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Meals of celebration: Ange Branca creates Malaysian cuisine from family memories

May 4, 2018

At one time in her life, Ange Branca was – and could’ve remained – a powerful and successful international business consultant. But the food and memories of her motherland Malaysia pulled her in a completely different direction, and she worked to become a chef and presenter of true, authentic Malaysian food. Branca recently joined Francis Lam live on stage at our Splendid Table Live event at WHYY in Philadelphia, where their interview began with a quick bite to eat from the kitchen of Branca’s Philadelphia restaurant Saté Kampar.

Ange Branca: Let me tell you what is this that we are all tasting. This is called achar. It's a Malaysian-style pickle and it's something dear to me. I will tell you a story about this in a moment. But first, do you like the taste? It is carrots and cucumbers pickled in a traditional Chinese method with some sambal tossed in it. It’s a Nyonya dish. Nyonya is a cross-cultural clan as a result of an intermarriage between the Chinese and the Malays. This kind of stuff only exists in Malaysia and it’s been taught from the 13th century, so a long time ago; it’s not something new. We have a lot of cross-cultural intermarriage clans in Malaysia. That's why, in Malaysian cuisine, when you taste it you always get these really complex flavors of all these different cultures: the Chinese, the Indians and the Malays. These were the people who are part of the Marco Polo spice trade, the people who sailed from China to India to trade spice in that region. A lot of the cuisine in Malaysia since the 13th century and the 14th century came about from this era of spice trading. That’s why the flavors and techniques that we use are so complex.

But the funny story about this is, in my family my aunt – whom I call guma in Cantonese – she was the best achar maker in the family. Every time we go back to guma’s house our one request is that she make achar for all of us to eat. So, when I opened a restaurant I wanted to serve achar. In fact on my menu it’s actually called Guma’s Achar because it's her recipe. I was here in the U.S. at that time and I'd call my guma. I’d say, “Can you please give me a recipe?” She says, “Yeah, sure I'll give it to you.” She says to use one catty of carrots.

Francis Lam: Catty is a unit of measurement.

AB: Yes. It’s very old. She said, "One catty of carrots, four catty of cucumber, and one bottle of vinegar." I ask, “Guma, how big is that bottle?” She says, “You know. That corner store and that guy that sells vinegar. You know where to get it from. [laughs]” And here is the funniest thing. She says to go to the spice man and get a packet of rempah and some chiles. I’m like, “Okay, how big is that packet of rempah?” She says, “You know. It’s that same spice guy I always go to. Just ask him for a packet.  And here she is assuming that the same spice man would always be there blending the same rempah for her entire life using the same sized packet forever. And she's expecting that I should understand what that packet size, right? Then she say, “Ten cents of turmeric.”

FL: [laughs] As a cookbook editor in my other life, this is giving me the sweats.

AB: It does! I told my guma that I’m opening a restaurant and that I think I need some metric measurements. I asked her, “Ten cents: Is it before or after inflation?"

Francis Lam and Ange Branca share stories, food and some laughs at The Splendid Table live event at WHYY in Philadelphia (March 7, 2018). Photo: Laurie Beck Peterson

FL: Before you were a restaurateur and a chef, you were an international business consultant. Hence you knew to ask her about the inflation on the 10 cents. You spent many years in this corporate life. You didn't intend on being a restaurateur, you didn't intend on being a chef. How’d you learn to cook?

AB:  I learned to cook in my grandma's kitchen and in my mom's kitchen.

FL: In Malaysia?

AB: In Malaysia. Specifically, my grandma, who lived in an era where, in her mind, the most important thing for her as her grandmother duty was to make sure that every woman can cook and cook very well because that was the only way that you can find a husband. That was the era that she grew up in. As soon as I could walk – or maybe crawl – I was already in the kitchen. The day usually starts with making some sauces and sambals. So, peeling shallots – I hate that; it was my first job.

It was amazing spending time with my grandma in the kitchen because not only did she teach me the ingredients, the flavors, and a combination of all the different techniques – the Chinese, the Malays, the Indian techniques – she had a whole different concept of how to plan a menu for every night. It's funny, every morning when my brother and I would wake up the first thing my grandmother asked us to do is stick your tongue out. We’d ask, “What are you looking at, grandma?” She say, “I need to see what you're going to eat for dinner tonight.”

FL: What does that mean?

AB: My grandma's idea of food is medicine, and the thing that you should be eating every day should be what your health and body needs. And for her to understand that was to look at the condition of our tongue. She would look at our eyes. She would question us: How do you feel? Do you feel hot? Are you cold? It was part of every day, my grandma constantly teaching me different body conditions and how food relates to that, the ying and yang of every single ingredient. Not only did I learn the flavors, I had to learn the ying and yang of every ingredient. And it stuck with me.

As as I get older and, of course, when I got to the age when I had to take care of my grandmother and my mom, I would ask them to stick out their tongues so I can understand what soup I should be making for them. That was how I learned. But it was a very different culinary education.

FL: There's a sense that your food and your well-being are intertwined. You left home; you left Malaysia. You were in business consulting internationally. You went to school in Scotland and then you worked all around the world. You came to Philadelphia and you had this high-powered corporate career. I'm sure that if your family is anything like my family that was the sort of future that they want for their child.

AB: Oh, yeah.

FL: Why did you open the restaurant?

AB: It drove my family nuts. Maybe I did it to drive my dad nuts? [laughs]

I really missed where I came from. I missed what I grew up with. It's something that, being halfway around a world with my family not here with me, makes me want that more. Every single year, I want it more. And after a while it dawned on me. Actually, there were a few things that happened. I used to go back to Malaysia often and I would always seek out the food and the memories that I remembered as a kid. And every year when I went back, I found it harder and harder to find that food. It’s harder and harder to find those simple memories that I had. And here, of course, it was just not available.

The combination of those two things made me decide that I was going to give myself time to go to create a restaurant based on my memories. It's not just about serving food but preserving the culture and the environment of how my particular cuisine would be enjoyed – in the way that I know it. I wanted to do that.

FL: To create your own little world where it makes sense to stick out your tongue and decide what you wanted to cook.

AB: Exactly, but it was more than that. There were a lot of memories. Like saté. My restaurant is Saté Kampar. The feature is saté, meat on skewers. Saté for me is special because it's a celebration meal my brother and I remember as little kids. This is before Malaysia was Westernized. If you think back to the era of the 1960 and the 1970s, there wasn’t even a McDonalds in Malaysia at that time. We didn't have a lot of access to Western influence. Saté was barbecue meat on skewers; that was the best thing that you would get and it was really good. If my brother and I did really well in school, our parents would ask us, “What do you want as a reward?” It would be sate. And it would be a lot of satés. My mom and dad would take me and my brother out to these side street stalls where we could indulge in saté. My brother and I would have a competition of how sticks of saté we can gobble down that night.

FL: Joey Chestnut style!

AB: Seriously! We would be goggling down saté so fast and piling up the sticks next to us. At the end of the meal we would count the sticks to make sure that we didn’t lose any sticks that we ate. In Malaysia back in those days, the satés were tiny pieces. The ones that I serve in the restaurant, by the way, are two times the size of what we usually get in Malaysia. It’s still small, but it's two times the size what we were getting back then. There were tiny little steaks. They were very well marinated meat and the peanut sauce is just delicious. My brother usually beat me. I think his top would be 60 sticks and I would be at 50. But you know, that was our celebration meal.

What really made me decided on saté is when I first came to the U.S., saté was more of an appetizer. For me, it’s not an appetizer, it’s the dinner. It’s so different here. By the time I opened Saté Kampar, I had lived in the U.S. for about 15 years. So, I understood that when food gets translated outside of the native country it can change. Because it's easy to create or remake a recipe – actually it’s not so easy because ingredients are very difficult to source here – but it’s very difficult to serve cuisine as a way of translating the culture of enjoying it and to translate the whole ambience with it. I opened Saté Kampar to attempt to do that.

FL: It’s one thing to make a recipe but another thing to make a world around that recipe where that dish makes sense in the same way. Let me ask one question because most every other Malaysian restaurant I can think of serves all the greatest hits of Malaysian cooking from every region plus pad Thai and probably some sushi too.

AB: Pad Thai on a Malaysian menu bugs me so much. Don’t even get me started! Why would you go to a Malaysian restaurant and order pad Thai?

FL: It’s like going to Puerto Rico and asking, “Where the tacos?” Here's the question: Why did you feel able to open something that people would think of as “a Malaysian restaurant” and not feel like you weren’t going to have to fall into that trap of serving pad Thai?

AB: Number one, I'm in Philadelphia. It's amazing to be able to open a restaurant with so much intent and Philadelphians accept it – Philadelphians love it. The other thing is the fact that when most people open an Malaysian restaurant, the idea for that existence is survival. That was the one thing that they know how to do and had to do to survive. So, they are going to serve everything hoping somebody will pick something. And if you don't like something, they’ll make your burger. It's that survival mentality for a lot of restaurant owners. I came from a different angle. I had a different privilege to be able to open a restaurant with intent, not defined by what you want to eat but defined by it what I want to tell you. I think it's a big difference. And I think it's not just Malaysian restaurants; Asian restaurants, in general, in the past have opened because of survival. Hopefully, this second generation or third generation will have a chance to open a restaurant where they intend to showcase an experience.

FL: It’s an opportunity for people to tell their own story. Thank you so much, Ange.

AB: Thank you.