For Panir, cooking starts from the heart
KUALA LUMPUR, April 27 — He cooks, the customer waits. It’s the consistently good, fresh and hot food at Panir Selvam’s stall in Bangsar that has been the draw all these years. His cooking skills got kick-started at eight, when he had to look after his mum who was paralysed. “She taught me how to cook,” said Panir.
The second in a family of five, he alternated household duties with his eldest sister who went to morning school, while he went to afternoon school.
His mother died when he was 13. Panir continued his education till Form Three when he was “kicked out” after failing his Maths paper. “They were very strict in those days.” He went to two other schools before deciding to go out and work at age 19, at Snacks & Creameries, which was then by the side of the Jayapuri Hotel (now PJ Hilton). It was a local version of A&W.
“Datuk Soh Chin Aun — the famous national footballer — was the restaurant manager then. I remembered the first time I made a hot dog and squeezed the sausage till it was dry. I didn’t know the guy who ordered it was the GM of MCIS. He complained and I had to throw it away,” he said, laughing.
He worked there for a year, then he was offered a job at Jayapuri Hotel by the head of MCIS, which owned the hotel, Datuk N. Kularajah. He was the general cook for the coffeehouse and stayed there for 10 years.
Retrenched after the hotel became the PJ Hilton, Panir became chef de partie at Yazmin Restaurant, where he cooked Indian, Malay and Western food. After three years, he decided to go out on his own and started his street stall near the New Straits Times in Bangsar. “Everything I know is self-taught. I am very proud of myself and so happy to have good friends to support me.”
A lot of his friends are journalists, and even after they have moved elsewhere or settled in another country, they still come back to eat his food. At his Deepavali open house every year, he cooks a feast for all these friends and their families. Some of his guests find it hard to leave as dish after dish of scrumptious food appear on the table.
There’s a rhythm to the daily cooking at his stall. “I cook two types of rice — parboiled and white rice. I do three styles of chicken, one of mutton, and three styles of fish. From Monday to Friday there will be three vegetables, but on Friday it is five.” Friday is also special because of his chicken and mutton bryani rice, mutton varuvel and payasam.
“I do one signature dish every day, whether it’s chilli chicken, pepper chicken, Thai green curry chicken or chicken peratal, or any fish dish. My regular customers know that the pot on my right side is the signature dish.”
He works according to his mood, but he puts his heart in it, and “every day I am very happy”. His wife Kalavathy helps him at the stall. “She’s also a good cook but she only cooks at home.” His two children used to help out too, but now the son P. Meethulan, 25, is doing his final year law in Wales. His younger daughter P. Narmatha is a corporate communications officer in a bank. He is justifiably proud of them. His daughter has bought the parents air tickets to go to Wales for Meethulan’s graduation in July.
Panir himself has also found fame — he was chosen to be a guest chef and judge recently in a soon-to-be-aired episode of “Masterchef Malaysia”. “I demonstrated how to make poori and potato masala, and those competing had to do it after that.” He has also appeared in cooking programmes such as “Kuali” on TV3, and “Café” and “Kopi-O Nasi Lemak”, both on ntv7. He has also cooked in Deepavali specials for TV3 and RTM.
“Cooking is an art. It starts from the heart,” said the intrepid and big-hearted chef.
* CM Panir Selvam and Kalavathy at Lot 9, 2nd floor, Mutiara building, Jalan Liku, Bangsar, near the New Straits Times, Tel: 016-207-2873, 016-207-2873. It’s open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am till 4pm.
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