Jennie Cook is putting Malaysian food on the culinary map

Jennie Cook seen with the ingredients for Beef Rendang and the finished dish

Jennie Cook seen with the ingredients for Beef Rendang and the finished dish

First published in Features by

RICK STEIN’S latest addition to his cookbook library is an orange pamphlet printed some 20 years ago and filled with Jennie Cook’s favourite Chinese recipes.

Rather cheekily, Jennie, of Bishopthorpe, offered to “swap” her £2.99 cookbook for Rick’s latest one – currently retailing in the shops at £25.

The pair had been working together at the Taste of London festival this summer, cooking up Malaysian cuisine for the culinary curious of the capital.

Jennie recalls that seafood supremo Stein appeared rather nervous at the prospect of knocking up Nasi Goreng – a Malaysian fried rice dish – for the hungry crowds.

He had grand ideas, says Jennie, of adding barbecued chicken to the dish, but Malaysian-born Jennie was having none of it. “He wanted to do it in an English way, but our stand was about cooking food in the true Malaysian style.”

Needless to say, Jennie won the argument. And not for the first time. Jennie Cook knows what she wants – and how to get it. She has a drive that is undiminished, despite a 20-year struggle with crippling arthritis that has put her under the surgeon’s knife eight times.

Now 58, the arthritis is rife, causing agonising pain in her shoulders, hips and feet – and yet, this has been one of her busiest years.

“This year I’ve taken more painkillers than I have ever done in the past 20 years. I’ve had so much on, but I wanted to do it,” she says – smiling. “People say I should relax, but my motto is different: when I die I will be resting for the rest of my life!”

Besides moving and renovating her new home, she became a consultant for the Malaysian Kitchen, a promotional campaign funded by the Malay government to promote indigenous food and produce in the UK as well as Malaysian restaurants.

Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay are some of the big names who have been recruited to the cause, with Ramsay going off to Malaysia to make one of his Great Escapes TV shows.

Jennie has travelled the country doing cookery demonstrations and attending festivals, including last month’s York Festival of Food and Drink and the Leeds Curry festival a few weeks ago. And she is planning a series of cookery films to be shown on the Malaysian Kitchen website and on YouTube.

Malaysian food, explains Jennie, sits on the spectrum between Chinese and Indian cuisine.

“It is spicy, but not in a way that would burn you like a vindaloo,” she says. “It is more fragrant and mellow in flavour than Thai food, which is sometimes so intense all you can taste is the kaffir lime leaves.

“In Malay food, the spices are blended so that they are more harmonious. If you like your food hotter, we use the condiment Sambal a lot. We serve it on the side and you can add it to your rice or curry.”

Jennie is looking forward to getting back behind the camera. The nurse-turned-TV chef has appeared on a host of shows over the years, including The Generation Game, Good Morning, Blue Peter and Farmhouse Kitchen.

More recently, she starred alongside North Yorkshire-based Rosemary Shrager in the ITV cook-off show Taste The Nation. She also reached the finals of Five’s Breaking Into Tesco, where she tried to persuade judges that her dish, curry noodle soup, should be marketed as a ready meal by the supermarket giant.

Talking about her latest projects, Jennie has the buzz of an excited teenager. Despite her struggling health and the death of her husband, John, seven years ago to a stroke at the age of 53, self-pity has no place in her life.

“I want people to know that just because you have got pain you don’t have to sit down and vegetate. Sometimes, when I’m working, I forget my pain. In fact, I’m sure all the things I’ve done has prolonged my longevity,” says Jennie, who has also beaten leukaemia.

There is no sign of her letting up. Next weekend, she has organised a Malaysian Kitchen Showcase at the Park Inn Hotel, York, for 150 invited VIPs.

Her passion is her cooking, and her dream – should she find the right business partner – would be to open her own restaurant.

A Malaysian one, of course.

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