Let’s eat: “Chef Ken” shares Malaysian culture at Kerol’s Kitchen | food drink


Khirularziman Mahmud, known around Madison as “Chef Ken,” is already planning his restaurant’s brick-and-mortar menu, though it will likely be several months before it becomes a reality.

Mahmud is the owner of Kerol’s Kitchen, a restaurant and catering business. On a recent weekday, he leaned back in his white chef’s coat after serving a delicious catered lunch based on a typical Malaysian wedding feast.

In his restaurant, “you have to have nasi lemak”, he said, “it will be the signature dish”.

Malaysia’s unofficial national food, nasi lemak literally translates to “rich” or “creamy” rice, and with good reason. The centerpiece of the plate is rice cooked in coconut milk. This is traditionally served with peanuts, cucumber slices, a hard-boiled egg, and some sort of protein in a rich curry sauce.






Kerol’s Kitchen prepares nasi hujan panas, saffron-seasoned rice with hard-boiled eggs.




“And pink milk,” Mahmud said. “You’d like that. It’s milk mixed with a rose syrup. It’s very refreshing. And the Malaysian coffee, with a thick honey-sweetened top foam. You can’t have a Malaysian restaurant without it.

One day, Mahmud would like to serve his food in every major college town in the country.

Culinary ‘Old’

As he searches the city for a good location with reasonable rent, Mahmud remains a culinary nomad. For the past two decades, Mahmud has mainly cooked and delivered dishes from his homeland to eager diners who learn about his Malaysian cuisine through word of mouth.

“I’m very well known on campus,” he said. “I don’t have that many orders in September, but wait a month. By then, all Malaysian students at the university will have used up the food they brought with them. They will start to feel homesick and will look around for the type of cuisine they are used to. The other students will send them to me.







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Khirularziman Mahmud, better known as “Chef Ken”, is the chef and owner of Kerol’s Kitchen, which prepares Malaysian cuisine in a food cart and for catering events.




In an average week during the school year, Mahmud delivers dozens of takeout meals to impatient and hungry students waiting outside Memorial Union. He brings them spicy curries topped with ginger, onion, chili peppers and garlic, and fragrant rice infused with saffron, cardamom, cloves, star anise and pandan leaves. Pandan is a tropical plant with a herbaceous taste that, according to some, evokes vanilla and coconut.







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dinner Khirularziman Mahmud prepared for my family included nasi hujan panas (saffron seasoned rice with boiled eggs), daging masak hitam (black beef), prawn curry with tomatoes and green beans, ayam masak merah (chili red) and timun acar (cucumber salad with fresh tomatoes, pineapple, carrots and jalapenos).


“I’m like an elder in the community,” laughs Mahmud. “They know me. They all call me ‘uncle’ and my wife ‘aunt’.

After booking a few small festivals, weddings, various catering jobs and private cooking classes, Mahmud has started to branch out over the past year. Earlier this month, he was a food vendor for the first time at Taste of Madison.

At Kerol’s Kitchen, he served 1,600 plates of beef rendang or chicken curry and 1,500 Malay spring rolls, a dish he created with his wife. The spring rolls earned it first place in the Taste of Taste award for Asian cuisine.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “I don’t have regular staff, so some of the Malaysian students I cook for have come to help me serve customers over the weekend.”

Mahmud sells at Boneyard Dog Park and Biergarten on Wednesday nights on Madison’s east side, alongside several other food carts. There, he cooks stir-fried rice and stir-fried noodle dishes to order, as well as his award-winning spring rolls.

“I do everything fresh,” he says. “Nothing frozen. I travel to Milwaukee once a week to get fresh herbs that I can’t buy here.

Malaysian cuisine requires patience

While showing me the dishes he delivered for my lunch, Mahmud explained the origins of Malaysian cuisine and the philosophy behind it. As a country full of immigrants from the surrounding region, Malaysian cuisine has been influenced by the eating habits of Java, China, India, Indonesia and Thailand.

Because each region uses its local varieties of ingredients, the taste of the final products can vary greatly. “The palm sugar that is grown and processed in each region is different,” Mahmud said. “The teas are different; Malaysian tea leaves are much more fragrant. We use spices in different ways.

“Also, Malaysian food requires patience,” he added. “I learned that from my dad, when I watched him cook as a kid. He taught me to sauté slowly, let the ingredients brown well before you put the next thing in the pan. The result is a deep and rich flavor.







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Timun acar is a Malaysian cucumber salad with fresh tomatoes, pineapple, carrots and jalapenos.




Mahmud credits his parents for teaching him the basic principles of cooking in his native culture. Although he had no formal chef training, he worked for years in professional kitchens in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, doing everything from washing dishes to preparing banquets for foreign dignitaries, including including the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Mahmud accompanied his wife to Madison in the early 1990s when she began working on her doctorate in environmental science at UW and he focused on raising their three sons. Soon he was cooking for friends, then friends of friends, and his reputation grew.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” he said, shaking his head, “but I’ve been very blessed. Now things are going well.

A balanced introduction

The dinner that Mahmud cooked for my family was a wonderful introduction to Malaysian cuisine. It included nasi hujan panas (saffron seasoned rice with boiled eggs), daging masak hitam (black beef), prawn curry with tomatoes and green beans, ayam masak merah (chicken with red chillies) and timun acar (cucumber salad with fresh tomatoes, pineapple, carrots and jalapenos).

As noted, we piled a little of each item on our plates and ate them all together, letting the flavors blend and play out. A delicious combination of savory and sweet, the dishes were intricate fusions of ginger, cinnamon, lemongrass, turmeric and herbs that Mahmud grinds by hand. The food was beautifully balanced; the spicy peppers were assertive but never overpowering.

“When I do cooking classes, it’s usually for a group of friends at one of their homes,” Mahmud said. “Sometimes they talk and chat and don’t learn much.

“But I tell them to be careful. This way your husband will love you. It’s cooking from the heart.

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