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Foodie Confidential With Wong Ah Yoke

Cooking with traditional Chinese medicine

Former Eu Yan Sang general manager Joanna Wong has come up with a cookbook featuring recipes with Chinese herbs

A decade ago, Eu Yan Sang general manager Joanna Wong wanted to push the idea that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) could be used in everyday cooking.

So in 2006, the TCM chain took part for the first time in the World Gourmet Summit, a food event with local and visiting chefs cooking special dinners here. That saw Chinese herbs such as red dates used in a Western white chocolate dessert for a tea at the Sheraton Towers Hotel.

More such collaborations followed, including marrying Indian dishes with Chinese herbs, which went down very well with diners.

Ms Wong, 55, who is single, then came up with the idea of putting together all these recipes in a cookbook. However, the lack of funds resulted in the project being put on the backburner.

After she left the company in June last year for a part-time consultancy role, she revived the idea with Eu Yan Sang chief executive officer Richard Eu. This time, she turned it into a personal project and contributed 12 of the 56 recipes featured in the book. The rest were contributions from chefs Martin Foo, Ku Keung, Forest Leong, Manish Mehrotra and Wolfgang Ranner.

The book, Herbalicious, was published by Marshall Cavendish and launched last week. The recipes include dishes such as Lamb Shank With Dang Shen (codonopsis root) And Gan Cao (licorice root), while her contributions are mostly party foods such as Lotus Root, Beef And Chen Pi (dried orange peel) Patties.

Ms Joanna Wong's first attempt at cooking was when she was 10 years old. It ended with vegetables on the floor, but she can now cook for 15 people easily.
Ms Joanna Wong's first attempt at cooking was when she was 10 years old. It ended with vegetables on the floor, but she can now cook for 15 people easily. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

How did you learn about TCM herbs?

Although I was with Eu Yan Sang for 15 years, my background was in advertising and public relations and my role was to help to brand the company.

Still, my knowledge of TCM was built up over the years with the company. I was sent for in-house training because I needed the knowledge to talk to the media.

It seems though that I enjoyed herbs even when I was young. My mother told me that when I was a toddler, she found me one afternoon hiding in a corner and chewing on ginseng.

Thank goodness she stopped me because chewing ginseng is not good for a child as it is a strong herb.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • My mum's braised tofu with minced meat. Tofu is a healthy food with a lot of protein and it is not fattening and is very tasty. It also reminds me of how my mum took such good care of the family.

How did you start cooking?

I won't be able to forget my first attempt at cooking. My dad, who was with Boustead Shipping, was badly burnt in a work accident. My mum went to visit him in hospital and I, being the eldest child in the family, had to cook for my younger brother and sister.

I was 10 years old then. I had watched my mum cook, but had never turned on the stove and fried anything. I tried to stir-fry some vegetables, but because they were wet, the hot oil splattered and I panicked. The vegetables ended up on the floor.

I felt so helpless because I couldn't even cook for my family when required. I then resolved to learn to cook and my mum taught me.

Were there other influences in your food education?

My grandma also taught me to cook when she visited. She was from a well-to-do family and had bound feet, with maids to serve her when she was young.

She taught me what Chinese fine-dining was, such as the imperial cuisine from the Manchus.

I also learnt Chinese table etiquette, such as using proper chopsticks and spoons, how to eat rice holding the bowl in one hand and to pick only food that is in front of you.

Did you take over the family cooking duties at home?

No, I preferred my mum's cooking. Only when she said she was tired would I take over.

Then when I started working, I didn't have time. So I did not cook much until I moved out to live on my own in 2004. I was very ambitious then and would whip up three dishes and a soup for myself.

Now I can cook for a party of 10 to 15 people easily. That would be the number when my siblings come over with their children and maids.

What do you cook for these family dinners?

Usually dishes my mum used to cook, such as braised pork belly with red yeast rice. That is a very savoury dish cooked without rice wine.

Something my family also enjoys very much are my beef noodles, which are simple dry noodles topped with stir-fried beef.

Do you have house parties for friends too?

Those are usually during Chinese New Year. I make a pen cai (a pot layered with different ingredients) that my friends love. They comment that every layer has a distinct flavour, unlike restaurant versions which use the same sauce for the whole pot, so everything tastes the same.

For my pen cai, the bottom layer is stir-fried cabbage, which is plain, but after the juices flow down from the other layers, it tastes yummy.

The next layer is chicken wings steamed with salt and garlic, followed by a layer of roast meats and Chinese sausage. And on top is seafood such as braised abalone and sea cucumber.

My friends also like my stir-fried beansprouts with garlic, which is a very simple dish. But it's not easy to cook because the sprouts must still be crunchy, but not taste green.

A Chinese chef once told me that the simplest dishes are the most difficult to perfect. As I get a lot of thumbs-up for them, my stir-fries should be quite good.

Are you an adventurous eater?

I remember during a visit to Tianjin in China in the 1980s, I was served horsemeat sashimi in a Chinese restaurant. I didn't know until I asked what kind of fish it was and was told it was horsemeat. It was eaten with just wasabi and tasted sweet and fantastic. For me, food is a passion, so I just try everything.

What kind of food gets you excited?

I like Chinese food because it is interesting. And Peranakan food has a lot of flavours with so many ways of cooking.

My favourite Chinese restaurants in Singapore are Golden Peony in Conrad hotel and TongLe Private Dining, when chef Martin Woo was head chef. For Peranakan food, it would not be at a restaurant but at my friend's home.

I go for Japanese food at Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands and Tatsuya in Goodwood Park Hotel. I like the clean taste of sushi and sashimi. I enjoy Taiwanese food too - the braised food, such as duck wings and lu rou fan (stewed pork rice).

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would that be?

I'd like a private dinner with my paternal grandfather. He was the patriarch of the family and everyone feared him. He had six sons and three daughters. But only when you were his favourite would you be invited to dine with him.

I remember when I was about six years old, I was amazed that not everyone got to sit at the table with him. He would eat with my grandmother and the rest would have to wait for the second or third seating.

He made his own fortune and became a towkay with six shops. If I had the chance to dine with him, I would ask him about entrepreneurship and learn more about him.

• Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter@STahyoke

• Herbalicious is available in major bookshops at $36, excluding GST.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Cooking with TCM'. Print Edition | Subscribe