and Thailand.
Since each region uses its own local varieties of ingredients, the taste of the final products can vary greatly. “The palm sugar that is grown and processed in every region is different,” Mahmoud said. “Different types of tea; Malaysian tea leaves are much more fragrant. We use spices in different ways.
“Also, Malaysian food requires patience,” he added. “I learned this from my dad, when I watched him cook when he was a kid. He taught me, you have to fry slowly, let the ingredients brown properly before you put the next thing in the pan. The result is a deep, rich flavor.”
Mahmoud credits his parents with teaching him the basic principles of the cuisine of his indigenous culture. Although not formally trained as a chef, he has worked in professional kitchens in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur for years, doing everything from washing dishes to preparing banquets for foreign dignitaries – including the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Mahmoud accompanied his wife to Madison in the early 1990s, when she began working for her Ph.D. in environmental sciences at the University of Wisconsin and focused on raising their three sons. Soon he began cooking for friends, then friends of friends, and his reputation grew.
“It was not always easy,” he said, shaking his head, “but I was very lucky. Now things are good.”
The dinner that Mahmoud prepared for my family was a great introduction to Malaysian food. It featured nasi hogan panas (saffron spiced rice with boiled eggs), misak hitam (black beef), prawn curry with tomatoes and green beans, ayam misk merah (chicken with red pepper) and timon akar (cucumber salad with fresh tomatoes, pineapple, carrots and jalapenos) .
Per the instructions, we scooped up a little of each ingredient on our plates and ate it all together, making the flavors blend and ooze with one another. A delightful mix of salty and sweet, the dishes were a mixture of ginger, cinnamon, lemongrass, turmeric and herbs that Mahmood grinded by hand. The food was beautifully balanced; The chili was firm but not overwhelming.
“When I attend cooking classes, it’s usually for a group of girlfriends in one of their homes,” Mahmoud said. Sometimes they talk and gossip and don’t learn much.
“But I tell them to pay attention. That way your husband will love you. This is cooking from the heart.”
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