Foodie Confidential With Wong Ah Yoke

Fabric designer Mike Tay's soft spot for porridge

Singapore label Onlewo's Mike Tay (above) eats almost anything when he is dining out, but goes for porridge and eggs at home.
Singapore label Onlewo's Mike Tay (above) eats almost anything when he is dining out, but goes for porridge and eggs at home.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Fabric designer Mike Tay grew up on Teochew dishes

Fabric designer Mike Tay's works have been popping up a lot over the past few months.

Products under his Onlewo brand were at the Singapore Coffee Festival in June, the Singapasar fair of Singapore-designed products at the National Design Centre last month and a recent pop-up fair in Wheelock Place, among other events.

The cushion covers, wallpaper and furniture upholstery featuring iconic Singapore landmarks and motifs are also sold at his gallery in Jalan Besar and at Tangs department store.

Tay, 45, says: "I am a sentimental person. My patterns talk about my experiences, childhood and family."

For example, the idea for his latest design with an abstract of a Housing Board block facade came from the flat in Cantonment Road where his grandfather lived and where he spent a great part of his childhood. The flat was later replaced by The Pinnacle@Duxton, a 50-storey public housing development.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • A bowl of porridge, a stir-fried vegetable with meat and a sunny-side-up egg with dark soya sauce.

His uncle used to take him to watch movies at the Majestic cinema in Chinatown and one of his designs features Chinatown landmarks. "They are the old landmarks, not the Chinatown today," he points out.

His taste in food similarly reflects what he ate as a child. He is from the Chao'an dialect group, which is a Teochew sub-group. At the start of the interview, he volunteers: "I can tell you what I want as my last meal: porridge with some simple dishes."

Tay, who lives with his partner near Orchard Road, adds: "I still eat like that when I'm at home. My helper would ask me what I want to eat and it would be the same thing. Porridge with two fried eggs. But when I'm out, I eat anything."

What are your childhood food memories?

Growing up, my meals were typical Teochew dishes such as steamed fish and chai poh omelette.

My maternal grandmother was a good cook and I liked her lor bak (braised pork in dark soya sauce), which went well with rice. Fried onion with eggs was another of my favourites, as well as fried fish that you dipped in soya sauce.

Steamboat was eaten at home on special occasions such as Chinese New Year. My late mother was a vegetarian, so we had two pots - one with meat and the other without.

Were there any special meals you remember?

One night, I was staying over at the home of my godmother, who was my mum's elder sister. Out of the blue, she decided to whip up a pandan chiffon cake for me to take to school the next day. I can still remember her sitting on a stool, whipping the batter. I was awed. I didn't know what to say.

Where did your family dine out?

My grandfather bought takeaway food from Hillman Restaurant at Block 1 Cantonment Road.

I liked the seafood beehoon - the beehoon was fried till crispy and cooked with a little gravy with seafood. I ate it frequently when I was nine to 11 years old.

I have been thinking about the beehoon. Recently, I was on my way home after work at my gallery in Jalan Besar and saw the restaurant, which has moved to Kitchener Road. I ordered the same beehoon and it tasted the same.

Do you cook?

I don't cook much now because of work and I mostly eat out.

I started cooking when I was in university in Perth studying media. My housemates would notice that I was preparing food when they left the house in the morning and that I was doing the same when they returned.

I would cook curry chicken and chicken rice. Curry chicken was easy to prepare. I heard from other people how it was done and tried it.

One of my aunts left behind a family recipe for chilli chicken, which I have learnt. So that's part of my repertoire now.

Where do you eat out at?

I like the steamboat at Whampoa Keng Fish Head Steamboat Restaurant in Balestier Road. I also like some of the cooked dishes such as the roast chicken.

I also like Joo Hing, a family-run zi char restaurant in Joo Chiat Road. I like homely places. Dishes I like there are the lotus root pork rib soup, steamed baby squid and braised bittergourd with pork rib.

Other favourite restaurants are Chui Huay Lim in Keng Lee Road for its Teochew food and Golden Spoon in Tiong Bahru, which is known for its crab beehoon.

What other cuisines do you like?

I like Japanese food. I go for ramen at Sanpoutei in the basement of Shaw Centre. It opens till 11pm and when I am hungry after work at Tangs, it is a good option for supper.

I like Italian, too, and IO ltalian Osteria in Hillview is good. It's a family-run place in a residential area. The pastas and pizzas are good, but I like almost everything there. The boss is always making her rounds to check with diners if the food is okay.

Do you travel to eat?

I don't travel just to eat, but when I'm on holiday, I would look out for good food. During a recent trip to Tokyo, I went for breakfast at the Gontran Cherrier Tokyo bakery every morning because I liked its pastries so much. It is at the Southern Terrace of the Shinjuku train station.

I also discovered a small tempura eatery in Ginza. It is a quick-service place, but it was so good. The prawns and vegetables were fresh and not too oily.

I also like the Thai food in Taling Pling in Bangkok. A few years ago, a friend took us to Gaggan, which is No. 1 on the Asia 50 Best Restaurants list. The food was okay, but there was a "mamasan" who flirted with us.

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

My late mother. I would take her to her favourite vegetarian restaurant, Miao Yi, at People's Park Centre. When she was alive, we ate there at least once a month.

•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter@STahyoke

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'Soft spot for porridge'. Print Edition | Subscribe