Last year had loads of ups and downs. My career and work relationships were going belly up and my relationship with my mum soured to the point of not wanting to see her for several months. On the other hand, there was my progress in my Healing Diets online studies that took me to the UK for a two-week immersion course, and just a few days before heading to Denmark for the holiday season, I took part in a live cooking competition and came in second place.
When I first came to know about the Nutrifest healthy cooking competition via an ad on Instagram, and clicked on the link out of curiosity. At the time I was busy preparing for my trip and doing recipe development for an upcoming newspaper article. But when I scrolled through the competition entries, my eyebrows hit my hairline. Deep fried chicken that was gluten-free. Steak with homemade black pepper sauce. Sausages on pasta. There was close to no worthy plant-based representation in the entries. And to see my fellow Malaysians’ interpretation of what ‘healthy’ was to them, weighed heavily on my fragile heart. I HAD to give it a shot.
Out of 80 online entries, my humble little recipe for Konnyaku Mee Hailam sent me to the Top 4 list, to compete in a ‘live’ showdown at the inaugural nutrition expo in Midvalley Megamall. Among the judges were fitness personality Kit Mah and celebrity chef Dato’ Fazley Yaakob (who I didn’t know already knows my chef brother… until both our mums who were there got talking).
On the outside, I looked so chill. On the inside I was everywhere.
A very lovely surprise that day was meeting a fan from Canada, who happened to be in work transit for a couple days… and out of all the things he could have spent time doing in Kuala Lumpur, he used his free time to watch me cook. Thank you for the photos and keeping my mum company, Neil. It was such a pleasure to finally meet you!
To me it didn’t matter what placement I got. I was just happy to be there and represent the Malaysian plant-based community. It was great getting to know Erma, Ziana and Angel, the other extremely talented home cooks I was competing with. So gracious and no poor attitude in sight. Everyone deserved to be there.
Mee Hailam is a dish that reflects Malaysia’s cross-cultural influences, a dish invented by local Chinese migrants and has since been adopted by the Malay community. Mee Hailam that can be found in almost any Malay food stall in Malaysia: thick yellow wheat noodles served with prawns and kailan (Chinese Kale) and cooked in a ketchup and oyster sauce-based gravy.
For a dish that came in second place judged by taste, presentation and nutritional value, my interpretation of Mee Hailam is very modest and I feel that the bulk of it has to do with my choice of noodles. I personally don’t enjoy cooking with yellow mee all that much. (I only use it in my Mee Goreng recipe for authenticity’s sake, but it is easily replaceable with any other kind of noodle.) I assume that back in the day, yellow mee got its hue from being made with egg; these days the most accessible commercial yellow mee is made with colouring and preserved with some kind of chemical that makes the noodles smell quite rank when you take it out of the packaging. So in my recipe I replace yellow mee with konnyaku noodles, also known as shirataki noodles. It is a gift from Japan to the health-conscious world, a food that consists of just water and soluble fiber, which is gluten-free and has no carb and close to zero calories. Quite often in Malaysia, it can be found in the cold section of a supermarket where tofu and steamboat items are stocked. It can be cooked straight out of the packaging, but strangely enough there too is an odd smell emitted. The noodles can be rinsed of their smell if preferred.
For the other ingredients, the kailan stays and other colourful veggies boost the nutritional value. And to replace oyster sauce, the water used to re-hydrate dried shiitake mushrooms is used as an equally flavourful stock. If you can find pre-fried tofu blocks where you are then great; you can otherwise use plain tofu or pre-fry it yourself before making this dish. Pan-frying tofu slices in generous amounts of oil for 10 minutes or so adds a crispier outer layer.
I honestly LOVE the colours in this dish. To #eattherainbow is to gift your body with incredible health-boosting antioxidants to fight free radicals and strengthen one’s immunity… an important thing to do especially in the current situation of Covid19.
The great thing about konnyaku noodles is that they readily soak up any gravy you add to it and still stays springy as ever. To add depth and colour to this gravy, I’ve replaced dark soy sauce with blackstrap molasses. And replacing ketchup is healthier tomato puree.
For something so easy to assemble and put together, I’m proud of what this little dish has accomplished and it is proof that anything is possible when mind and passion is put into it. I hope that my experience encourages you to explore the opportunities that await in your kitchen too.
Konnyaku Mee Hailam
Using ingredients from East and Southeast Asia, this simple dish inspired by the Malay-Chinese hybrid cuisine of Malaysia combines taste and nutrition in the comfort of your home.
- 2 packs Konnyaku noodles (Shirataki)
- 1 block fried firm tofu, sliced into pieces
- 100 g kailan, roughly chopped
- 50 g carrot, thinly sliced
- 1/2 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 50 g purple cabbage, thinly sliced
- 2-3 dried shiitake mushrooms soaked overnight in 1/2 cup drinking water
- 1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
- 5 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1-2 cili padi (optional)
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 4 tablespoons tomato puree
- 2 teaspoons blackstrap molasses
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- Step 1 Remove konnyaku noodles from bag and briefly rinse under running water with a sieve. Set aside to drain.
- Step 2 Place cooking oil in a frypan and allow to warm up on medium heat.
- Step 3 Remove water from mushrooms. This will be your mushroom stock. Slice mushrooms with scissors and leave aside.
- Step 4 Mix mushroom stock with tomato puree, blackstrap molasses, soy sauce and sugar. This will be your Hailam sauce. Set aside.
- Step 5 Place onion and garlic in pan and fry for 3-4 minutes or until they begin to brown around the edges.
- Step 6 Add in kailan stems and carrot and stir-fry for 1 minute. Follow up with bell pepper, cabbage, tofu and mushroom. Stir-fry for 1 minute. Follow up with kailan leaves. Stir-fry for 1 more minute.
- Step 7 Put in konnyaku noodles and optional cili padi. Pour Hailam sauce evenly over the noodles. Stir noodles around sauce and ingredients for 1-2 minutes.
- Step 8 Remove pan from heat and serve immediately.