Imagine this; it was a cold, crisp September day, the sky grey against the deep blue waters of the Thames Estuary, which opens up to the North Sea. The grim setting on the Southend pier, said to be the longest pier in the world — all of 2.16km extending into the estuary from the shores in Essex, was mercifully offset by the sound of the vigorous pounding of the lesung tumbuk and the aromatic smell of the aubergine kuzi being prepared in a café at the end of the pier.
Not too far away, the wreckage of SS Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty ship built during World War II, sunk off the Nore sandbank in the Thames Estuary in 1944, gave an added flavour, so to speak.
For Fariddah Ismail Cook, 64, who had travelled from central London to Southend on Sea — 64 km east of central London, it was music to her ears, one that would transport her thousands of kilometers back to her mother’s kitchen in Malaysia.
The café is no ordinary café — it was the location for the long running cookery programme on Channel 4 Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast where the famous Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver and his childhood buddy, Jimmy Doherty, cook culinary delights from all over the world. And for Fariddah, who had just retired as principal case officer for special education needs with a London Council, it was no ordinary seaside jaunt.
A passionate cook, befitting her married name, and an ardent promoter of Malaysian food, Fariddah had applied to be on the show and was among 8,000 applicants, whose task was to taste and comment on the dishes cooked by the chefs and their special guests.
“I didn’t know how lucky I was to be chosen until the day of the filming!!” gushed Fariddah, who is a fan of Oliver. After being shortlisted, she went through a 10-minute phone interview and a nail-biting two weeks ensued before she was informed that she was to be on the show.
Thrilled is not the word to describe Fariddah’s initial feelings.
The Jamie and Jimmy show is already in its fifth series and last night (Friday, Dec 1) was the second in the latest series, in which Fariddah appeared as a guest, helping Absolutely Fabulous actress Joanna Lumley, who had spent her early childhood in Malaya, cook her aubergine kuzi.
Oliver also tried his hand at Roti Jala (described as lace crepe using what he called a batter sprinkler) and pineapple relish.
Jamie tells his guests the kuzi is the Malaysian king’s favourite, cooked by the king’s favourite chef — and camera zooms in to a beaming Datuk Ismail of Rebung!
By the way, Malaysian food has always been making its appearance in some celebrity chefs’ kitchens.
To some extent, the Malaysian Kitchen programme by Matrade had managed to put Malaysian food on British tables as they had intended to do.
Just last week, the kitchen goddess Nigella Lawson whipped up masak lemak telur in her kitchen.
“Some twenty years ago, I was roped in with a friend to cook Laksa Johor using only available ingredients for a food programme also on Channel 4.
“Food and cooking play a major part in my work life. Food brings people together and through food, people in the workplace not only know me as Fariddah who is passionate in what she does in her profession, but also as someone who shared food across the departments,” said Fariddah, her passion clearly reflected in her Facebook status on Malaysian food and cooking.
With a legal background, Fariddah was involved in making a 13-part series on Muslim women’s rights for a Malaysian television station and so being on a television set was not at all an unfamiliar territory.
“I have always been and more so now a fan of Jamie Oliver because I like his down-to-earth style of cooking, his ethics on healthy eating, promoting home cooking, promoting local produce of local farmers and focusing on the responsibility of the food industry towards the consumers, especially young children and school kids,” said Fariddah, all of which she could relate to as she, too, liked down-to-earth style of cooking and harboured ambitions of teaching culinary skills to children with special needs.
“I have been inspired by a voluntary organisation in Malaysia called GOLD — Giving Opportunities to the Learning Disabled. These are young people with autism and learning disabilities and also physical disabilities who, through an on-site bakery and kitchen, have been able to bake and sell their products to the community.
They have become social entrepreneurs in their own right,” she enthused.
Since retirement, Fariddah has been cooking further afield, too — venturing out to a halal restaurant in the south of France to help cook Malaysian chicken curry.
Nearer home, she offers Malay delicacies such as cucur badak to Malaysian eateries and she is also well-known among friends for her roti canai.
The culinary way seems to be the path Fariddah is taking after retirement.
She now plans to keep on exploring and experimenting with authentic Malaysian food and promote the importance of home-cooked food.
Fariddah’s foray into Jamie’s kitchen is something she will cherish, although onions and ginger were not the only ingredients being chopped for the final show. However, if things go as planned, the Jamie and Jimmy’s show might not be her last.