A Rohingya cook’s labour of Ramadhan love

Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

SELAYANG — June 3, 2019: A huge stainless steel pot was sitting on top of a lit stove in a narrow kitchen and in it was a pasty white boiling water. Grains of rice bumped up and down as the water boiled.

Manning the pot were two middle-aged man. One was slowly stirring the pot with a large wooden spatula while the other was looking at it intently.

The stirrer stopped and scooped up some rice when the other man asked him. The latter looked closely at the rice to check on it.

“Okay. It’s ready,” murmured Isahak Soltan with a smile as he dabbed his fingers onto the scooped rice.

He and the stirrer then started sifting the rice with two colanders before putting it into a plastic basin.

Isahak, who was the head cook of the Rohingya refugee centre’s Ramadhan food aid programme, then drained out all the water in the pot before he and his helper loaded the rice back into the pot.

He then added turmeric condiment onto the rice and poured fried shallots, carrot chunks, melted ghee, peas, cooking oil, cashews and evaporated creamers on top of the rice which formed a beautiful kaleidoscope of brown, yellow, orange and green.

Before firing up the stove, Isahak carefully covered the rice with several sheets of brown paper. The reason? He did not want the steam to evaporate into the air.

“The Biryani will be even more delicious that way. The pot’s lid isn’t enough to prevent the steam from escaping,” he explained with gusto.

Like many of his displaced kin, Isahak, 47 had no choice but to leave his village in 1995 following the systematic prosecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar.

Since he came to Malaysia 24 years ago, he had been honing his cooking skills by working at several eateries where he even learned how to make cakoi and roti canai.

“I always enjoyed cooking ever since I was a little boy. I used to help my mom cooking and when I came here, I made it my main priority to learn Malaysian dishes,” said Isahak after placing a steel lid on top of the pot.

His forte however, lies in cooking up fluffy Briyani rice and chicken curry. Isahak’s Ramadhan stint with the refugee centre -that also doubled as a school for Rohingya children- started in 2016.

“I will take a month-long of unpaid leave from my work to cook for my friends and I have been cooking here since day one of the fasting month.

“I am a bit tired but since it’s the holy month I won’t complain,” said Isahak as he sprinkled his homemade masala salt into a pot of simmering chicken curry.

The food handout for the needy -particularly for the Rohingya community here- and the breaking-of-the-fast meal at the centre have always been a mainstay of the outfit’s community service initiative.

The centre donates free foods almost everyday to the underprivileged in Selayang and Gombak during the Ramadhan month.

However, co-founders of the centre, Rafik Shah Mohd Ismail and Badariah Abdul Hamid said the financing of the initiative for this year, was rather difficult.

“Last year, Malaysians donated RM43,000 to us. This year, we only manage to collect RM10,000 from them. Thankfully, the UK-based NGO (non-governmental ogranisation), Humanity Without Borders, donated RM30,000 to us,” said Badariah.

The center is a purely crowd-funded initiative managed by the Selayang-based NGO, Human Aid Selangor. Those interested to contribute to their cause may contact Badariah at 019-3563836.



About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at