One of my most used Singaporean cookbooks is Goz Lee’s Plusixfive cookbook, which chronicles the recipes that Goz and his friends cooked and served at their UK supperclub. When I first came across the book at Epigram’s book fair years ago, I was taken with its irreverent style and tone of voice (and you’ll see that Goz writes in the same way in this interview)! I’ve cooked a few recipes from the book – the bak kwa and the bak chor mee for example, but my favourite has to be the mui choy kong bak! The pork belly is marinated overnight, then deep-fried to render out some of the fat before it braises with mui choy. Delicious! Today, Goz lives in Hong Kong where he continues to whip up batch after batch of Nyonya zhang and Hokkien mee. Below, he shares about his philosophy when it comes to cooking heritage food and how living abroad has shaped his perspective on local food.
One of my memories of cooking is… taking tinned sausages and frying it up with tinned spaghetti and being super proud of myself when I was 13.I wish I had stories about how my growing up years was spent in a shophouse surrounded by Peranakan aunties labouring over stove in some kind of poor man’s version of that scene in Crazy Rich Asians. But I had a pretty non-food related child / teenage kidulthood. I think I only really started noticing food when I moved to London with my family at 14 and started sporadically helping out my mom a lot more in the kitchen. I do distinctly remember loving to dice garlic super fine. And how she used the Asian holy trinity of garlic / shallots / ginger for all these stir fries.
My foray into cooking began with… watching the Naked Chef all the time in London – he made cooking so effortless, easy and cool sliding down the rails of his flat to make these elaborate dinner parties. I’m not sure how I grew so passionate about Singaporean food. I think I generally have quite an addictive personality – like if I latch onto something that I find really fun – I am quite inclined to keep doing that one thing again and again. And I find the idea of entertaining people over food / introducing people to Singaporean food really addictive / fun. That really got me going – probably more than the actual cooking itself if I was being honest with myself.
Living abroad… completely made me super appreciate and seek further understanding into Singaporean food. You crave for all these Singaporean things that you ate growing up which meant two things – (1) You go out and try to find it only to find a mediocre version of it (LAKSA I’m looking at you here – why is it that no one could nail this!) and (2) You just simply cant find it (WHY IS CHWEE KUEH UNFINDABLE! Hell why is any kueh unfindable). I get it though that we are a pretty small time state / citizen of the world so there wouldn’t be much take up for a Singaporean resto from a biz standpoint I guess.
Cooking Singaporean food at home… involved calling up my mom for her Hainanese pork chop / chicken rice recipes and spending a hell of a lot of time on internet looking up various peranakan recipes. It also started this whole slippery slope which basically comprised of:
1) Wah cooking all these food is so hard so hard – all my time is consumed bloody pounding and chopping and braising and ARGH.
2) Why are hawkers charging so little
3) Research research
4) Get angry when reading comments from people when prices of fish ball noodles go up from $3 to $3.50
5) Get angry when people ask why nasi padang is so expensive
6) Get angry when I read same people in (5) pay $15.90 to eat Aglio Olio or Tonkotsu at mediocre Italian / Japanese chain.
There’s probably a lesson / message in here somewhere about colonisation of food and the exoticness and cheapness of “Asian street food”.
Singapore noodles in the UK… just made me angry. Especially when people were like – Oh! Singapore! Yeah! You guys have this awesome curry powder Singapore fried noodles dish! I think this was then I was like – this is ridiculous – I need to try to change people’s mindsets somehow.
Sourcing ingredients abroad… never posed much of a problem. Chinatown in UK was awesomely stocked. I could get every damn thing there man. Hell I could get stuff in the UK Chinatown market that I can’t find here in Hong Kong! (Frozen Grated Cassava I’m looking at you!) The best part about living in Hong Kong must be the produce – wah the live seafood that I get to make my hokkien mee. The live grass carp that they slaughter fresh to make milky fish soup (without adding milk of course). The live local free range HK chicken is probably the best chicken in the world. Hands down. I am not sure I can ever go back to eating chicken in Singapore. For some reason, Singapore serves these mushy bland chicken for chicken rice everywhere. The HK one has a good bite / strong chicken taste – it’s like the model chicken.
My approach to teaching my children about food is to… expose them to a wide palate – I basically encourage them to try everything. We also involve them in cooking – so when we barbecue on our balcony little satay sticks I always encourage them to help out. Save for the spicy stuff which we have not introduced to them yet – Seems like they do like Singaporean food! But ultimately food is very subjective – so whilst I encourage them to try / I also don’t want to force them to like stuff.
A reason why I decided to document recipes in personal life and in my cookbook… was to serve as a documented dialogue for my family/ friends and a tangible memory for the future.I believe it is important that there is a physical record somewhere, so that in the future, if my children have this interest / memory, it can be triggered easily again through food. And hopefully they pass these tangible memories down. I feel that is the most important. For me, I am slightly regretful I was never that close to my grandparents / took them for granted. So now I feel I have lost that memory and that opportunity to talk to them about their lives and their food.
To me, Singaporean food is… like a crazy smorgasboard of flavours / textures / races / religion. Our food is almost a mirror to our lives in SG. Sometimes fusiony / sometimes strictly monocultural / sometimes controversial / always vibrant. The lines are slightly more blurred I feel than say HK or UK (having only lived in these two other places). In these two cities – the “street food” is much more distinct / less fusiony – like Brazilian food vendor serving Brazilian food. Or Cha Chaan Teng serving HK food. In Singapore you have say a chye peng stall that basically serves up Hokkien / Hainanese / Malay (the curries), you have Western food stall serving Chicken Chop which doesnt really taste Western. And you have Peranakan which is basically as fusion as fusion food could get.
My understanding for Peranakan food is shaped by… one of my good friends who runs Blue Ginger. But my true love of Peranakan food really came out of the supperclub. As I tried to think of what kind of a cohesive meal would best represent Singapore to a foreigner. Hawker food is quite hard to conceptualise as a cohesive sitdown meal? Like it’s hard to have a lot of dishes that complement each other to represent hawker food. And Peranakan food is surely the most foreign / interesting to a non-Singaporean. Take beef rendang – it’s not a curry – it’s more a stew? Or like chap chye – a bloody expensive / labour intensive dish which looks like a boring stir fry.
Preserving Singaporean heritage food and culture… is hard, but I also dont know if it IS necessary. I toggle between the two. I just feel – just live and let live? It’s all part of evolution right? So what if my kids prefer Ya Kun canned kaya? That is their childhood – why bother interfering with that? My first memory of cooking is taking tinned sausages and frying it with tinned spaghetti – it is such a strong memory that till now I get little bumps of nostalgia seeing canned sausages.
The biggest thing that annoys me about this whole food preservation thing is that every generation will lament how their generation food tastes better. Is it really / truly? (a) Food is really subjective (b) Food is more than just the taste right? Are you misremembering cos it was a good day / you had a good year in life when you ate at that wonton mee stall?
Right now my bar for food quality is quite low – I go back and appreciate hawker food for what it is. People should just appreciate that there is hawker food. That there are humans who wake up at 4am to make rempahs so you can shovel it into your mouth / Instagram it / feed your belly.
You are never going to make this at home so please everyone just stop bitching about (1) how expensive it is because its $1 more (2) “it doesn’t taste like what it used to”.
Cos if that’s the case then just go back to eating your $15.90 aglio olio pls. No one needs this aggro.
My food philosophy is… minimum effort maximum delivery. People always say [insert ancient method] is better. Is it really? Like say how much better? I mean if we are working on a variant of 5-10% better than I am using a blender for all I care.
But okay la if you say [ancient method] is 200% better then okay you win.
So I even use Prima mixes at home nowadays – just zhng it yourself – add more chicken bones / stock / ikan bilis. Whatever lah – just use the path of least resistance.
Also, if this is generally promoting / keeping Singapore’s heritage cuisine alive – why not? Would I rather my kid not want to use pestle mortar to make rempah because it’s so troublesome and hate making Singaporean food? Or would I rather he use pre-made pastes and have that memory of Singaporean food?
I am hopeful for the future of Singaporean food because… I dont see any reason why it would ever go away. If you are envisioning some kind of food apocalypse where everyone is only eating maki rolls and Pret sandwiches. I dont think that day will ever come. Its so much of our DNA.
Everytime I’m back in Singapore… I almost always have a meal at Blue Ginger and prata at Ghim Moh. Actually prata anywhere. I feel Malay food is the hardest thing to recreate at home so I am all in go-hard-or-go-home show-hand all-chips-in on Malay food. I have it almost everyday. The mee siam at sixth avenue is my absolute fav and must have. Nasi lemak at Coconut Club. And then just before I leave – the mee pok tah at T3 is my favourite. Controversial I know. But it is.