5 Questions for Mohan Ismail
Mohan Ismail is the executive chef at Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen, a restaurant that serves Southeast-Asian inspired dishes in Los Angeles. The former lingerie designer worked at the New York restaurants Spice Market, Blue Hill and Tabla before opening Rock Sugar with David Overton in 2008. Ismail's upbringing in Singapore led to a menu at Rock Sugar with a distinct mixed Asian flare, as evidenced by dishes such as Dungeness crab with cellophane noodles, Malaysian nyonya seafood laksa and the Indonesian ginger fried rice.
What’s coming up next on your menu? I am bringing back a dish that was my favorite when I was growing up in Singapore: Indonesian short rib rendang. It’s something my mum would only make on special occasions. Since I was never the patient type and thought that every day should be a festival, I managed to convince her to make it more often. Of course, I would volunteer to help -- maybe that’s how I seem to remember so many of her recipes even to this day. My recipe is really close to what I had growing up with the exception of the cut of meat. Since we were really poor back then, we could only use the cheapest cut of beef, but somehow it still tasted amazing. Funny, when I look back at my childhood in Singapore, I really did spend a lot of time going to the local wet market and in our kitchen with mum.
Latest ingredient obsession? Coconut water. This is something we used to drink right out of the shell. On my yearly trips home to Singapore, it’s still the only thing I drink. It’s delicious. I’m using it as a base to a sauce for a fish dish because it has just the right amount of sweetness and is a perfect balance to seafood.
What restaurant do you find yourself going to again and again? My favorite in L.A. is Spicy Thai BBQ right on Santa Monica and Normandie. I’ve been going there for years. It’s a tiny place with only a few tables. There is the sweetest lady named Kay that runs the dining room, and her aunt cooks in the back. Whenever I have a friend coming in from out of town, I take them there. My favorite dishes are their BBQ ribs, northern Thai curry noodles, spicy meat cakes, pork curry and Thai iced tea. That is what I always order -- even when I’m alone. This is not a place to observe portion control!
The one piece of kitchen equipment you can’t live without, other than your knives? My Krups coffee grinder. We grind all our own spices at Rock Sugar. We burn through so many coffee grinders each month that I should be a spokesperson for Krups! I have tested so many grinders in the past, and this, by far, produces the best product.
What’s your favorite breakfast? Well its Peet’s coffee before the gym, then it's oatmeal when I get home, followed by toast with Mariage Frères jam. I’m obsessed with vegetable juicing now. So I like to wash down breakfast with a kale, carrot, beet, apple, celery, cucumber juice. That’s my usual breakfast before heading into the restaurant. When I am back in Singapore, breakfast means a visit to a hawker center to have either dosai (Indian crepe) or nasi lemak (Indonesian coconut rice with fried anchovies) followed by a warm silken tofu dessert. My breakfast repertoire/combinations are endless when I’m back home in Singapore.
-- Jenn Harris
Photo: Chef Mohan Ismail. Credit: Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen