Foodie Confidential

Singer-songwriter Jiu Jian: The boy who loved to cook

Singer-songwriter Jiu Jian cooked every day from age seven as his mother was working

Home-grown singer-songwriter Jiu Jian had wanted to be a chef after learning to cook from his mother at age seven.

But when he went to work in the now-defunct Dragon City Sichuan Restaurant at age 14, the harsh kitchen environment proved too much of a culture shock.

The 48-year-old recalls: "The way the chefs spoke was loud and rough and I remember the big fire in the kitchen, along with all the sweat. I realised it was not my cup of tea."

Jiu Jian - whose full name is Jiu Jian Takizawa, as his late stepfather is Japanese - had also considered working at a Japanese restaurant in Orchard Road. However, he was rejected by the chef, who was his stepfather's friend.

"The chef apologised to my father, but said that he couldn't take me in because I was wearing spectacles and didn't have perfect eyesight.

"Maybe things would be different now if I had good eyesight.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

    A good watercress soup.

"And I might have had a different perspective of cooking if I had started in a Western or Japanese kitchen, or perhaps I didn't get to see the sophisticated part of Chinese cooking," says the bachelor, who cooks occasionally.

Jiu Jian, who has written songs for Hong Kong singers Jacky Cheung, Ronald Cheng and Andy Hui, also has a three-year-old lifestyle platform (www.jiujianexperience.com), which contains food and hotel reviews. He is also active on social media.

When The Sunday Times meets him at his favourite Chinese restaurant, Gu Ma Jia in Tai Thong Crescent, his face lights up when an array of soups arrive at the table. He quickly whips out his phone to take photographs and record an Instagram Story (@jiujiankenn).

He says of his fondness for soup: "I can just have corn soup with rice. I can drink the whole pot."

He adds: "I yearn for simple, home-cooked food and that's what Gu Ma Jia serves. "

How did your love of cooking grow?

I started cooking at the age of seven and I cooked every day as my mother was working.

When I was 14 years old, I was the only boy who joined a baking competition in River Valley High School. I won second place with my chocolate cake.

The earlier rounds of the competition also required me to cook other dishes and so I learnt to cook Hainanese chicken rice and laksa from the coffee shop owners near my home.

I've always found cooking to be fun and therapeutic.

What do you cook at home now?

I make watercress soup with sweet dates, sweet and bitter almonds, and add pork ribs for flavour. I also like to stir-fry watercress with garlic and shallots - it's a simple but tasty dish.

My signature dish is omelette, which my stepfather taught me to cook. It takes skill to beat the egg until it is fluffy and make sure it has a golden exterior while the inside is half-cooked. I like to add honey- baked ham to my omelette.

What's always in your kitchen?

Red dates, oyster sauce and sea salt. Due to my stepfather's influence, we don't use MSG for flavouring, but use "fish powder" instead, which is supposed to be healthier.

Besides Gu Ma Jia, do you have other favourite restaurants?

CreatureS in Desker Road, where the menu is a fusion of Western and Nonya dishes. I like the babi pongteh, ngoh hiang and durian cake.

What are your favourite desserts?

Traditional Chinese ones such as almond or walnut paste, as well as anything with sesame.

What are your favourite hawker dishes?

I've always liked Malaysian hawker food, especially that in Penang.

Eating along the roadside or in old coffee shops reminds me of when I used to live in Alexandra Road and we went to the kopitiam every weekend.

I saved 20 cents every week to eat wonton mee there - it's one of my favourite hawker dishes.

I also like anything soup-based such as prawn bee hoon soup.

Whenever I'm at Changi Airport, I must have mee siam, laksa or mee rebus at the Killiney Kopitiam there.

What do you not eat?

Ladies fingers, because my first encounter with it was during art class where it was used as a stamp because of its star-like cross-section. So, I didn't know it was edible.

When my late mother first put it in front of me to eat, I was very confused and asked why was it on a plate when it was for art? I couldn't eat it.

Before I turned 40, I never really ate spicy food because I would sweat a lot and my scalp would itch. But now it's okay, and I've come to like spicy food. Maybe I just need to spice up my life.

Do you have any food quirks?

I used to eat only "basic fruit" such as apple, orange, watermelon and banana. Fruit such as starfruit, rambutan, durian, dragonfruit are oddly shaped, so I couldn't eat them. I started eating them only after I turned 35.

So, you're not very adventurous with food?

I'm polite, so if someone offers me something to eat, I won't say no. Those who know me won't tell me what the food is until after I've eaten it.

In Malaysia, I've tried wild boar and bat in the kampung area. I draw the line at eating dog meat, though.

In your line of work, do you have to be careful with what you eat?

Yes, I need to maintain a good singing voice. When I was a radio presenter, I had a very sensitive throat so I tried not to eat deep-fried or oily food.

What would you indulge in?

I do indulge in potato chips when I have fewer performances. I'll have organic purple potato chips with sea salt.

I also like to eat nuts, especially walnuts, as well as French fries. Sometimes, my indulgences are based on my mood. If I'm going to watch a no-brainer or scary movie, I'll have popcorn and Coca-Cola.

If you could pick someone to have a meal with, who would you choose?

My Japanese half-brother Hisahide Takizawa, 36, who does logistics in the pharmaceutical industry. He's my only family member left and we love to dine together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'The boy who loved to cook'. Print Edition | Subscribe