Veteran chef Devagi Sanmugam launches new book


Veteran chef Devagi Sanmugam aims to show in her new book the myriad culinary techniques from around the region

Over the past decade, veteran chef and cooking instructor Devagi Sanmugam has noticed a worrying trend among culinary school students.

With the proliferation of cooking competitions on television, such as MasterChef, budding chefs get swept up by the eye-catching plating of Western dishes and are more interested in Western cooking techniques such as sous vide, where food is vacuum-sealed and cooked at a specific temperature in a water bath.

When it comes to Asian cooking, their knowledge barely scratches the surface.

The 62-year-old says: "Young chefs prefer to cook with truffles, use equipment such as sous vide machines and finish the dish off with a sauce. They think Asian cooking is limited to stir-frying and steaming."

Hoping to change this, she showcases Asian cooking techniques in her latest cookbook, I Am A Rice Cooker!.

Young chefs prefer to cook with truffles, use equipment such as sous vide machines and finish the dish off with a sauce. They think that Asian cooking is limited to stir-frying and steaming.


The book's tongue-in-cheek title is a reference to her love of cooking rice, which is a staple in Asia.

Published by boutique publishing company Orange Inkk, the 359-page book was launched last month and clinched the top spot in the cooking schools category of the Singapore leg of this year's Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.

The annual awards, which is organised by the Madrid-based Gourmand International organisation, recognises the best food and wine books around the world. The finals of the competition will be held next month in Yantai, China.

For the first time in her three-decade cookbook-writing career, chef Devagi has organised a book by cooking techniques rather than by ingredients or recipes.

The 40 Asian cooking techniques in the book ranges from double- boiling and dum cooking to salt- baking and velveting, a two-step cooking method in which meats are blanched or fried before being stir-fried.

She describes each cooking method thoroughly, explaining how the technique works and dishing out cooking tips. There are more than 100 recipes from 10 cuisines, including Indian, Chinese, Peranakan and Cambodian.

The recipes include her favourites, such as millet and corn putu (steamed rice cakes), Korean pancakes (pajeon), coconut flatbread (pol roti) paired with black pepper pork, and Thai-style roast pork.

She says having a good grasp of cooking techniques is more crucial these days because cooks often watch cooking shows on television and online and read recipe blogs. Some contain ambiguous instructions, which can lead to kitchen mishaps, she adds.

"Cooking based on timing is risky as there are other variables such as controlling the heat and using the right equipment," she says.

"Once home cooks understand the techniques, they can cook any recipe."

The book also covers skills such as butterflying prawns and making sauces and stocks and offers guides on measuring ingredients and controlling heat.

What is the most challenging cooking technique to master? Stir-frying, she says, is deceptively easy.

"Most people think they're doing the right thing by mimicking the frying action that they see chefs do," she says. "However, they don't realise the distribution of heat in a wok plays a part so the food doesn't turn out dull-looking or soggy."

To curb this problem, she recommends buying a wok ring to prop up the wok so that the heat from the stove is distributed evenly around it.

Despite having 22 cookbooks to her name, chef Devagi's penchant for writing them is not diminishing.

She also runs culinary services company, Epicurean World, which provides training and restaurant consultancy services.

In September, she will launch Devagi's Home Ground, her brand of spice rubs and mixes.

"I do not have recipe block," she says.

"I have so much cooking knowledge in my head that I want to share and document, especially showcasing what the Indian community cooks and eats."

Indian superfood will feature in her next cookbook, My Mother's Kitchen Pharmacy, which will be out early next year.

Inspired by her family's traditions, it will contain recipes and beauty remedies using Indian superfood such as moringa leaves and banana stem juice.

She vividly recalls how her mother used to bathe her and her two younger sisters with freshly squeezed coconut cream to smoothen and moisturise their skin - a routine she still swears by today.

"Instead of turning to health supplements, I hope the younger generation can go back to their roots and explore the ingredients at home, as they can do wonders."

•I Am A Rice Cooker! ($79) is available at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Champion of Asian cooking'. Print Edition | Subscribe