Foodie Confidential

Cooking school founder Daniel Tan's culinary journey: From chore to passion

Daniel Tan, founder of a cooking school for tourists, did not enjoy being in the kitchen when he was growing up

Forced to watch his late mother cook when he was a child, Mr Daniel Tan, founder of cooking school Food Playground in Chinatown, was not particularly fond of being in the kitchen.

While his mother was a good cook, she worked long hours in a factory and was seldom at home to prepare meals. So Mr Tan and his four older siblings had to learn to cook out of necessity and what normally sparks a culinary passion for some people became a chore to him.

The 41-year-old says: "I cooked purely for survival and I didn't enjoy it at all. We were not well-off and while others could go out for nice Western meals, I could only stay home and eat whatever I cooked."

But over the years, Mr Tan, who has worked in the travel and hospitality industries for more than 10 years, developed a love for cooking and baking, and now wishes he had learnt more from his mother, who died in 2007 of liver cancer.

He was inspired to set up Food Playground after spending a year travelling and attending cooking classes across South-east Asia and South America in 2011. He realised there was room in the market here for such classes, which cater to tourists.

Mr Tan says: "A lot of effort is spent on telling people where to eat, but not where to learn. Tourists want to eat good food, but they also want to go deeper and understand the stories behind the food."

In Peru, for example, he not only ate roasted guinea pig, a popular local delicacy, but also learnt how to roast the animals in a Peruvian home.

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    All local favourites such as satay, rojak and Hokkien mee.

"Besides tasting the guinea pig, I also learnt the story behind the dish. There's been an increase in farming guinea pigs because it is a way for the poor in Peru to get out of poverty," says the avid cook, whose 39-year-old wife runs a creative agency. They have no children.

So five years ago, he set up Food Playground, where participants not only learn how to cook local dishes, such as chicken rice and laksa, but also find out more about Singapore's food culture.

Food Playground has a social mission too - it employs local women looking to return to employment.

Mr Tan says: "No one cooks better than one's mother. So here's an opportunity for the women to share their home recipes.

"Unlike a chef, who may be worried about someone taking a recipe and opening a restaurant, they are not worried about you opening a restaurant. They are passionate about sharing family recipes and this will keep our food heritage going."

What is the one dish that foreign participants at Food Playground are most curious about?

Fried carrot cake, because their idea of it is a dessert which should be sweet and look like a cake. They are intrigued when they see it in hawker centres, but because they don't know its ingredients, they don't dare to try it. We always ask them to try both the black and white versions.

Are there dishes that are not taught at Food Playground, but have been frequently requested?

Chilli crab, because it is widely perceived as our national dish by tourists. But not everyone knows how to handle crabs, neither are people willing to kill live crabs. We teach chicken rice instead as I feel it best represents our nation.

What food traditions do you miss from your childhood?

My mother would make bak chang at home and it was a fun family affair to help wrap the dumplings. She made enough to give to relatives and for us to eat for the rest of the month.

After eating the dumplings, we recycled the leaves - just soak, clean and dry - for the next year.

I love that when you make your own dumplings, you stuff in extra pork and chestnuts until there're more ingredients than rice.

For my bak chang fix now, I go to the popular Kim Choo Kueh Chang chain.

What's the first dish you cooked?

Fried rice, when I was seven years old, because there was leftover rice which I didn't want to waste. It is a good one-dish meal and I still cook it today.

When hosting friends, what do you cook?

They ask for comfort food, so I make Teochew porridge with simple dishes such as chye poh (preserved radish) omelette, chap chye (a dish of braised vegetables) and fried bean sprouts.

What would be on your dinner table?

Simple meals such as claypot rice. If I'm lazy, I just cook it in the rice cooker instead of a claypot - you just don't get the crispy bits at the bottom. I love soup and my slow cooker is best for that. I just put vegetables, corn and chicken in it.

Sometimes I also fry beehoon, which can be quite tiring because you need to have the strength to toss the noodles well. That's how you judge someone's cooking skills - you see whether they can fry a good beehoon or rice.

What's always in your kitchen?

Pandan leaves, eggs and chye poh.

Do you have a sweet tooth? No, so pandan chiffon cake is the best dessert for me because it has a good balance of flavours without all the extra toppings that are on normal cakes.

I make my own pandan chiffon cake. It is important to leave the extracted pandan juice to settle overnight. It may look very concentrated when it is extracted, but it is actually quite diluted and if you bake immediately with it, the colour of your cake will be pale.

I also enjoy kueh dadar (sweet coconut-stuffed pancake roll) and ondeh ondeh (glutinous rice balls filled with gula melaka) - all of which celebrate the versatility of pandan leaves.

Where do you usually eat?

I'm fine eating at coffee shops or zi char stalls as the quality of the food in Singapore is generally good. I must have san lou hor fun, Yangzhou fried rice and prawn paste chicken.

Since I'm working in Chinatown, I often go to the Rojak, Popiah & Cockle stall in Maxwell Food Centre.

For restaurants, I like Dian Xiao Er's signature herbal roasted duck and Soup Restaurant's samsui ginger chicken.

What's your favourite country to dine in?

Hands down, Thailand. I head to Bangkok about four times a year and must have the pomelo salad and tamarind soup from Thai cafe chain Coffee Beans by Dao. It is well known for its cakes, but the Thai food is good too.

Thai food is popular everywhere. It is simple to prepare and you can have everything from healthy salad to deep-fried dishes. I love the spices and sweet and sour flavours.

If you could pick someone to dine with, whom would you choose? My mother, because I never had a chance to cook for her. I would cook her favourite dishes such as vinegar pig trotters and make bak chang.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'From chore to passion'. Print Edition | Subscribe