The Philippines: Known to Have the Worst Food in Asia? (An interview with Filipino-Malaysian Masterchef Malaysia All Stars 2014 Champion)

In June 2015, CNN asked their readers to vote for their favorite culinary destination in an open Facebook poll. The Philippines came second to Taiwan. Malaysia came sixth. This ranking provoked the ire of celebrity Malaysian Chef Redzuawan Ismail, a.k.a. Chef Wan, who asserts that Malaysia deserved a higher placement than sixth. In Chef Wan’s opinion, Malaysia should have been number one, followed by Italy, Thailand, Japan and India.

To his own detriment, Chef Wan didn’t stop there. Like a sore loser, he harped on the topic saying that the Philippines should have been on the most bottom of the list.

“Philippines is known to have the worst food in Asia, ask any chef and they will tell you I am right,” he bashed.

This public comment, while utterly inappropriate, bothered me. I lived in Malaysia briefly many years ago and had acquaintances who tried Filipino food in the Philippines. Their comments, while not as harsh as Chef Wan’s, were not complimentary either. Many lamented they found the food too bland. Could there be some flicker of truth in Chef Wan’s “any chef will tell you I am right” claim then? Is he expressing the Malaysian public’s general perception of Filipino cuisine?

There’s only one way to find out. Since I’m interviewing Filipinos all over the world for My Food Beginnings, I searched high and low for someone in Malaysia who could give us an impartial answer. And to my absolute delight, I found Filipino-Malaysian Arshad Zamir Mohd Azmi or just Arshad Zamir.

Though the Masterchef Malaysia All-Stars 2014 Champion, a celebrity, an actor and TV cook show host, Arshad, to my surprise, immediately accepted my invite for an interview. His own words were, “Wow, I’m honored you found me interesting enough to want to interview me.”

Arshad-MasterChef

Arshad Zamir – Masterchef Malaysia All-Stars 2014 Champion

Arshad was born in Malaysia to Malaysian and Filipino parents. His mother, Ana Marie Sobremonte, is originally from Las Pinas, Manila. Arshad’s would-be-father met Ana Marie when he was stationed in the Philippines for his aviation training. When they got married, she moved to Malaysia, converted to Islam and changed her name to Madiha Maria Abdullah.

At nineteen, Arshad , as a result of incessant persuasion from his brother, auditioned for Season 1 of Masterchef Malaysia in 2010. Although passionate about cooking, he was then an engineering student in a university in Malaysia. It took the combined efforts of his brother and sister to convince their father to allow Arshad to compete at Masterchef.

On Masterchef  Malaysia Season 1, though Arshad was eliminated during the semi-finals, he was a fan favorite. He returned to the university after competing, but shifted from Engineering to Culinary Arts. In 2014, when he was invited to participate in Masterchef All-Stars, Arshad grabbed the opportunity right away and bagged the title. He is now about to finish his degree in Culinary Arts.

I’m so proud of Arshad, not only for all he has accomplished at a very young age of twenty four, but also for not letting the fame get to his head. Lo and behold, he’s got a very interesting story to tell and an honest opinion to raise about Philippine cuisine in Malaysia.

MFB: You were an actor before joining Masterchef. Please tell us about your acting stints.

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Kurus, the Movie, starring Arshad Zamir (Photo coutesy of Edmund Yeo)

AZ: Oh the acting? It was just a brief stint during my high school days. It was summer break here in Malaysia and I was fifteen. I was working part time at a video game store at that time when an ad for an audition for roles in the movie “Kurus”, or Days of the Turquoise Sky, came out. I thought, Why not try out? What’s there to lose? Long story short, I got a part and it wasn’t just any part, I got the part of Ali, the lead role in the movie.  It was just a small independent movie, but it was definitely an experience I will never forget. It was a great experience, but I kind of had the feeling that acting just was not my calling. By the way, I just received a text from the producer. Kurus, the movie, can now be seen on YouTube.

MFB: How did you get started in food?

 AZ:  I was very close to my grandmother. I was a rascal and I remember being very stubborn growing up. I remember I was always the one to get yelled at by my grandmother when she was around as I was always causing trouble. When I was younger, I remember wanting to be in the kitchen and trying to offer as much help as I could but I was often kicked out of the kitchen by my grandmother and my parents. They thought my presence in the kitchen, with sharp objects and the hot stove, would put me in danger. Yet, I didn’t listen and remained in the kitchen. Sometimes I hacked up vegetables and sometimes I just sat there and watched. I still remember the first dish my grandmother taught me. It was an Austrian Chicken Stew. Funny with her being a Filipino, that’s the first dish I learnt to cook from her. She used to live in Australia and her house mate was married to an Austrian. That’s how she adopted that dish. She passed the recipe to me. After that, she also taught me a lot of Filipino dishes like garlic fried rice, beef tapa and also chicken adobo.

MFB:You were only 19 and an Engineering student when you first competed on Masterchef. What made you quit Engineering?

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AZ: I was 19, doing my foundation in engineering when i auditioned for Masterchef. At the time, i was like any other teenager. I couldn’t decide what to do with my life after school, so I chose engineering because I thought it was the safest choice. I knew that my parents would definitely not allow me to pursue Culinary Arts at the time so, yeah. I was on my last semester and my brother told me he saw an ad about Masterchef. I thought, “Nah, I wouldn’t even get past the audition and I wouldn’t enjoy it either as I do not like being in front of the camera too much.” After mulling over it for some time, I decided to go for it. What’s the harm in trying? So, I went for the audition without any clue what I would be going through. Next thing you know, I was in the semi- finals. Top 4 home cook in Malaysia. During the whole season 1 of Masterchef Malaysia, I always felt I wasn’t good enough and had no chance of winning the competition. It was only after I got eliminated that I realized how close I was to winning and thinking how much I improved as a person and a cook. After seeing how far I got in the competition, my parents knew that cooking was my passion and definitely, the path I should pursue. The first thing they did after the show was scout for good schools in Culinary Arts and enrolled me in straight away. I dropped out of engineering indefinitely.

MFB: In an interview with ETC, you said one of the reasons you joined Masterchef was for charity. Can you tell us which charity you supported and why?

AZ: After season 1 of Masterchef, I’ve always wanted redemption. I wanted a comeback because I missed it too much and I wanted to prove to myself that I can do it after a disappointing end to my first try. Sure enough, the producers of the show wanted me back for Masterchef Malaysia All-Stars. Other past contestants who didn’t win previous seasons were also invited. The winner of the show will win RM50,000 ( $12,700) to be donated to a charity of our choice and for every week that we stay on the competition an additional RM500 ($127) will go to our charity. I chose ‘Rumah Teduhan Kasih’ as it was a home for under privileged children. I felt they needed help the most. Of course, my main target was to win RM50, 000 for the home. I remember telling myself to stay strong during the course of the competition. I needed to survive for the sake of the kids of ‘ Rumah Teduhan Kasih’.

Arshad’s Winning Dishes at the Finals of Masterchef Malaysia All-Stars 2014

mushroom soup

Finals Starter: Mushroom Soup

seabass

Finals Main Course: Seabass Gone Wild, served with pasta, asparagus puree, scallop mousse and prawns

pandan

Finals Dessert: pandan mousse, custard and butterscotch served with cake

MFB: How did Masterchef change you as a person and a chef? What have you been busy with since Masterchef?

AZ: Masterchef changed me a lot. I was a very shy and timid boy when I was younger.  The show definitely helped me build up my confidence in myself. It also cemented my belief in my cooking abilities. It improved me a lot as a cook and opened doors for me. After Masterchef, I’ve had two cooking shows, a lot of appearances on TV, and also a lot of cooking demos all over the country. Throughout this year, I’m focusing more on my studies and maybe continue cooking after. If I am privileged to host another cooking show, then maybe I will make more TV appearances.

MFB: Have you ever introduced Filipino food in your cooking career ? Which Filipino dishes have you featured/reinvented?

AZ: Actually the dish that made me who I am today is a Filipino dish. I cooked chicken adobo with garlic rice and some salsa as the dish for my audition during season 1 of Masterchef Malaysia. I also made champorado but instead of using chocolate,  I used durian as it was a durian challenge. Unfortunately, that didn’t go down too well with the judges. I was left devastated with the dish. In Masterchef All-Stars, there was a challenge where we had to create a dish that defines who we are and reinventing it. I always thought that the dish that defines who I am now is the dish that started all of this, which was the Adobo. I reinvented the dish, which brought me here. I made the Adobo in a pressure cooker to make it softer. Instead of garlic rice, I made a risotto flavoured with roasted garlic and served it with a tomato foam to imitate the salsa. That dish won me that challenge and put me in the pecking order to reach the finals.

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Chicken Adobo with risotto flavored with roasted garlic served with a tomato foam

MFB: How would you differentiate Malaysian cuisine from Filipino cuisine?

AZ:  Malaysian cuisine is definitely different from Filipino cuisine. Malaysian food is heavily spiced, very spicy, very heavy with fat because of coconut milk, and also very filling. Filipino food is more humble, very practical food with lots of vinegar to make the food last longer. It relies a lot on salt and garlic, and not much spice in the food. It is very straight forward.

MFB: After a poll on destination for world’s best food by CNN in 2015, Malaysia’s Chef Wan remarked that the Philippines was known to have the worst food in Asia. What are your thoughts on that? Is Chef Wan’s opinion shared by the general Malaysian public? 

MFB: After a poll on destination for world’s best food by CNN in 2015, Malaysia’s Chef Wan remarked that the Philippines was known to have the worst food in Asia. What are your thoughts on that? Is Chef Wan’s opinion shared by the general Malaysian public? 

AZ: This is actually the first time I’ve heard of this. Based on those remarks, I think  it shouldn’t have been said. Of course, everyone is entitled to his own opinion and everyone has a different taste in music, art, movie genres and most of all food. Food is something very general and one person would like chili and another would absolutely hate it. Me, as half Filipino, I would say Filipino food is very good in its own way. However the distinct flavour that it provides might not be acceptable to everyone’s palette.

MFB: Are there establishments showcasing Filipino food in Malaysia? Where does Filipino food stand in the Malaysian food scene? 

AZ: There are a few establishments that showcase Filipino food but not many of them though, not enough in my opinion. I think Malaysians don’t have enough knowledge on Filipino food and they’re not too familiar with it. Most of the people I brought to Filipino restaurants, such as my friends, my ex- girlfriend and others all enjoyed the food. For me, Filipino food does not have enough exposure and it should be introduced slowly to the Malaysian community.

MFB: What do you think are the reasons for the absence or lack of Filipino food establishments in Malaysia?

AZ: Hmmm, I think it’s the lack of exposure. Not a lot of people here in Malaysia know Filipino dishes. I also think that Filipinos are not adventurous enough to dive into the Malaysian market as Malaysians are very stubborn people and are not usually daring enough to try new dishes. Furthermore, most of the Filipino dishes are based around pork and due to the country being a Muslim country; the restaurateurs would have to adjust to fit the Malaysian market.

MFB: What are the chances of Filipino cuisine hitting the mainstream in Malaysia?

AZ: I think that Filipino food has all the potential to do well here. Filipino food has all the aspects that could please the Malaysian market. People just have to find ways to make it a bit more Malaysian by adding a little spice maybe and adapting it to the Malaysian taste.

How to connect with Arshad Zamir:

Twitter: @arshadzamir

Facebook: Arshad Zamir Masterchef Malaysia

Instagram: @arshadzamir

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The Philippines: Known to Have the Worst Food in Asia? (An interview with Filipino-Malaysian Masterchef Malaysia All Stars 2014 Champion)

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