Malaysia stands at the crossroads of Asia, where three of the continent’s greatest cultures—Indian, Malay, and Chinese—meet and mingle. Malaysia was not always so vibrant, though. In the fifteenth century, Malacca (now spelled Melaka) was its only port. Although once a great spice emporium under the Muslim Sultanate, the city became a backwater when it fell to the Dutch in 1641. For a century the Malay Peninsula languished in the tropical heat, untroubled by the wars and famines that plagued her neighbors.
When the British arrived in the late 1700s things began to move. Soon Chinese and Indian migrants came by the masses to fill the labor shortage, and the foodscape of the country quickly moved from a mono-cuisine to multiple cuisines. And this is where my family comes in. My father came from the island of Hainan in China. The island’s most famous dish is Hainanese chicken rice. In Southeast Asia, Hainanese chicken rice is eaten with fragrant rice and a ginger, garlic, and chile dip.
Like most Hainanese, my father joined his relatives in the coffee-shop business. From these humble beginnings, he ended up building his own Chinese restaurant in Kuantan, a city facing the South China Sea. I was born into this multi-ethnic food world. My first mouthful of fiery Tamil curry was at three years of age; sweet, spicy satays were treats at four; and gooey Nonya sweets made with sticky rice flour were my daily breakfast. I think I knew then what was my destiny. I wanted to be a cook.
Among my earliest recollections are traveling on the trishaw with my mother to the local market and buying the massive amounts of seafood required for the Chinese banquets. My playground was the restaurant mise-en-place, where I was taught by the chap mahs (apprentices) how to peel the seeming cartloads of shrimp to ensure their tails remained intact. To this day, I can still smell that shrimp in my hands.
Although Dad was a keen cook, it was from Mom and our head chef that I developed a passion for cooking. Talk of textures, flavors, ingredients, and techniques peppered our conversations during meals. While I was allowed to be an apprentice, I was never allowed near the wok. It was, according to Head Chef Heong Sok, not fit for the son of the master! At that time, especially in Chinese eyes, to pursue a career in the kitchen was not respectable. It was menial. I was destined for better things.
Thus, in 1976, my parents sent me to Australia, ostensibly to finish university. But fate had a hand in changing their wishes. Not long after I arrived, an Australian friend asked me to cook at his vegetarian restaurant, Shakahari, in Melbourne’s bohemian Carlton section. For the first time, I was allowed near the woks professionally. Very soon university study got sidetracked, then abandoned—much to the horror of my folks. However, I ended up buying the restaurant with some Malaysian friends, which subsequently restored family pride.
At Shakahari, I reproduced the south Indian, Nonya, and Malay foods of my neighbors. I also cooked Chinese dishes from our restaurant in Malaysia. But the quest to learn more about food and cooking prompted me to enroll at La Varenne in Paris. In 1983, I opened my own restaurant, Tatler’s, in Sydney, where I finally came into my own.
Perhaps due to an abiding bond with Malaysia’s carefree and bountiful cuisines, underpinned by my family’s food traditions; or perhaps because of my maturity, I began to develop a deeper understanding of the way I cook and perceive food. It was no longer necessary to put disparate or esoteric ingredients together to challenge the customers. Nor it was necessary to slavishly apply the techniques I had learned in both France and Australia. Instead, I found a gradual but definite connection with the diversity of my new country’s produce and the layers of food styles in which I was cooking. I suppose I started to put real meat on the bones!
In other words, the rich culinary traditions of Asia and, in particular, of Southeast Asia began to gel with the adventurous spirit of Australian producers and chefs. My cooking began to have an identity, a place, and a raison d’etre. A poached wonton, for instance, was filled with sliced wood-ear fungus, ginger, and shrimp, and finished with coconut milk instead of cream, the ingredient I had grown up with. Rabbit, considered a pest in Australia, turned into the satays and spicy rendang I had enjoyed in my childhood. Reduced Chinese black-rice vinegar became a Chinese balsamico for a filet of tea-smoked lamb with wilted spinach. Chewy, black sticky rice became the base for my coconut-milk crème caramel. A salad of barbecued Cantonese roast pork with amaranth and bean shoots was an instant hit; so was a south Indian salmon curry with roasted cashew pilaf.
Without realizing it, I had become part of the culinary revolution taking place in Australia. Almost overnight, there was talk of an Australian cuisine. It was a time of tremendous exchange and camaraderie among chefs. I still remember the great debates with my colleagues over glasses of red wine. This was also a period of great freedom—chefs became food writers and food writers became chefs.
It was at this time that I decided to return to university to finish my degree. I majored in languages and history and sold my restaurant three years later. Given the paucity of written culinary history in Malaysia and Singapore, my personal and professional interests turned into an academic pursuit. Coincidentally, in 1993, fellow Malaysian Dure Dara contacted me to devise a series of Sunday curry lunches, or tiffins, at Stephanie’s, a top French-contemporary Australian restaurant. Together with Dure and Stephanie Alexander, I established the Tiffin Club. We explored ways to match the fine curries of Asia, including some from the days of the British Raj, with wine and serve them in a European environment. I began to collect tiffin carriers, the stacked containers used in Asia to carry food.
Since then, I have presented the foods of my heritage to audiences at master classes in Australia and abroad. Using food history as a tool, I have also written about my Asian heritage and have taught budding chefs at vocational colleges. Today, I continue to research the rich oral traditions and the vast store of flavors that exist in Australia, Southeast Asia, and beyond. I present these topics at my own cooking school. My experiences have led me to believe that not only will food continue to change and adapt, but we must always nurture our past to provide for the future.