When I ask Chef Alan Chan on how his Instagram moniker Malacca Makan King came about, he says it came out of a conversation with his ex-sous chef Jeff Claudio. “Before that my Instagram name was kind of boring. Jeff said to me that I should think of a catchy name to represent myself on Instagram. I thought, ‘I’m from Malacca and I love to eat (makan). Why not Malacca Makan King?’ And now Chef Rishi and Chef Dave don’t call me by my actual name anymore!”
Growing up, this Malacca-born chef used to cook meals for the family while his mother was out working and, at 18, worked at his friend’s uncle’s char kway teow stall to earn some keep. Now, he is the sous chef of Cheek Bistro with a slew of experience under his belt at renowned restaurants in Singapore and abroad, such as Pizzeria Mozza, Burnt Ends and Brae. Despite this, he has not lost his original passion for local flavours – his Instagram feed @malaccamakanking is filled with his meticulously prepared staffmeals (#MyStaffMealIsBetterThanYours) and food that he eats while off the clock. Below, he shares his thoughts about how we can incorporate cooking heritage food into our busy, modern lives and spills the beans on his favourite haunts for local food.
I was brought up eating… Hokkien food as both my parents are Hokkien. However, what I grew up eating cannot be considered completely Hokkien. My grandmother’s neighbor was Hakka, and living in such proximity probably led to some changes in my grandmother’s cooking. Also, my grandfather has a Peranakan godsister so our family’s food has some Peranakan influence. In Malacca there’s a lot of Baba Nyonya as well, and when we try something that is tasty, we’ll try to cook it at home and make changes to suit our own palate.
Something that I miss seeing is… mobile hawkers. When I was a kid, there were a lot of them. While some hawkers sold their food at a fixed location, many moved around. They had a pushcart or motorbike carrying their food and they would go from house to house to sell it. I used to see satay sold on a bike and mee rebus on a pushcart. but I’ve not seen this in Singapore and even in my hometown I don’t see this any more.
Hawker culture is dying because… a lot of the old hawkers plan to retire but do not have children who want to take over. Or perhaps they do not want the next generation to take over. You can see this happening already – a lot of the food that I used to eat in my childhood is no longer around. There was this auntie who would sell epok and would shout “Epok epok lai lo!” This epok was fried and came with chilli sauce. It was basically all vegetables in the filling – bang guang, beansprouts and taukwa. Now epok mostly comes with sardine or potato filling.
Now that I’m on a keto diet, I’ve learnt that… using the right fat or good oils make a huge difference. In the past, people used to use pork lard to cook their food. This is the natural fat from the animal, which is actually good for you, despite the common misconception that all fat is bad.
Makan culture in Singapore is unique because… you can get so many different types of food. It is a very pervasive culture because Singaporeans don’t cook a lot at home these days and tend to eat out. It is also very communal, which I love. A big part of makan culture in Singapore is the supper culture – people like to eat after hours. When I was in Melbourne everything was closed by 9pm!
Cooking for so many years and exploring so many cuisines taught me that… there is so much diversity in Asian cuisine – just looking at Chinese cuisine, there is ba da ming cai, that in itself has so much for you to learn. While European cuisine uses the same few seasonings – salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice – Chinese cooking, as an example, can be so varied! Different regions have different styles. I am Hokkien for example but I only recently discovered Teochew olive vegetable as an ingredient when I was staging at Ho Lee Fook!
At my stage at Kin with Chef Damian, I learnt… how to make proper Nyonya laksa. Unlike the usual laksa that you see at hawker centres, Peranakan laksa does not have sambal, but uses fresh ground chilli paste to make it spicier. Haebee is used to thicken the gravy and accentuate the flavor. Ang kar prawns are used because this type of prawns are of a good size and have a cleaner flavor.
My advice to someone who wants to cook a dish that he or she is unfamiliar is… to go to a few places and taste many versions of the dish before cooking it. Let’s say I want to cook a laksa. I’ll go to a few laksa places and understand the variations. If the owner is able to share their tips with you, you can get some advice from them as well.
The key to incorporating the heritage cooking into our lives is… planning. If you plan ahead, every meal should be quite easy. If you want to do something on the day itself, you’ll be rushing. You can actually prepare a lot of components in advance, such as rempah. The next day, all you have to do is assembly. This makes more sense.
People always ask me how I have so much time to cook complicated staff meals when I’m working in a restaurant that is so busy. I’ll say that if you plan ahead, you can do it. Our staff meal roster at the restaurant is always out a week before, so you can plan what you want to do and that makes it way easier. Some food items such as bak zhang will of course take time as some steps might be complicated, but it all gets better with practice.
Some of my favourite places to eat at are… KEK for zi char and Azmi Chapati. For chicken rice, I always go to a stall run by an old couple at Chinatown complex called Tian Yuan Hainanese Chicken Rice. Their chicken rice is very good but they are not famous like Tian Tian Chicken Rice because they don’t have people like Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain challenging or reviewing them.
For kaya toast, I just had a good Hainanese version this morning – it’s at Geylang Serai food market. It was actually recommended by Chef Damian – they are known for the jiam tao lo ti, local baguette with Planta and kaya. Nowadays a lot of places use butter, but this stall uses Planta. A lot of places in Malaysia use Planta because butter is too expensive – I actually prefer Planta because butter has a more Western flavor. Planta is basically margarine and the flavor compared with butter is different. Tong Ah is also another good one – I used to go there very frequently because Burnt Ends is down the road.