Recipe for success

Sholto Byrnes celebrates 50 years of Malaysian independence with a rather special banquet

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister of Malaysia, is fondly remembered in the country that celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence this year. Buildings have been named after him, there are plans for a major documentary film on his life, and Kenny Hills, the upmarket area of Kuala Lumpur where the museum to his memory stands, long ago became Bukit Tunku (Hill of the Prince) in his honour.

It was in Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), just by the Royal Selangor Golf Club in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, that the junior son of the Sultan of Kedah stood with his hand raised in salute to the crowd of thousands on 31 August 1957, as the Union Flag was lowered and replaced by the banner of the Federation of Malaya. Around the square, the mock Tudor of the colonial Selangor Club faces the Moorish-influenced Sultan Abdul Samad justice hall, while the skyscrapers of the modern city frame the horizon.

Directly east, at the beginning of the shoppers' paradise known as the Golden Triangle, stands the Federal Hotel. Today, it is at the dowdier end of Jalan Bukit Bintang; here, you find dimly lit shops offering urut massages for a couple of pounds. For gleaming malls full of designer labels, go further along the street. But, in 1957, the Federal was KL's first five-star hotel, completed at the Tunku's urging in time for independence so that foreign dignitaries had somewhere to stay.

On the walls of the hotel, where I meet his daughter Tunku Khadijah and his niece Tunku Mukminah, are photos of the Tunku with Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. The man who led Malaya to independence and then guided the formation of Malaysia (with the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah and, initially, Singapore) in 1963 was indeed a statesman, but there was another side to him: he was also a very good cook.

"He was fond of cooking and fond of eating. He never cared about his waistline," chuckles Tunku Mukminah. And in Malaysia, where every conceivable kind of food is available, from teppanyaki and T-bone steak, through nonya dishes from Malacca, Singapore noodle soups, Hainanese chicken rice, local satays and curries, to western haute cuisine, there was plenty in which the Tunku could indulge.

His daughter and niece have put together a book, Favourite Dishes from the Tunku's Kitchen, which is a collection of about 80 recipes ranging from otak-otak - traditional Malay banana-leaf-wrapped fish fillet - to rusuk lembu panggang dengan puding Yorkshire (roasted prime ribs with Yorkshire pudding).

The latter may seem an unlikely dish to serve up in a land of spicy sambal (chilli paste) and rich coconut sauces, but the Anglophile Tunku's pas sion for cooking developed during the many years he spent as a student in England. "He learned from his landlady when he was living in Earls Court," remembers his son-in-law Dato Syed Hussein Bakar. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding remained his favourite English dish. "He had it at least once a week," says Tunku Khadijah, who was often charged with stirring the pudding batter while her father checked its consistency.

As a young man, the Tunku had plenty of time to hone his kitchen techniques, because he was not the most assiduous of students. While reading history and then law at St Catharine's, Cambridge, he was more in evidence at race meetings and playing football for the college team than he was at lectures.

Part of the Tunku's charm was the pleasure he took in the good things of life. He may have been a devout Muslim, but his faith was of the rather unorthodox variety typical of older generations of Malays. "He loved drinking," says Dato Syed. "Whenever you went to his digs, you'd always find bottles of cognac and wine."

Malaysia's royal families (nine of the country's 13 states have their own hereditary rulers) are all rich today, but as students in the 1930s many of the princes were short on funds. Tunku Abdul Rahman was an exception, as his mother, the daughter of a Shan chieftain from Thailand, was independently wealthy. Dato Syed remembers the late Sultan of Selangor asking to have lunch with the Tunku in London. "Tunku told him: 'If you wash my sports car first, then you can come up and I'll cook lunch for you!'" Photographs from the time show a rather dashing young man, an easy smile constantly on his lips. Something of a playboy and a practical joker, one trick when he suspected friends were raiding his alcohol supplies was to top up bottles with less pleasant liquids and watch the miscreants splutter after tasting the drinks they had pilfered.

We move outside on to the terrace, where pots of pounded shrimp paste, coriander and black pepper sit beside jars of chopped lemongrass, galangal, chillies and kaffir lime leaves, ready for the chef to prepare kari Siam ayam - Thai chicken curry. Tunku Mukminah busies herself, adding a pinch of ginger here, an extra spoonful of coconut milk there. At the Tunku's suggestion, she spent some time with the Women's Institute in England in 1958. "I taught them how to make nasi lemak," she says, smiling at how impossibly exotic the Malay breakfast of rendang sauce, coconut rice, boiled egg, nuts, sambal and ikan bilis (small dried fish) must have seemed.

The curry ready, we sit down to eat at a table laden with crackling prawns, achar (pickled vegetables), mushrooms in glass noodles, and beef with tamarind juice and chilli. Like the country itself, Malaysian cuisine derives from the mix of ethnicities - primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian, but also Bugis from Sulawesi and Aceh nese from Sumatra, as well as remnants of the Arab traders who brought Islam in the 14th century - that have made this land home.

One of the Tunku's achievements was to form an alliance between the Malay and the main Chinese and Indian political parties that persists to this day. His recipes reflect that intermingling of cultures which makes Malaysia a model - not perfect, but still a model - for harmonious race relations. Enjoying food in his memory seems an appropriate tribute to the winningly pleasure-loving man who had the wisest of goals for his country. "My ambition," he said, "is not mighty Malaysia, but happy Malaysia."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom