Homesick Malaysian chefs working in Singapore seek comfort in the dishes of home

(Clockwise from top left) Ki Wei Bin, Tai Koon Ren and Alex Lim, Lee Kah Ming, Sky Tai and Teoh Boon Jia, and Edward Chong. ST PHOTOS: HEDY KHOO

SINGAPORE - They have not been able to see their loved ones face to face for months because of Malaysia's movement control order, which started on March 18 and is set to last till Aug 31.

But homesick Malaysia-born chefs and cooks working in Singapore tell The Straits Times they are seeking comfort by recreating their mothers' cooking or whipping up hometown favourites.

Hakka dumplings taste of mother's love

Two months before the Dragon Boat Festival, chef Edward Chong called his mother to ask for her Hakka dumpling recipe.

The 38-year-old executive sous chef of Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay Singapore says: "Every year, I look forward to eating dumplings made by my mother. This is the first time in a decade I did not get to eat them."

His parents live in Negeri Sembilan, where he is from. The Singapore permanent resident came here when he was 19.

After he bought a Housing Board flat in 2010, where he lives with his Malaysia-born wife and their two sons aged 11 and 14, his parents visit him at least twice a year and stay a month each time.

Chef Chong says the last time he did not get to eat his mother's dumplings was during the few years before 2010, when both sides were too busy to visit.

His mother's recipe calls for the glutinous rice to be soaked in fermented beancurd juice and fermented beancurd to be used to marinate the pork belly for the filling. Another feature of Hakka dumplings is the use of black-eyed peas in the filling.

Chef Chong says: "Preparing the ingredients and wrapping the dumplings made me realise the amount of effort my mother puts in every year."

Executive sous chef Edward Chong of Peach Blossoms, who is originally from Negri Sembilan in Malaysia, missed eating his mother's Hakka dumplings this year. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

He modified the recipe and came up with a premium version packed with Iberico pork, dried scallop and Japanese shiitake mushrooms, which was sold at the hotel's Cantonese restaurant Peach Blossoms during the festival in June.

He says: "I wanted to share a taste of my mother's cooking and do my bit to uphold Hakka culinary heritage."

Not being able to see his parents and siblings back home has been difficult.

In March, he was especially worried about his parents, who live on their own. Panic buying had wiped out the shelves at the grocery stores near their home and they were unable to top up their food supplies for a week.

Chef Chong recalls: "My mother told me they ate luncheon meat with bread for lunch and dinner as they were afraid their existing food stocks would run out. When I heard that, I felt frantic and helpless."

His eldest brother, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, found a food supplier online who managed to deliver food to their parents a few days later.

This year is also the first that he could not reunite with his two brothers and their families during Qing Ming, the Chinese tomb sweeping festival, in April.

He says: "Because of my work, I don't get to celebrate Chinese New Year with my parents, so April is when I visit my home town and reunite with my extended family too."

His parents usually accompany him back to Singapore after Qing Ming and spend a month here. That is when his mother would make her dumplings.

He says: "Though I am grateful for video calls with my parents, it is just not the same as seeing them in person."

Bonding over simple flavours At Standing Sushi Bar at Marina One The Heart and Kyoten Japanese Cuisine in Yong Siak Street, the cooks have been whipping up dishes for their Malaysian colleagues that remind them of home.

Head chef of Standing Sushi Bar, Mr Sky Tai (left), and his colleague, kitchen supervisor Teoh Boon Jia, who are Malaysians. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

For staff lunches, kitchen supervisor Teoh Boon Jia at Standing Sushi Bar has been cooking dishes such as pan-fried egg with onion, sesame oil chicken, vegetable soup and broccoli with oyster sauce.

The 27-year-old, whose family is originally from Ipoh and later moved to Johor Baru, went home weekly before the pandemic. His wife and his one-year-old son live across the Causeway.

Mr Teoh, who came to Singapore to work six years ago, is worried as his wife is expecting their second child and due to deliver in November. He says in Mandarin: "I hope to be by her side when she gives birth. It's been hard on her taking care of our son on her own."

To take his mind off his worries, he calls his mother for tips on cooking simple home-style dishes for his colleagues.

He says: "Most of us are used to leaving our home towns and families from an early age to make a living. But during this time when we cannot see our family in person, these dishes can be a source of comfort."

Standing Sushi Bar's head chef Sky Tai, who is from Kluang, empathises with his Malaysian colleagues. Like them, the Singapore permanent resident, who has been living here since 2002, has not been able to see his wife and three children aged nine, 12 and 16.

Before the movement control order was imposed, the 36-year-old has been making a four-hour weekly bus journey to Kluang to spend his day off with his family.

He says: "I feel for Boon Jia when I see his sad expression, when he's looking at pictures of his wife and son on his phone during our breaks. We worry for our families back home just as they worry for us working in essential services. It is also a stressful time for the food and beverage industry."

(From left) Sushi assistant Ki Wei Bin, kitchen trainee Tai Koon Ren and head chef Alex Lim, who work at Kyoten, cook simple food which remind them of home for their staff meals. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

His youngest brother Tai Koon Ren, 24, also works in Singapore - as a kitchen trainee at Kyoten Japanese Cuisine. In charge of cooking staff meals, he has recreated his mother's dishes and learnt to cook the hometown dishes of his Malaysian colleagues.

He came to Singapore four years ago and joined the restaurant in late February this year.

One of his comfort dishes is kampung-style ikan bilis, where the fish is first deep-fried, then stir-fried with green chilli and seasoned with light soya sauce, dark soya sauce and sugar. He came up with the dish by combining cooking tips from his mother and a Malaysian colleague.

He says: "It's stressful to cook for my senior colleagues who have so much experience, but I do my best. They are very encouraging and have offered to teach me to cook dishes, especially those by their mothers."

Another staff meal favourite, says Kyoten's head chef Alex Lim, 46, is steamed fish head. He uses leftover yellowtail fish heads as the restaurant uses only the meat for sushi and sashimi. The dish also comes with fresh shiitake mushroom, ginger juice, leek and coriander.

Chef Lim, a Singapore PR, usually visits his parents in Johor Baru weekly and buys groceries for them. He last saw his mother in early March.

It has also been a difficult time as his father died in February and he did not get to say goodbye.

When he was in JB after his father's death, he heard rumours of a lockdown and stocked up more than a month's worth of food supplies for his mother.

He says: "The timing could not be worse. I was very worried about my mother being on her own. She has to cope with my father's death and it is not convenient for her to get heavy groceries on her own."

As she does not know how to use a smartphone, he has not been able to do video calls with her.

He says the common experience of missing home and family has brought his colleagues closer.

He observes: "During this difficult time, when we see the worry on one another's faces, we have learnt to be kinder. We've opened up more about our families and got to know one another better.

"Although our staff meals cannot replace the experience of dining with our loved ones, replicating simple flavours helps lift our spirits and bond."

Head cook Lee Kah Ming of 72 Xiao Chu Zhi Jia is originally from Ipoh. He is introducing a special dish of Home-style Braised Pork, which he learnt to cook from his mother. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

The bittersweetness of Hakka braised pork trotters

Ipoh-born Lee Kah Ming had been looking forward to returning home in April to celebrate his mother's 60th birthday and have his parents stay with him during their usual month-long visit here in June.

The pandemic scuppered those plans.

The 37-year-old head cook at 72 Xiao Chu Zhi Jia, a stall in Upper Boon Keng Market and Food Centre, came to Singapore to work at age 18. He is married to a Singaporean and they have a 12-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.

The Singapore PR says in Mandarin: "Not being able to see my parents as much as I like has never been as difficult as during this pandemic. The border controls make the feelings of separation more intense."

He misses his mother's cooking, particularly her Hakka braised pork trotters, and it motivated him to make his own version to sell at his stall.

He says: "Cooking this dish leaves me with mixed emotions. It is comforting to eat it, but it also makes me miss my mother more because no matter how hard I try, I cannot recreate that exact same taste of her cooking."

His Home-style Braised Pork, made using pork belly marinated in fermented beancurd, is available from Sunday (July 5) at $10.

• 72 Xiao Chu Zhi Jia is at 01-52 Upper Boon Keng Market and Food Centre, Block 17 Upper Boon Keng Road, open: noon to 9pm daily. The dish is available from 1.30 until 8.45pm (last order) daily.

Follow Hedy Khoo on Instagram @hedchefhedykhoo

Follow Straits Times Food on Instagram and Facebook @straitstimesfood

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.