Monday, 7 March 2016
Mothers' Day falls on the second Sunday of May in Singapore, so it isn't quite time for me to be sending Mum cheesy messages or presents– but all the same, it's hard not to miss the feisty woman when everyone around me is off spending time with their mothers. I've been living in London for more than 6 years, and I like to think I've become all independent and "a big girl" now – yet the bouts of homesickness still hits sometimes in little unexplainable waves.
My lovely publicists at Penguin had just given me a prod earlier in the week to remind my readers that Chicken And Rice is now up on Amazon for pre-orders (OH MY GOD), and while procrastinating on this blog post, I gave Mum a quick buzz on Skype. I thought it would be fun to share a little kitchen Q&A that will, hopefully, get us all excited about the book at the same time. Mum was why I started this blog in the first place. This humble old page grew out of a little collection of my kitchen adventures, written to prove to her I wasn't starving away. Thinking back, some of the food I made then was horrific; but I was curious, stubborn and hungry enough to continue. It's funny how that has evolved into my own cookbook.
The book is littered with tips I've gathered from years of Skype calling and annoying her in the kitchen; so it's a perfect time to give you all a little glimpse into the Mummy behind Mummy I can cook.
Translated from Mandarin and removed of Hokkien curses:
When and how did you first start cooking?
I started cooking when I was 10. It was a big family and we were expected to help around the house and the farm. Your Ah Ma (grandmother) was often busy, I was often greedy/hungry– so I naturally started cooking to feed myself. No one really taught me. I just started watching and helping her prepare the vegetables. I noticed what ingredients tasted good together and would make a mental note to use that in my next meal. It's also very much just making do with what I could find. The nearest shop was a 20 minute cycle away and we'd only go there for essential pantry top-ups. If there was nothing in the fridge, I would go pick some vegetables from our farm or nick* tapioca and papayas from around the kampung (village). *Note to readers: I think the modern cool term for this is 'forage'.
Garlic, shallots, ginger are must-haves. I always have full baskets of them.
Dried shrimps and dried anchovies for flavour.
Must-have kitchen tool?
My wok. I got this one when your father and I first moved into our house 25 years ago. It's cheap, nothing fancy, but I've been cooking every day from it. You want a cheap wok; but season it well and take care of it– no detergents!
What would you tell someone new to cooking?
Don't touch my wok.
No, something helpful please.
Use the best produce you can get hold of and cook simply. You don't need much to make good food if you start out with good ingredients.
What do most people do wrong in the kitchen?
Overcooking their food. When it comes to vegetables, a quick toss over strong flames is enough. Learn to control the heat! When it comes to seafood, understand that each type and size of fish needs different timings. I didn't read any books or memorise anything. It all comes down to experience and willingness to try different ingredients every time you cook.
Give me your kitchen mantra.
The most important thing is understanding your ingredients- once you have the basic understanding of flavour and how they come together, everything you make will be delicious. Many chefs nowadays don't understand...It's not always "the more the merrier"!
Who do you think is the best cook in the family?
Me of course.
It's not only recipes and kitchen tips that I've gleaned from Mum. Her approach to cooking has been a key influence over the way I cook; you've probably gathered her focus on ingredients and 'making do' from the 20-minute Skype interview we did. I've had a little rant about authenticity on the blog before ...I find the most 'real' form of Southeast Asian cooking doesn't necessarily come from the cook who scours the city for morning glory; but the one who can adapt recipes to make use of the freshest ingredients he can get hold of.
This is what Chicken and Rice is all about – Southeast Asian recipes from a London kitchen. The photography was done over the course of a year rather than the standard two week-long intensive photoshoot, because every dish was made (and eaten by friends/ housemates/ neighbours) following the seasons. If you're not yet convinced, the book contains my illustrations of smiling bananas and evil chillies.
Related reads and more from Mum
My debut cookbook, and a behind-the-scenes sneak peek
Kohlrabi som tum and a rant on authenticity
'Agak agak', the intuitive way of cooking
Mum's Ngoh Hiang- 5 spice pork rolls (video recipe)
Mum's fail-safe greens
Old-fashioned barley water
Watercress chicken soup with goji berries
How to make stock
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