PETALING JAYA, June 8 — Life just got better with the discovery of Kesom, a cafe in Aman Suria that offers homemade Kelantanese favourites like nasi kerabu and nasi dagang. The cosy cafe was started around eight months ago by Edana Lim Parina, 39, together with Pasir Mas native Susan Lim, 45.
Edana is also the owner of popular ladies fashion retailer Blöok which has boutiques in Bangsar, Subang Parade and Kota Damansara. Their office is just above Kesom.
So how did Kesom come to be? Interestingly, it was the unforgettable taste of Susan’s nasi kerabu that inspired Edana to open the cafe. “I only fed her nasi kerabu once and that is why she wants me to do this,” says Susan who used to work at Blöok as a manager.
About three years ago, she made the dish during her two-day Chinese New Year break as she had returned with ayam percik from her hometown. The Kelantanese dish is made up of items like fish floss, serunding kelapa and fresh ulam or a mix of herbs and vegetables like kesom, lemongrass, four angle beans and torch ginger flower.
“All the small things are time consuming to prepare. If you give me one day off, there’s no way I can make it,” explains Susan. It was Edana’s first experience with nasi kerabu and she was blown away.
Since Susan refused to make it for her again due to time constraints, Edana searched high and low at every Ramadan bazaar for the same taste but was disappointed.
If you taste Susan’s nasi kerabu in Kesom, you will understand why Edana was so enamoured with the dish. The nasi kerabu and her other menu items stand out because fresh and quality ingredients, herbs and spices are used.
She also avoids preservatives, artificial flavours and colouring in her food. “We want to create a place where food is good but does not harm your body... like making sure there’s no MSG and artificial colouring. It’s all natural ingredients: very basic like salt and sugar. That’s all. I am playing with that for my flavouring together with lime juice in my kitchen.”
The only exception is her kuih sago since she can’t find a natural replacement for the red colour. Her nasi kerabu is naturally dyed blue by using butterfly pea flowers she harvests from their own plant. In future, she even hopes to introduce a drink using the natural blue dye.
Food at Kesom is also kinder on the waistline. For instance, her nasi kerabu uses Basmati rice, the closest Susan can get to the taste of her childhood. “When I was young we used very good Thai rice that was almost like Basmati with quite long and a bit softer rice grains.”
She also prefers using just wild rice grains for her nasi dagang. “I try to make it very pure. Some prefer to mix the wild rice grains and glutinous rice, which may give you trouble digesting.” Traditionally, nasi dagang is steamed twice and coconut milk is stirred into the rice at the end for a creamier taste and shiny finish. Susan keeps it healthy and omits this step to avoid pouring oily coconut milk into the rice.
Her fish floss, an integral part of the nasi kerabu is also different from others. “They use cheap or rotten fish but I use ikan selar or kembung. Since I use white meat fish, my fish floss is white and not dark brown in colour. If you leave their floss out for a while, the fish smell is very strong,” says Susan.
At Kesom, she also serves khao jam (khao means “rice” and jam means “mixed” in Thai), a dish unique to the Kelantanese Chinese that is influenced by neighbouring Thailand. “If you go to the Thai Buddhist temple during a big festival, they will serve khao jam to anyone who walks in. It was something we looked forward to when we were young.”
In the old days, the rice is cooked with the juice extracted from about 100 types of herbs and vegetables plucked from the backyard and the wild. Nowadays with rapid development, Susan estimates you can only find around 30 herbs and vegetables.
She sources the juice from her old neighbours in Pasir Mas who are experts at spotting the herbs. The green tinged rice is tossed with chopped kesom, lemongrass, raw beansprouts and fish floss to give it a fragrant appetising lift. Khao jam is also lauded for its health benefits and is served as a confinement dish minus the raw beansprouts in Thailand.
Susan’s first foray into cooking started out by accident. The wild tomboy was the youngest of 10 children and the only girl at home after her sisters had moved away. “When I was about eight years old, I was forced to go into the kitchen as my mother was so sick. I was in the kitchen by myself trying to figure out what to cook when I could not differentiate between garlic and shallots.” Her first cooking attempt was disastrous and everything she cooked came out burnt.
Subsequently, she slowly learnt under her mother’s tutelage. “Once you start going in, there was no turning back as my mother expected me to be there every day.” The little girl would be her mother’s kitchen assistant doing all the tedious preparations.
“She did not teach but would order me around while she was cooking but that’s when I learnt, as I became her little runner.”
She recalls helping her mother sell their homemade nasi kerabu and nasi berlauk on a small scale during the Ramadan period when the Malay stalls would be closed. “Every early morning, we would wake up and pack the rice and bring it to the Chinese coffeeshop. We’d leave a few packets there at the shop.” In addition, she’d bring the rice packets to school to fulfill her teachers’ orders.
Every day, it was a small feat for Susan to ride her wobbling bicycle weighted down with the heavy rice packets and her school bag. “When I rode the bicycle, it’d be shaking from side to side as it was so heavy for my bicycle to carry all the stuff but I didn’t have time to do two trips.” On the way back from school, she would go to the coffeeshop and check how many packets were sold, collect the money and the unsold packets.
For Chinese New Year, her mother would make nin koh or the sticky rice pudding and kuih kapit or love letters. “My mother would do the batter and leave me sitting under the banana tree to panggang and fold the kuih.” She remembers the hard work of continously stirring the nin koh and searching around her neighbourhood for firewood to feed the fire to slowly cook the festive specialty.
Due to her early exposure to tedious kitchen tasks by her mother, Susan admits having a love-hate relationship with cooking. “I hated cooking at that time. When you’re forced to do it, but when you’re not doing it, you miss doing it. I do enjoy cooking and feeding people as I always enjoy seeing people eat. When people start to praise your food that makes you happy.”
When Susan was older, she left home and came to Kuala Lumpur to study fashion, her other passion. “This is what I wanted to do since I was very young but cooking was something that I was forced into.” Susan picked up a diploma in fashion design and joined her alma mater, Ascot Academy of Fashion Institute, where she taught for 10 years. After the partners of the fashion school split, she left to pursue other interests and decided to do fashion retail. “I wanted to test my abilities. So I ended up in Blöok in Bangsar. It was my first time handling customers on a daily basis and I enjoyed it.”
Most importantly, Susan clicked with Edana because they both liked food and fashion. “Don’t you think we look like sisters? Everybody thinks we are sisters,” says Susan. Edana admits both were her interests and during her studies in Australia, she worked part-time in food and fashion. “It’s always been food or fashion, but I went with fashion since my mother was in fashion.”
The turning point occured when Susan returned to Blöok after a short break due to health reasons. Edana approached her to set up the cafe and she jumped at the opportunity. “I’ve always wanted to do food but I did not have the confidence to do it alone. It’s not only cooking but marketing strategy and the set-up of the place,” says Susan. Edana admits that the cafe is strictly Susan’s domain as she understands you can’t have two people managing the place.
“I don’t believe in meddling but I will offer my comments and give feedback. I don’t like to have two persons running the cafe as it confuses the staff.”
The cafe’s menu is a compact one focusing on nasi kerabu, nasi dagang and nasi lauk with a variety of side dishes and curries. Currently, khao jam is a special dish. They also offer a daily special based on Susan’s market finds such as sambal petai udang, ayam garam kunyit, and ayam masak kicap rempah.
Susan also prepares two types of kuih like pulut inti, kuih sago and sometimes a sweet like bubur cha cha.
Edana believes in concentrating on just a small menu. “My concept is very simple, just concentrate on the food. I do not want 10,000 things on the menu whereby you do too much and the food is average. Just do three to four things that we are really good at and people will come back for that.”
Prices are also kept reasonable with a meal ranging from RM7.90 to RM11.90, depending on your selection of dishes. “The reason why we open this place is we want to share the good food with everyone. If you make the price too high, not a lot of people can eat it,” says Susan.
Once you finish your meal, you can shop for all kinds of delicious tidbits like salty caramelised nuts, pisang tanduk kerepek and the same fish crackers served with your meal. Keen cooks can also find gula Melaka brought in from Kelantan.“We tried these items and like them hence we decided to bring it back to sell,” explains Edana. Customers even ask to purchase their belanga or unglazed claypots used in the cafe, which Edana sources from Kuala Selangor.
The cafe also offers catering services for office events (minimum 30 persons) and special occasions like Chinese New Year and Christmas. For special occasions, Susan will cook nasi kunyit and chicken curry. “She is very pantang. It can only be cooked for special occasions like birthdays and the baby’s full moon as she follows traditions,” says Edana.
In the future, Edana has plans to expand to a shopping mall but she prefers to focus on their quality first. “I do not want to expand just for expansion sake. What is more important is the quality of the food as I see when people expand, the quality of food will jatuh, which is such a waste.”
One thing you won’t see at Kesom is cakes. “I’m adventurous and I like to try other cuisines except baking. I don’t know why but I can’t bake a cake,” says Susan. It’s the same with Edana who credits their cooking to be based on their flavour, taste and sense.
The next thing up the two ladies’ sleeves is assam laksa, a family recipe inherited from Edana’s mother-in-law. “They are famous for the laksa they serve during Chinese New Year. For three days, everyone in Klang comes to eat their laksa that has fish roe. It’s the best and you don’t get it anywhere else. You get the texture of the roe with its slight grainy taste and it also makes the broth sweeter,” says Edana. We can’t wait!
Kesom, 46, Jalan PJU 1/45,
Aman Suria, Petaling Jaya.
Tel: 03-7880 7022.