Postcard from Zaharah: The passing of a Malaysian Institution

ZAINUDDIN Yahaya, popularly known as Tuk Din of Tukdin Flavours of Malaysia, was laid to rest on May 25 at the Muslim burial grounds the Gardens of Peace in London.

The send-off, five days after he breathed his last at Hammersmith Hospital last Saturday, was a testament to the man he was — a Malaysian institution who left behind a legacy that is difficult to replace.

Among those who paid their last respects to the founder of a Malaysian eatery that had seen members of royalties, politicians across all political divides and celebrities enjoying his culinary skills were friends of his who ventured out together to introduce Malaysian food to London in the 1980s.

Tuk Din came to the UK in 1980 to study accounting at Emile Woolf College and then joined an auditing firm before he was lured into the exciting and competitive world of food — working with now familiar names, such as Syed Nahar of the then Nahar Caféteria and Azhar Kamaruddin, or Art, of the hugely popular Makan Café in Portobello, London.

The three ambitious young men who worked together in the kitchen of the eatery in Paddington soon went their separate ways. Tuk Din got his first break running the Malaysia Hall canteen, taking over from Azhar and his wife Hairani Mohamad, which was then in Bryanston Square, near Oxford Street.

It was here, the home away from home for most Malaysian students, that Tuk Din combined his culinary skills and knowledge of business to start a Malaysian restaurant that has become the place to go to for both Malaysians and locals.

Tuk Din was a MacGyver of sorts; always repairing or improvising something, very much the same way he was with food.

The man, who was born in Kedah but was raised in Penang, was at ease discussing the various types of air asam in the same manner he would with political issues. He was a diehard fan of the Arsenal Football Club.

Apart from members of the food and eatery fraternity who were present to send him off, such as Sugendran Gopal of Roti King and Gopal's Corner, were people whose lives the larger-than-life personality had touched.

From the days of the Malaysia Hall canteen to the present restaurant in Paddington, Tuk Din had always offered part-time jobs to students who needed the extra pocket money. They cleaned tables, swept floors and helped in the kitchen before they graduated as scientists, lawyers and doctors.

My own children spent their school breaks learning the value of money by serving behind the counter and in the kitchen; often to earn enough money to go on school trips and buy gadgets they needed.

He opened his doors even when his restaurant was closed during Hari Raya. Once, looking out of the window, he saw two Malays-ian girls peering into the restaurant. He took pity on them and invited them to join in partaking the Hari Raya spread that he usually prepared.

The same generosity was extended to Malaysians who dared to dream and cycled, rode or hitchhiked their way through London. Those who had the misfortune of being pickpocketed or fallen ill in this foreign country would at least be given free meals. And those who needed food or funds for charity, such as Mercy Humanitarian UK, need not look elsewhere. He was always ready to lend a hand.

Ustaz Mohamad Zaki Ismail of SOFA Mosque in London, who led the prayers before the burial last Saturday, was a young graduate from Syria 12 years ago, who was given the opportunity to use Tuk Din's lounge to start his religious classes for young Malaysians, families and friends.

During Tuk Din's final days, after our prayers, Zaki reflected on how the community came together in that very front room; singing nasyeed, practising silat and playing the kompang, before they performed at various mosques and venues. It was there, too, that the idea of the first Malay or Nusantara Mosque was discussed.

Tuk Din was at his best when he was cooking — and he cooked for not only our king and queen, but was also the point of reference for our Yang di-Pertuan Agong's father, Sultan Ahmad Shah Al-Musta'in Billah, whose favourite was Tuk Din's ikan bakar and air asam. Orders of nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves usually preceded Almarhum's arrival.

To all and sundry, young and old, titled and sans title, he was Tuk Din.

"Tuk Din!" said someone from across the room at the Lancaster Hotel some years ago. It was our Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, who reminded the self-made chef that he, too, like his late father, loved Tuk Din's ikan bakar.

His kitchen also catered for the Christmas lunch for the entourage of the Permaisuri of Johor Tuanku Raja Zarith Sofiah, whose late son, Almarhum Tunku Abdul Jalil Iskandar Sultan Ibrahim, frequented the place to get his fix of Malaysian food when he was studying in London.

A celebrity in his own right, the son of a Customs officer in Kedah mingled easily with singers, actors and comedians who came through his door at 41 Craven Road. He once made a cameo appearance in the telemovie Drogba and Rooney, starring comedians Johan and Zizan, and was interviewed numerous times on television and radio for his role in promoting Malaysian food in the UK.

And for this, he was tireless, sharing his knowledge and experience with all and sundry.

When a new Malaysian restaurant was opening a few doors away from his restaurant, someone asked him if he felt threatened by the presence of another Malaysian eatery so near. His answer was: "The more the merrier. I would like to see this area, Paddington and Bayswater, become a Malaysian food hub."

That answer almost sums up the late Tuk Din. He felt threatened by none and he welcomed all with open arms.

On Saturday, Tukdin Flavours of Malaysia opened its doors again. Tuk Din wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

His legacy will live on. His widow Hamidah Jaafar, son Syed Fauzi and daughter Sharifah Nurul Ulya will see to it that Tukdin Flavours of Malaysia will remain on the lips and hearts of everyone.

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