Foodie Confidential

Veteran broadcaster Chua Foo Yong a late bloomer in cooking

Veteran broadcaster Chua Foo Yong learnt to cook only at age 62, after her mother died

Madam Chua Foo Yong, 69, seems a perfect poster girl for what active ageing looks like.

She walks briskly, laughs heartily and is sharp-witted.

A veteran broadcaster and former Mediacorp TV chief executive, she is now the chairman of the Council For Third Age (C3A), an independent organisation that promotes active ageing.

There is no slowing down for this retiree, who has also recently become an author.

She published her first bilingual food book, Eat.Muse.Love!, earlier this year under publisher Write Editions. The book, which she co-wrote with her daughter Toh Mu Qin, 25, cost her "almost a five-figure sum" to publish. It is her recommended list of some 50 coffee shops, hawker centres and zi char restaurants here.

"I love hawker food," says Madam Chua. "This is my way of preserving the memory of hawkers who slog so hard to do a good job."

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

    I love my paternal grandmother's crabmeat soup; my maternal grandmother's zhajiang noodles; my mother-in-law's soup of sea cucumber, vegetables and pork leg; and my mother's deep-fried turmeric chicken thigh. I can't enjoy the dishes anymore because they have died, but I would love to have the dishes for my last meal.

The labour of love began in 2014 and she visited more than 100 stalls and eateries, many of which are places she has frequented over the years. The list was eventually whittled down to 50.

Stalls featured include her favourite minced meat noodle shop, MacPherson Minced Meat Noodles, in Serangoon Road; and what she considers the "best restaurant", Good Year Restaurant in Old Tampines Road, which serves zi char fare.

But while she has a nose for good food, she says she had no culinary skills to speak of seven years ago. "It's very shameful when I talk about it. But I never did any cooking until 2009. I was 62 and I had no idea how to even cook rice or fry an egg properly," she says.

There was no reason for her to cook, she says, as her mother was an excellent cook. But with her mother's death in 2009 at the age of 85, Madam Chua had no choice but to start cooking.

Today, the mother of two, who is married to a retiree, says she is a good cook. Her son, 24, works in the construction industry and her daughter is an accountant-turned- food writer. "Cooking is a very precious art and science. When I cook, it's all about genuine love and passion. I'm having fun," she adds.

Why do you love the noodles from MacPherson Minced Meat Noodles?

The noodle texture is not too chewy and I love the soup. I don't know if there is MSG (monosodium glutamate) in the stock, but I usually drink up the whole bowl and do not feel thirsty after doing so.

Why is Good Year Restaurant the "best restaurant" in your opinion?

The zi char dishes are strong. The assam fish is delicious and it does a really good fried black pepper crab. Also, the bak kut teh soup has a unique taste because it is brewed with herbs from Malaysia.

But beyond the food, it's the friendliness of the servers that impresses me. They take good care of their customers. I believe if the customers are well taken care of, then the food would be well taken care of too.

Where would you go for a meal - a hawker centre or a restaurant?

A hawker centre for sure. When I eat in a hawker centre, I feel that I'm at home; I can feel this is Singapore.

What is one ingredient you love?

White asparagus. I have forgotten when I fell in love with it, but I started travelling to Europe for work in the 1980s and was exposed to it. It wasn't love at first sight, but I grew to love its slightly bitter and unique taste.

One of my most memorable meals with white asparagus was in 2006 or 2007, in a restaurant in Montpellier, a city in southern France. It was so good. It melted in my mouth.

When it comes to cooking, what is your best dish?

I do a fried flower crab that my son says is "tok kong" (Hokkien slang for sensational). I came up with the recipe by "koping" (Singlish slang for taking) the ideas from here and there - I watch videos on YouTube and all sorts of programmes on the Asian Food Channel for inspiration.

My dish is made with chopped ginger, chilli, garlic, bean paste and two kinds of wine. It has taken me one to two years to perfect the recipe.

Since learning to cook, what has changed about your fridge?

I never knew how to organise my fridge. Everything was everywhere.

Now, I organise ingredients all the way down to portion size and I have my maid stock-take, so I know how much I have of each item. I manage my fridge the way I used to manage my office - CEO-style.

What principles do you abide by when you cook?

Cooking is about balance, imagination and learning. You cannot have too much of any one ingredient, and before I cook, I visualise the dishes. I imagine how they will look and taste and I think through the steps for cooking the dishes at the same time.

Every time I prepare a meal, it's a learning process because I never follow any recipe from A to Z.

Do you have a food tip to share?

To make a really tasty popiah, you cannot eat the ingredients the day you cook them. Instead, let the mixture - mine has chopped beancurd, French beans, minced pork and other ingredients together with the turnip - settle for the night.

The next day, warm it up gently in a pot until little bubbles rise and pop. That's when you know it's time to roll it into the popiah skin. Do you have any food advice? If you're into cooking, jump into it right now. Don't say, I'll wait until I retire, then I'll go cook or eat this or that. Have the appetite? Eat it now.

• Eat.Muse.Love! ($24.90) retails at Books Kinokuniya, Times and Popular bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Late bloomer in cooking'. Print Edition | Subscribe