Cover Malaysian pastry chef Jennifer Pou Alesi and spouse Michael Alesi are putting Malaysian cuisine on the map in Chicago (Photo: Kim Yeoh)

This Malaysian pastry chef and her husband's obsession over roti and kuih-muih is a boon to the city of Chicago

Ask Jennifer Pou Alesi why Chicago is so interested in Malaysian food and she will cheekily answer, "What is there not to be interested?" Pessimists might put Kedai Tapao's quick popularity and coverage in ABC Chicago and the Chicago Reader down to the allure of 'exoticism' to Westerners, but fans of the pop-up will tell you that they can't get enough of the small outfit's intense flavours and time-tested recipes.

On this last note, Michael Alesi is no stranger to F&B, having worked at a slew of restaurants—Fat Rice, Next Restaurant and Lula Cafe—in Chicago, but was trained in Malaysian cuisine by Jennifer's folks. In fact, both Alesis come from a culinary background, with Jennifer beginning as a home baker before working in various restaurants and cafés, from a French restaurant in Laos to VCR Café in Malaysia.

In order to provide the Windy City with authentic Malaysian flavours, the partners dip into Jennifer's deep well of Malaysian food memories, some of which she shares in the following interview:

How long has it been since you were in Malaysia? What food and drink do you miss the most?

I left Malaysia at the end of February 2020, so it has been slightly over a year. I definitely miss my mom's asam laksa the most, but also things like buying yau char guai from SS2, and the convenience of getting kopi peng and teh O ais limau anywhere!

What is the first dish you plan on scarfing down upon your return and where will you have it?

For whatever reason, whenever my family and I come back from traveling, we go to Restoran Tiong Hokkien Mee in Uptown, PJ. So definitely Hokkien mee and Village Park's nasi lemak ayam goreng.

Related: 10 Famous Malaysian Street Foods Craved Worldwide

Do you have a favourite restaurant in Malaysia for fine dining? How about for more casual experiences?

I don't really go for fine dining, so I guess I don’t have one. For breakfast or brunch, I like going to Restoran O&S at Taman Paramount for their yong tau foo, char kuey teow, minced pork lou shu fan, and kuey teow t'ng, and I do love having family dinners at Yan Wo Seafood Restaurant in Aman Suria.

If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you go to give them a real taste of Malaysia?

I bring them to restaurants that my family and I frequent because personally, that's what I would love to experience if I travel somewhere: how the locals live and eat. But of course I would also bring them to touristy places like the beautiful Petronas Twin Towers. Pasar malam is on the list too, for sure!

If meeting up with old friends for food or drinks, what are some eateries you would pick?

Late night mamak of course! Some maggi goreng, tosai pisang, teh O ais limau. Mmm mmm!

I would also choose a dessert cafe like Aftermeal in Uptown Damansara for Japanese-style shaved ice or Fluffed Café & Dessert Bar in Paramount for after-dinner waffles.

On the drinks front, do you have a favourite bar or café in Malaysia?

I like more casual bars like Locker & Loft at Damansara Kim or Soma Cocktail Bar in TTDI. For coffee, I go to Rekindle in Uptown Damansara or One Half x ilaika in Taman Paramount.

See also: 5 Cafés For Catching Up With Friends After Lockdown

Kedai Tapao aside, where do you go for authentic Malaysian flavours in Chicago?

Because we constantly cook and develop recipes at home, at times when we are not, we usually crave non-Malaysian food. Although I have heard of a couple good ones in Arlington Heights (Chicago suburbs) like Asian Noodle House, which we would love to visit some day. We also appreciate our Malaysian customers-turned-friends who share their home cooking with us!

Kedai Tapao started by selling one savoury dish per week and one dessert every weekend. Is this still your model or has it changed?

Yes, that is still our main model—one savoury and one sweet for preorders—but since operating as a pop-up at Superkhana International every Monday, we have begun selling small Malaysian dishes, like nasi lemak bungkus, karipap and a variety of roti like roti canai, roti telur, roti tisu and roti Milo, together with kopi and herbal tea.

Because Malaysian food is so varied, how do you choose which dishes to make?

We choose dishes that I grew up eating in Malaysia, from home-cooked meals to restaurants eats. Whenever Michael visits Malaysia, my parents teach him more about Malaysian cooking and are eager to show him all of the amazing food and culture that Malaysia has to offer. Michael's prior cooking experience and long-time interest in Asian ingredients have helped to give him a leg up.

We also make a conscious effort to include dishes representing Malaysia's 'rojak' culture to showcase the country's plurality.

Which of your dishes and desserts are the most popular thus far?

The Kam Heong chicken and Pandan Swiss Roll!