KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) Ken Choong looks as out of place in a kitchen as he looks well-suited to a hipster joint. When he starts waxing lyrical about the intricacies of Peranakan food, it's hard to stop your eyebrows from hitting the roof.
Choong comes from a long line of Penang Peranakans and is lucky that the family's culinary heritage has been passed down through the generations, forming a repository that is over 100 years old. His great-grandmother was born in 1878, and the family still uses her recipes to this day.
"My mother is in her 80s and she's still cooking and has passed all her recipes down to my sister and me," says Choong.
A mass communications lecturer, Choong discovered his passion for Peranakan food when he was in Australia.
He was 18 and involved in a student exchange programme.
STIRFRIED SENGKUANG WITH CUTTLEFISH
50g finely shredded dried cuttlefish
20g dried shiitake mushrooms
500g yambean (sengkuang)
2 tbsp sunflower oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
200g Chinese lettuce (optional)
1. Separately, soak the dried shredded cuttlefish and mushrooms for at least 2 hours. Reserve the soaking water. Drain the cuttlefish well.
2. Slice the mushrooms thinly. Peel sengkuang and carrot. Grate or cut them into evenly thin strips (julienne).
3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. When hot, add garlic and fry until fragrant. Add cuttlefish and mushrooms, and stirfry over high heat for 2 minutes. Add the sengkuang and cook over medium heat until soft, adding some of the reserved water if necessary.
4. Add the carrot and season to taste with soy sauce, sugar and salt. Cook for another 5 minutes before dishing out.
5. Serve as a dish on its own or enjoy spooned onto lettuce leaves to make delicious lettuce cups.
"We had to cook something Malaysian for our host family and naturally I thought of giving them a taste of my family's home cooking. As I didn't know how to cook then, I had to call my mother to ask her for the recipes.
"I remember the first dish I made was sambal udang tumis!" he says.
From those innocuous beginnings, Choong's culinary repertoire grew and blossomed. He now hosts PlateCulture meals in his home to introduce Peranakan food and culture to a wider audience through the virtual social dining platform.
"I do it to preserve the cuisine and to tell people that it exists. Because nowadays, when you go to a lot of Nonya restaurants, they don't serve real Peranakan dishes.
"For example, with the pulut tatai, the blue colour of the dessert is traditionally derived from bunga telang (butterfly pea flower), but many restaurants and stalls don't use that. They use blue colouring instead. I can tell the difference because my mother used to make that," he says.
Choong is adamant about sticking to the treasured heirloom recipes he has been gifted with and has only made slight variations to the recipes, incorporating healthier options where possible.
"You have to also remember that 100 years ago, there weren't so many chemicals in our food," he says.
"So I may replace white sugar with palm sugar or brown sugar for instance. If I'm cooking for people who are diabetic, then I use stevia. It has a slightly different taste, but still acceptable.
"I try to keep it as close to the original as possible, but certain things I want to keep diabetic-friendly, because Malaysia is already the fattest nation in South-East Asia, so we need to modify certain things to make it healthier without changing the taste too much," he says.
Sugar is a concern as there is a lot of hidden sugar in the savoury Peranakan dishes.
Apart from preserving taste, Choong is also adamant about retaining time-honoured traditions, like using the mortar and pestle to pound and muddle ingredients, instead of using a food processor.
When asked if he ever gets tired of investing so much time and energy into the traditional way of cooking when modern conveniences are readily available, Choong says it is totally worth it to go the extra mile.
"If you put your heart and soul into it and be committed and take pride and ownership of what you've prepared and cooked with joy, then you won't feel tired. Even if you feel tired, you won't feel it's difficult. What you will feel is the reward of a mission accomplished," he says.