My Life Story Becoming a Chef

I love food! I really love food. I love guessing and deciphering the ingredients used in each dishes especially on food that I never tried before. It also applies to familiar dishes as you know, the only way to make it special is to add your very own secret ingredients!

Growing up in extreme poverty back in North Borneo means sometimes the only seasoning we use in our cooking is salt and even that once in awhile we have to shout so loud at our neighbour that lives about 100 meters away if we can “borrow” some salt or sugar or sometimes Ajinomoto (MSG)! Half of the village will know that you’re short of certain seasoning but that how it was for everyone.

When we couldn’t afford to buy coffee or tea, my mum will pick the coffee leaves from the old coffee tree in our yard, boil them until the water turns light dark but it still smells of coffee. It’s something and we most of the time we have to be creative and resourceful. Luckily we live on tropical country where back then we can go into the jungle or river to find food when money doesn’t land in our hand and especially during the rainy season.

I remember being so jealous of the well off people who buys tin food at the supermarket and big fat chicken. If we want to eat chicken, we either have to chase the poor soul until it eventually given up or we feed them and throw a fishing net at them. We planted our own rice, vegetables and we picked wild fruits and mushrooms. Little that I know how lucky I was because they’re all free range – organic!
Sometimes when I walk at Abbey Garden and I see those fat smug squirrel, I was thinking “mmm… dinner!”. And when Covid-19 eventually takeover the world, I wonder how the hell did we not got it when we used eat bats!

Bats is not the only thing I tried before. Out of so many interesting food such as monitor lizard, snakes, goat brain, chicken brain (apparently it makes you clever), fish eyes (it pops in the mouth!) and cricket insect but my favourite out of all is the larva or grub called Utod that we find in rotten sago tree. I’ll do well in that Get Me Out Of Here show!

One of my after school activity is playing in the water. Either swimming in the river or play in the huge irrigation during rice planting season. That’s our swimming pool. Mind you, sometimes with all the playing, one also have the responsibility to try and bring something that we may able to cook later that day. Like using homemade gun fishing to catch fish or fresh water prawns. No health and safety procedures here let alone goggles. But we learn how to be responsible and where not to push our limits. During Paddy planting season, we catch fish in the Paddy fields and sometimes snails. Raining season best for catching frogs.

We cooked on raised table filled with sand using firewood. That’s meant whatever that we cooked there will have that special smoked depending what type of wood we use.

So we may not have truffle oil to finish off our dish but this is where my childhood poverty teaches me to appreciate and be creative with what I can find around me.
Having four older sisters who shapes my earliest culinary curiosity, I start cooking when I was only 8 years old.

My first husband was Chinese and the family was famous for selling their homemade authentic Chinese desserts. Because it’s quite normal for a woman to move in with the husband and his family living under the same roof, I was taught and learned Chinese culinary from them. Proper homemade Chinese dishes! I am forever grateful for that part of my life.

When another part of life happened, I ended up working for my sister in one of her food stall and she and her husband eventually open a restaurant. When I left there, I work in a 5 stars resort. Although I didn’t choose to work in the kitchen, it didn’t stop me from being nosey in the restaurant kitchen and their catering department. I just want to learn and of course eat (free) food that I never able to afford or even heard of when I was growing up.

When I moved to Kuala Lumpur, I was renting a room from an Indian lady who was an amazing cook! We cooked Southern Indian dishes together on the weekend. My boyfriend at that time was a man from Thailand. Guessed what? His family owned a restaurant in Bangkok and that is where I learned my Thai cuisine! Seems like I used to date internationally just to learn how to cook! 🤣 But in all, Malaysia is such a diverse and multicultural country. Most of the time people living in harmony amongst other races. We ended up sharing and learning each other cuisine.

So I cook traditional cuisine but I don’t want to conform to the original recipes. Adding my personal touch is extremely important and makes the dish feels more personal. But again cooking is a very personal affairs. I am sure you every English household at least once a year makes Sunday Lunch and each household kitchen will have their own unique way to make it their very own “wow” factors.

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