A large bowl of egg fried rice.
Travel & Culture

Pandemic Cooking with Michelle Gunaselan

“I try to make smaller portions now. I used to make large portions to keep and realized I was wasting food,” Michelle Gunaselan tells me how she has changed the way she cooks these days. “Cooking for one is a tedious affair so now I’ve taken to sending my food to friends or to the security guards in my building.” 

I first met Gunaselan in a gritty, hidden bar in Paris years ago, surrounded by chain-smoking hipsters and curiosities from Francophone Africa. Nursing our glasses of Planter’s Punch or wine, I can’t remember, we waxed lyrical about good fooda topic most Malaysians and Singaporeans will bond over—and the countries we had lived in.

Today the globetrotting Malaysian aid worker is currently on a break from work, and back in Malaysia, living in Kuala Lumpur (KL).

Malaysia is seeing a surge in Covid-19 infections and is in the midst of a third round of movement restrictions. While she is grateful that most of her family has been vaccinated, Gunaselan hasn’t seen her mom in weeks.

Like many of us, pandemic anxiety is starting to take its toll on Gunaselan and her family—all of them, in her words, very social creatures. 

“As I have been abroad for the last seven years, it’s beginning to dawn on me how much I miss my family, and how much I need them around me. When I’m home, we always have get-togethers, so it’s been challenging not seeing them.”

For someone who once harbored dreams of becoming a war photographer, she eventually found her calling working with an international non-governmental organization in developing countries and conflict zones.

I can only imagine it is not a job for the faint of heart. It takes her far from home and into the depths of heartwrenching situations. The 38-year-old admits cooking is the one thing that gives her peace of mind.

“I cook all the time! I’ve been in lockdown both in Syria where I was based and now here, in a flat in downtown KL so cooking has become, as it always has been for me, a saving grace. Something to take my mind off the numerous things I am thinking about, and to quell my anxiety.”

With her trademark glasses, tattoos and bright lips, Gunaselan is an unabashed straight-talker with a good head on her shoulders, infectious in her passion for socio-political issues and tasty food. 

When we are not obsessing over wrongful convictions highlighted in Netflix documentaries, she’s into making complex salads of late. “Don’t ask me why, but I’m feeling very accomplished assembling these salads!”

Given her recent enthusiasm for salads, I was surprised when she chose to share her recipe for egg fried rice. “I decided that I should master one of these easy staple dishes like fried rice or fried noodles so I’ve been making egg fried rice a lot and I think I’ve mastered it!”

Gunaselan exclaims, “I’ve been pleased to send it over to friends. My biggest compliment so far is that my friend’s daughter loves it! I’ve also had a number of friends ask me for my recipe. The best part about egg fried rice is it has no exotic ingredients so even if technique does matter to some extent, it’s still super easy to make.”

In a way, I suppose wherever we find ourselves, it is possible to find home in a comforting bowl of fried rice, a dish with the simplest flavors that is a familiar constant in a world fraught with uncertainty.

For those who are hesitating to venture into the kitchen, Gunaselan’s advice is: “Start small, and perhaps look into the kinds of things you’d love to eat or dishes simple enough to replicate. Food is always a feeling, and more often than not, it’s a feeling of belonging.”

Long before the pandemic happened, we had talked about hanging out together on her home turf in KL sometime. Hopefully one day we will, when borders open and before she sets off on another mission.

“Food is always a feeling, and more often than not, it's a feeling of belonging.”

EGG FRIED RICE (SERVES 4)

INGREDIENTS:
3 cups cooked cold long-grain white rice (preferably Basmati) 
5 stalks spring onion (the more the better frankly!)
3 eggs 
3 tablespoons soy sauce 
1 tablespoon sesame oil 
salt and white pepper to taste 
oil for frying
  1. Slice spring onion thinly crosswise. Separate white and green parts.
  2. Crack eggs into a bowl and whisk lightly.
  3. Set flame on medium heat.
  4. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok (or frying pan).
  5. When oil is hot, fry white parts of the spring onion for a minute until fragrant.
  6. Add rice and stir well, coating it with spring onion and oil, then move rice to one side of the wok.
  7. Add oil and lightly-beaten eggs.
  8. As eggs slowly heat up, fold rice into eggs.
  9. Adjust flame to high heat and continue mixing.
  10.  Once rice is coated with eggs, add soy sauce and mix.
  11.  Add green parts of the spring onion and mix again.
  12.  Add sesame oil, salt and white pepper to taste, and mix well for the last time.
  13.  Serve hot on its own or with your favorite sambal!