Feisty and petite, your first glance at Anis Nabilah might make you want to write her off as yet another celebrity chef chosen to present cooking shows due to her physical appeal and sense of style. You would, however, be missing out if you decide to switch the channel, because this young lady knows what she’s talking about, and she has the accolades to prove it.
Anis’s familiarity with the kitchen started at a very young age. “I come from a very big family and I’m one of eight siblings. My mother was a working mum, but she felt that it was important for her to cook for her kids herself. At the same time, she wanted to spend time with us as well so she would drag every one of us into the kitchen to help her out with the things that were safe for kids to do, like washing vegetables or peeling stuff using our hands.” She was allowed to cook on her own at the tender age of nine, making an omelette.
Growing up, Anis Nabilah’s house was the spot you go to eat among her friends. She recalls a funny story when one of them asked her how to cook instant noodles. “I judged her, because she just has to read the instructions! But what she meant was how do I make my instant noodles, because it’s so complicated. It’s got chicken and vegetables and chili, and I would sauté the onions and garlic.”
High school shenanigans
Anis Nabilah’s reputation for being a good cook continued through secondary school. “When my guy friends found out we were making spaghetti bolognaise in Home Ec, all of them came up to me and said, ‘You need to make extra.’ So, I’m like, yeah, sure. I told my best friend, you bring more spaghetti and I’ll bring more minced beef. She brought two or three packets of spaghetti, and I brought 800g of minced beef.
“The teacher who taught us said, ‘Boil 200g of spaghetti and use 120g of minced beef.’ I chucked in 800g of spaghetti because I’m like, ‘I’ve got this. I know how to make spaghetti bolognaise’. We ended up making a mountain of spaghetti bolognaise.”
When the teacher discovered what they had done, Anis and her best friend got into quite a bit of trouble. “She just shouted at us. We tried to explain that our friends wanted some. We had to go to the principal’s office and our teacher made us finish the whole mountain of spaghetti bolognaise, and if we didn’t, we couldn’t leave,” Anis laughs.
“We had to go to the principal’s office and our teacher made us finish the whole mountain of spaghetti bolognaise…”
Taking things professional
Initially, Anis Nabilah wasn’t planning to go down the culinary route. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I never thought I’d take it seriously. I wanted to do other things, like journalism, read law, psychology.” It was her mother who nudged her into culinary. “She told me, you love to cook, so why don’t you consider culinary? But back then people who took culinary courses were those who failed at everything else. Jadi tukang masak, that’s what they used to say.
“I knew it was a professional job, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do something I enjoyed as work, because I might not want to do it when I come home. What if I didn’t want to cook for my family because I’m cooking so much at work?
“She told me, ‘You just need to do what you love, because if you do what you love, that’s when you’ll succeed. Just give it a try, and if you feel it’s too tough for you, then you can leave. As long as you’ve given it a chance.’ So, I said, yeah, I’ll do it, and I did.”
“You just need to do what you love, because if you do what you love, that’s when you’ll succeed.”
Anis enrolled into Food Institute of Malaysia, selecting a lesser known school so she could focus on her studies. “I was a handful as a teenager. Mum wanted to send me to KDU but I had too many friends there and I knew that I might end up skipping class.”
Unsurprisingly, Anis excelled. “My teachers were amazing. There were not that many students in the class, so the teachers could really focus on us and that was really good.”
Anis Nabilah, discovered
After graduating, Anis worked with a hotel in Kuala Lumpur for a year and a half. It was there that she was discovered by producer Ezzah Aziz Fauzy. “When I was in front of the camera for the first time during the audition, I couldn’t really give directions in good TV Bahasa Malaysia. In culinary school, everything was in French or English and growing up in Subang, we would mix it up. At home, my family speaks with a Northern accent, so it was quite hard and I didn’t think that I was going to get it. I was confident with my skill, but I wasn’t confident with how I delivered.”
Anis Nabilah beat a crowd of 80 girls to land the job, and she’s thankful to the guidance and support given to her by Ezzah Aziz Fauzy.
A path paved with challenges
“When I started in 2007, people my age didn’t like to cook because cooking seemed so much more expensive compared to dining out. They’d rather go to a gerai, pay four ringgit for a bowl of tom yam, another ringgit for telur dadar, and 80 sen for rice. It was going to cost them a lot more to buy the ingredients and they’d have to cook all of it to save money. People just didn’t feel like they had the time.”
Those were Anis Nabilah’s early challenges. “Back when I started there were no channels dedicated to cooking shows. There were no reality shows about food. Cooking was not cool. It was complicating and tedious and you left it to professional chefs, who are men, or you left it to your mum. That was the perception.
“Cooking was not cool. It was complicating and tedious and you left it to professional chefs, who are men, or you left it to your mum.”
“When I came out on TV, a lot of people didn’t take me as a chef or a professional cook, even though I’m trained professionally, because I look the way I look, and I sound the way I sound.” She refused to tell people that she trained professionally, as she wanted them to be able to relate to her and not feel intimidated. “I’m just Anis. And when I did that, people went, who is this girl? She knows nothing and she’s teaching this? I didn’t want to go around saying this is my certification, this is my medal, this is where I worked, this is what I’ve done. I just had to keep finding a common ground with my viewers.
“Alhamdulillah, it’s been 11 years, and it’s been quite good.”
Despite her success, Anis Nabilah believes it’s important for her to keep track of her personal growth. A recent trip to Italy opened her eyes to a host of new experiences, which she gained by eating, watching, smelling, visiting markets and looking at ingredients. “I can’t wait to share my insight with Malaysians. For example, the way they cook pasta and the way we cook pasta is completely different.”
One of Anis’s previous projects had her working with Barilla, filming a recipe inspired by her trip. “In Malaysia, we tend to overdo it by using a lot of ingredients. This is because we don’t have the best produce for Western recipes. In Europe and Australia, they have amazing produce. Their tomatoes are good without needing anything else. But over here, we tend to add sauces to make it taste like tomatoes.
“I shared that we should keep it simple. It’s how you execute it, not the amount of ingredients you use. You want to taste the actual flavour of the ingredients used. Using a lot of ingredients is fine for our dishes as that is what’s required of Malaysian cooking, it’s rich and that’s what makes it so special. But when we’re cooking Western or Italian, we tend put chili sauce or sambal, and it loses its actual identity. If we want people to respect Malaysian food, to cook it the way we cook it, we should be cooking Western food the way they cook it, not adjust it to our palate.”
“If we want people to respect Malaysian food, to cook it the way we cook it, we should be cooking Western food the way they cook it, not adjust it to our palate.”
In 2008, Anis spent two months staying in different villages across Malaysia learning to cook the traditional way from the main kampung cook. “It was an amazing experience. Some of the things I learned most Malaysians probably haven’t even heard of, like masak lemak daun kayu, which is made from eleven different wild-grown herbs picked from around the house.”
Anis is also on a mission to teach Malaysians how to cook our local food properly. “When you ask people, can you make curry? Everyone will say, yes, but their way of making curry is by using curry powder and putting it in a pot. But what’s in a curry powder? There’s so many versions of curry powder in Malaysia that people don’t know what the basic ingredients of curry powder are or what’s the additional stuff added to it.
“If you ask a foreigner to make Malaysian curry, they’re gonna struggle because, one, they can’t find Malaysian curry powder, and two, how would they know what goes in it?”
“But what’s in a curry powder? There’s so many versions of curry powder in Malaysia that people don’t know what the basic ingredients of curry powder are or what’s the additional stuff added to it.”
Teaching Malaysians how to cook
Teaching Malaysians how to cook Malaysian food is also one of Anis’s challenges. “In our heads, it’s like, ‘We know how to make this. Our mom makes it better. My grandmother makes it like this’. I’ve been cooking on TV for 11 years now and I find that is one of my biggest struggles. Viewers would pay attention if it’s full on traditional, but if you tell them, ‘Let’s break down curry powder to see what goes inside it,’ not many are interested to learn about it.”
Anis also believes in the importance of having specific techniques and measurements. “In Malay cooking especially, people don’t say use shallots or use onions. They just say, use bawang. What bawang? Do you want me to use shallots? Do you want me use onions? Which onions? Red onions, yellow onions, white onions, purple onions, Indian onions, Thai onions, Malaysian onions?”
However, she emphasizes that exact measurements doesn’t always yield exact results. “In most cuisine, even French cuisine, even when you’re using the same ingredients, how it’s grown overseas, or if the animals are fed different things, can lead to different results. Therefore, the agak-agak technique applies to all sorts of cuisines, not just Malaysian. But it’s also important to be precise and to know the techniques used.”
“…the agak-agak technique applies to all sorts of cuisines, not just Malaysian. But it’s also important to be precise and to know the techniques used.”
Anis admits she’s guilty of agak-agak occasionally, especially when cooking at home. “When I cook, especially when I try new things, it’s like an out of body experience. When I’m done, people will say, ‘This is so good, what did you put in it?’, and I have to retrace my steps because I’m so used to it.”
Despite going to culinary school, Anis Nabilah doesn’t feel classical training is a prerequisite to becoming an excellent chef or cook. “To be honest, if you feel like cooking, you need practical training. You need to continuously be in the kitchen. No amount of books or certificates can teach you everything about culinary.”
She does feel it’s important to have basic knowledge of classical French techniques and terms as it’s the global standard, but the most important thing one needs is passion. “If you have passion, you will find knowledge. It doesn’t matter how you do it.
“When I was studying, there’s was no such thing as Google-ing. Professional cook books are expensive, so I literally sat down in bookstores to read when I couldn’t afford to buy them.”
“If you have passion, you will find knowledge. It doesn’t matter how you do it.”
“If it’s really something you like, nothing can or should stop you. You can seek knowledge anywhere. I was professionally trained because that was the right way then, but if I was a 21 year old now, I’d probably be a self-taught chef.”
Anis recommends applying for internships overseas and learning from other chefs. “You can gain a lot of knowledge learning from someone with 20, 30 years of experience more than you will from books. Even from non-professional chefs like the makciks, who have been making the same dish for 30 or 40 years, you will gain so much knowledge from her.
“Ultimately, it’s your attitude and how much you really want it. All you need to do is keep on finding knowledge.” Anis herself continues to seek knowledge. “I ask questions all the time and it’s important to do that. Because when you stop asking questions, that’s when you stop growing.”
It’s not a competition
The popularity of the food-entertainment industry has inspired many younger chefs to get on the bandwagon, but Anis doesn’t see them as competition. “I have no competitors, and it’s not because I feel nobody is worth competing with me. I just don’t think it has to be a competition, especially when we’re all helping this industry grow.
“When I started, there was maybe three other chefs cooking on TV, and they were all 20 or 30 years older than me. I felt alone for a really long time. That’s why I became close with the younger, emerging chefs, as I felt that I finally had people I could talk to, who were doing the same thing I was. Now, people are encouraging younger talent, new talent, to cook on TV or even online, and I feel happy. When I started, people didn’t even think this was worth looking at. Now everyone wants to do it, and it’s amazing.”
She isn’t even worried about people making and selling her recipes. “Four years ago, I did my version of salted egg carbonara for TV.” It wasn’t a hit-dish back then in Malaysia. Anis cooked and distributed it to people who were stuck in traffic and they loved it. “I said, keep an eye on the next few months or the next year, this is going to be a thing, and true enough, it was. I did an interview about it and the journalist asked how I felt about salted egg carbonara being so popular now, and I said, “Good! Although they’re not giving me credit for it, it doesn’t matter. It took a lot of effort to come up with the recipe and the idea, but if people are enjoying it, I’m happy.”
Anis Nabilah feels her job is all about sharing. “I feel like the day I stop sharing, that I have to save some recipes and knowledge for myself, is the day I betray myself. Knowledge is meant to be shared. If you don’t to that, what’s the point. You’re just going to carry it to the grave.
“I understand though when some people say they can’t tell you what goes in to a dish because it’s a family secret recipe. But, to me, it’s berkat when you share, and people cook it for their family. It’s such an amazing thing to do, being able to feed your family, and for me, it feels like I contributed that. In my head I see a whole family sitting down together having a meal, one that I taught. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“…to me, it’s berkat when you share, and people cook it for their family.”
In fact, Anis loves sharing so much that it’s not unusual for her to cook several kilos of meat to distribute amongst family and friends when she’s making one of her specialty dishes.
Anis Nabilah has two most requested specialty dishes, her masak lemak daging salai and ayam rose. Her ayam rose is a recipe she cracked after diligently eating at a nasi kandar restaurant in Penang for three months. “I make my own spices. I even roast it and grind it myself.” Her family agrees that it’s even better than the original.
Anis learned masak lemak daging salai during a one-week stay in a village in Negeri Sembilan, but she wanted to put her own twist on things by combining the Western way of smoking with the traditional Negeri Sembilan way of smoking. “Although they call salai smoking, it’s not really smoking as they’re actually using coconut shells and husks to barbeque the meat. The traditional Norwegian way of smoking salmon is by nailing salmon fillets on wood soaked in water, and then lighting the wood on fire at the bottom so it produces smoke. So I that’s what I did. I soaked the coconut shells and husks in water, and lit it up so it produces more smoke than fire.” Her daging is smoked it for three to four hours and then braised for two more hours in spices. It’s a special dish she makes only once a year.
So what does Anis cook for herself when she eats at home? “If I want to eat anything, I make it very, very simple. Sometimes I’ll indulge and make really fancy scrambled eggs, but only for basic stuff like that. Otherwise I’ll just have toast or maybe a salad. I love salad.”
Be it salad or salai, doesn’t it all sound so mouthwateringly good? Anis Nabilah has shared with us some of her recipes you can easily make at home. Check them out below!