A native of Malaysia, Sham Hanifa has been cooking in Ireland for almost 20 years. In The Cottage Restaurant, co. Leitrim, the talented chef combines Asian flavours with his love of all things Irish in an innovative menu, receiving many awards and accolades along the way.
On Sunday, September 8th, Sham will take part in the Waterford Harvest Festival through a multi-course pop-up lunch at the award-winning Everett’s Restaurant, featuring the very best wholesome Irish flavours with a Malaysian twist. For the occasion, we chatted with him about his food heritage and the flavours and dishes that marked his life.
What is your first memory of taste?
When I grew up, my grandmother and my grandfather used to live with us, they were from Thailand. Around the house there were all the ingredients my grandmother was growing, chilli, guava, mango, lime. There would be all those Thai flavours, like a Thai green curry - not like the Thai green curry you’d get in Ireland - with black pepper, lime leaves, green chilli, it’s a proper Thai dish. I was introduced at a very young age to Malaysian flavour, but my mother’s side is Thai, my father’s side is Indian and my aunt was married to a Chinese man, so I was exposed to so many types of flavours. I could get up in the morning and have Thai noodle broth, then an Indian lunch and Chinese dinner.
What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?
There are two main dishes, my grandmother’s green chicken curry with spices, and my mother’s black pepper and garlic soy beef. My father was a butcher, he’d pick up the meat. We would add just a bit of sugar, black pepper, soy sauce, and garlic, and my mum would just sear it on the pan. The Thai combination of flavours, saltiness, sweetness and spiciness, it was beautiful. We were not rich, but with these basic ingredients, a bit of rice, we’d be happy. That’s what brings me back to my childhood.
What is the dish that could make you cry?
In Malaysia, we have something called the sambal, a chilli-based sauce with shrimp, lime, garlic, and it’s so good. You can find it in every household, it doesn’t matter if you are Thai, Indian, Chinese, everybody loves it.
What is the dish you don’t understand?
I don’t understand why people like long-grain rice! I arrived in this country nineteen years ago and that’s all the rice you could find. It’s so hard to get it flavoured, so hard to cook with it, it’s so bland. My favourite is jasmine rice, it’s nice and fluffy, you can cook it with pandan leaves, coconut milk, ginger. I understand brown rice, it’s healthy, but long-grain no! There is also McDonnell’s curry… I’m sorry but I just don’t get it!
What is the dish you can’t admit you love?
Look, I can’t resist a Chinese takeaway. I will cook for twelve hours in the kitchen, sometimes I don’t feel hungry, but I will drive to town, go to the Chinese and have a takeaway. They have a special dish for me, they know when I’m calling in, I get a spicy beef rendang.
What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?
Rice and noodles defeat me. It doesn’t matter how stuffed I am, if I see a noodle bar, or a rice place, I’ll go and have a small ball. When I go back to Malaysia, the first thing I do when I get off the plane, I go straight away to the noodle bar. In Dublin there is a great Korean place for noodles on Capel Street.
What is the dish you are the most proud of?
One thing I’m proud of is when I get the balance right in my cooking. If I use good Irish ingredients and I manage to add my grandmother’s flavours, that’s what makes me proud the most. For example, there is a monkfish dish that I have, with prawn, ginger, and lemongrass, it reminds me of my childhood, but I raise the value of the ingredients. That’s what I enjoy. If I can highlight the local produce, with a hint of my culture, it’s a success for me, it’s the modern cooking I believe in.
What is the last dish you had?
You won’t believe me… I had noodles this morning! (he laughs) Every morning, I go to my cafe (Synergy Cafe in Carrick-on-Shannon), everybody else will have a fry, scones, but my chef knows me, she makes me a vegetable broth, flat glass noodles and chicken, that’s my breakfast.
Are you not into sweet food?
I’m more of a savoury person, but I do like sweet flavours. In Malaysia our desserts are very sweet, we use a lot of condensed milk. In my kitchen, we try to balance things out, have nice desserts that are not too sweet for the customers.
What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?
When my wife comes to restaurants, she always has the scallops. When I go home, it’s my wife who cooks, and I always enjoy what she makes. I don’t cook at home; you know when you work really hard all day, if I go home and I cook, I don’t enjoy it. When you go home and dinner is ready for you, you can’t beat it. Could be the simplest thing.
Do your children cook for you?
My son cooks a little bit, he tries to be creative. My daughter bakes, she makes cupcakes. They have a very adventurous taste. My daughter is eleven, she could go from beans and eggs to medium-rare venison. They try everything.
Do you think it’s important to open children to different types of flavours?
The most important thing is that they need to be told what is out there. They should be encouraged to try; if they don’t like it so be it. I remember when my son was five or six, we were in a restaurant in Sligo, I was having a big bowl of mussels, he said “yuck I don’t like that daddy”, I asked him if he tried before, he said no. He tried it in front of me and since that day he likes mussels. Children need to learn the basic skills, learn to cook and appreciate the food.
What is your death row dish?
I love any kind of red meat. When I was a kid, we had a lot of Asian food, but my treat from my father was to bring me to the steakhouse. We’d have a lot of oyster mushrooms, t-bone steak and pepper sauce. Since moving to Ireland, my favourite dessert is sticky toffee pudding. Even if I don’t want dessert, if it’s on the menu, I have to have it!
What is the next dish you have in mind?
For the pop-up lunch at Everett's Restaurant for the Waterford Harvest Festival, I’m working on duck dish with Asian flavours, a wasabi and celeriac puree, chilli sambal, and some pickles. It will be a good combination of East meets West.
For more details about Sham’s pop-up lunch at the Waterford Harvest Festival, click here.