Remembering Carol: The Julia Child and Master Chef of Malaysia

Carol Selva Rajah was a Malaysian cooking personality with numerous cookbooks to her name. (Carol Selva Rajah and family pic)

For many young Malaysians, the name Carol Selva Rajah does not ring a bell. But for the older generation, her name is associated with a wide range of cookbooks and a popular cooking programme on national television.

Carol died on June 20, after a fall in her Sydney home. Sadly, her passing went unnoticed by most Malaysians. She was 81.

Throughout her life, her expertise in the culinary arts was greatly respected, not only in Malaysia but also overseas.

She was the first Asian woman to receive an invitation to cook at the elite James Beard Foundation in New York City and in 2006, she was named one of the Great Women Chefs of Australia.

Carol was once invited to cook and serve onboard the famous cruise liner, Queen Elizabeth II. (Carol Selva Rajah and family pic)

On the local scene, she authored 18 cookbooks and was the host of Cita Rasa, a programme on RTM, which was broadcast in Malaysia, Singapore and India.

Her passion for cooking can be attributed to the influence of the Cantonese amah (nanny) who took care of her brother and her when they were young.

FMT met with Dr Abel Arumugam, Carol’s younger brother, to learn more about her childhood and how her love for the kitchen began.

“My sister was a very, very impressive lady,” said Abel. “She pushed for everything and she got most of the things she wanted.”

The family lived in Klang. Their father was the principal of the Anglo Chinese School and their mother, the Methodist Girls’ School.

Carol and Abel with their father in this photograph taken during their childhood. (Carol Selva Rajah and family pic)

A Chinese amah named Kim was hired to care for Carol and Abel, and it was thanks to Kim that Carol acquired a taste for cooking.

“The Chinese influence is very strong in the family. My amah was a very nice lady. She used to tell us a lot of stories and she taught us a lot of things … This amah was a great influence in our lives.”

Carol would prove to be a good student. She studied English literature and education at Universiti Malaya.

She was a woman of many talents, a polyglot, said Abel, with a love for music. “She was a woman of substance.”

In her forties, Carol moved to Australia, where she was a teacher, as she believed her children would benefit from an Australian education.

Abel said his sister was a strong, talented person who cared deeply for her loved ones.

As she became a mother of three, she began to spend more time in the kitchen, cooking up delicious meals for her family. Throughout her cooking career, she would learn to whip up dishes from a variety of cuisines, including Chinese, Indian, Western and Sri Lankan.

Her growing culinary skills led her to host Cita Rasa on RTM, which ran for about 20 episodes.

Those who have recently used a microwave oven to cook a meal can thank Carol for that. Her book, The Asian Microwave Cookbook popularised the then-new kitchen appliance in Malaysian households.

Abel remembers Carol as a strong, no-nonsense woman who could be very blunt about what she thought about others.

At the same time, she always looked after those she cared about.

One of the many books written by Carol beside a photograph of her and Abel.

He said she taught him a lot when they were young children, and this did not change even when they were well into adulthood.

“When my wife died, my sister came back to Malaysia and lived with me for three months and taught me how to cook. Because she taught me how to cook, I have no qualms about going into the kitchen and cooking. I am not scared of the kitchen anymore,” laughed Abel.

For Abel, Carol’s recipes were meant not only for Malaysians to try out but also for people outside Malaysia. “They are recipes for Malaysians and everybody else.”

This sentiment is shared by Jeyanti Joan Anthony, a long-time admirer of Carol’s work.

According to Jeyanti, Carol’s recipes are easy to follow but, more importantly, the ingredients used in the dishes are readily available in most Malaysian households.

Jeyanti happened to bump into Carol during a shopping trip in Mid Valley Megamall. (Jeyanti Joan Anthony pic)

“If you want to cook anything that’s Western or foreign, you have to look for ingredients that are not always easy to find here. Carol goes for things that you can find here.

“Carol was unique in how she presented her dishes and, in her methods … Her recipes were easy to cook and they were one of a kind,” said Jeyanti.

She showed FMT a collection of recipe books passed down to her by her mother, and among their pages are numerous recipes by Carol.

“It’s nice to have a fellow Malaysian, even though she had migrated, maintain that Asian style of cooking,” she said. “That was something unique.”

Jeyanti with one of her many cookbooks written by Carol.

So, it was an unexpected pleasure for Jeyanti to bump into Carol not too long ago. She was with her husband shopping in Mid Valley Megamall when she happened to meet Carol, who was pleasantly surprised that somebody recognised her.

Jeyanti lamented that many young Malaysians are unaware of Carol’s work and are more likely to turn to Google and YouTube rather than cookbooks nowadays.

“I admire that even up to a very ripe old age, she still had that energy to keep on cooking. Her passion is what inspires a lot of fans. For all I know, she may be cooking a storm up in heaven as well. Right to the end, she was always about cooking.”