“J,” a pastry chef who grew up in Kuala Lumpur, says that her husband “M,” a savory chef who grew up in Kane County, is making problems for other couples with his food.
In July when the newlyweds launched Kedai Tapao, a biweekly pop-up, many of their majority Malaysian customers assumed that she was doing most of the cooking. The week after they’d filled 50 orders for nasi lemak bungkus she corrected a compliment from a customer: “I was like, ‘No, no, no,’” she says. “My husband has been cooking these things. She was like ‘What? He makes my boyfriend seem not very appealing because he doesn’t know how to cook Malaysian food.’”
Nasi lemak, coconut-infused rice with anchovies, peanuts, sambal, and half of a hard-boiled egg, is the Malaysian national dish. J asked her cousin, a former University of Wisconsin student, to tell her friends they’d be offering the dish wrapped in a banana leaf bungkus, or “packet.” “I said, ‘I’m new in this city, I don’t really know any Malaysians. Can you spread the word to your friends? Little did I know she has tons of friends and pow-pow-pow! My phone was ringing non-stop.”
For various reasons, we aren’t using the couple’s full names. They got together in 2017 when he was working at the Bakery at Fat Rice and she’d arrived for a stage. They hit it off, and embarked on a romantic exchange program of sorts; for J, a series of intermittent stints at spots such as Sepia and Lula; and for M, trips to Malaysia whenever he could take off from the line at Next or Lula.
J comes from a food-obsessed family. Her father moved to Kuala Lumpur as a young man and found work selling Hainanese chicken rice at a kopitiam, one of the region’s ubiquitous coffee shops. He wooed her mother with extra chicken wings—her favorite part—whenever she came around.
“But then my mom was like ‘If you really want to get married, I don’t want you to kill chickens every day. You need a new job.” Nevertheless, the family remains obsessed with food, and whenever M comes to town they shuttle him around to the kind of places tourists don’t go. “Whenever I go I gain probably 20 pounds,” he says. M became obsessed with Malaysian cuisine’s vast regional differences, but also its synergy of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and Eurasian flavors.
He completed a three-day stage at Kuala Lumpur’s lauded fine-dining Dewakan, but it’s cooking with J’s mom and aunts that’s teaching him the most. “Her mom notoriously talks down her cooking,” says M. She says “‘Oh, it’s just so simple.’ But it’s not simple, or there’s some underlying beauty to what she’s doing. She’s just like, ‘I cook simply. I’m a mom. I’m not a chef.’ And I’m like ‘I would rather eat your food than go out to some fancy restaurant.’”
Gradually M and J began to talk of opening their own spot in Chicago, which, apart from the terrific Serai, and a few other spots, has long suffered from a scarcity of Malaysian food. “We’ve always wanted to open up a restaurant that would be representative of J’s heritage,” says M. “I always thought of opening a restaurant where I would just really pay homage and try not to screw anything up in terms of the flavors and representation. J would be the pastry side of that—”
“—and also the food critic,” says J, who has a talent for completing M’s thoughts. In February, they married in Kuala Lumpur, and returned in March, long enough for M to put in four shifts at Lula before he was furloughed.
- Mike Sula
- Onde-onde, glutinous rice balls rolled in salted coconut and loaded with an explosion of liquid palm sugar
But the pandemic accelerated their plans. They launched unofficially in July as a way to exercise their chops and improve upon an eventual brick-and-mortar menu (but also to benefit causes like My Block, My Hood, My City, and Heartland Alliance’s National Immigration Justice Center). They offered curry puffs for delivery or pickup on their personal Instagram accounts, but it was the resounding success of the nasi lemak bungkus two weeks later that birthed Kedai Tapao (meaning “shop” in Malay, and “takeaway” in Mandarin, respectively).
“That was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done,” says M. “Because if I didn’t do nasi lemak correctly—If I didn’t remind them . . . oh man, oh man . . . ”
“People went bonkers,” says J.
The plan is to offer a new regionally, culturally, or historically significant menu every other week. Week three was a box by J, showcasing the diversity of flavors and textures in Malaysian sweets: a creamy pandan Swiss roll; kek lapis, a cardamom, clove, and cinnamon-spiced, grilled, “thousand layer cake;” and kuih angku, a vivid orange, steamed, tortoiseshell-shaped mung bean paste-stuffed snack. A variation of this selection was replicated a few weeks later in a collaboration with Pink Salt’s Room Service pop-up series.
Next came roti canai, the coiled, crispy-chewy, paper-thin flatbread ubiquitous at Indian-Muslim mamak food stalls, served with dal and chicken curry. The particular difficulties of nailing this one were resolved by distributing the roti frozen with baking instructions along with an Instagram video demonstrating the particular “clap” a street vendor performs to aerate the layers and maximize textural variety.
On Sunday they put out 35 bowls of mee rebus jawa, a noodle dish native to Java, featuring a spicy sweet-potato-and-prawn gravy, with bean sprouts, fried tofu, prawn fritters, and a hard-boiled egg. And J made 152 onde-onde, glutinous rice balls rolled in salted coconut and loaded with an explosion of liquid palm sugar.
M is back at work, in two different restaurant kitchens, but the couple still plan to maintain a consistent biweekly menu. The next one drops on Instagram, @kedai_tapao, on Tuesday, September 15. When it makes sense they’d like to graduate to brick-and-mortar pop-ups.
“This is just fun for me,” says M. “This is what I’d be doing anyway, except I get to share it with people now."
“I just never thought that we’d get to this stage so fast,” says J. “It makes me proud to be showcasing Malaysian food.” v