SINGAPORE, Oct 19 — Mother knows best. This is true in the case of Terry Wong, 50, who runs The Food Canon (www.foodcanon.com); a blog devoted to recipes from his late mother Ruby Ung Goay Inn or Auntie Ruby, as she was fondly known.
The Anglican clergyman based in Singapore set up the website in March 2011 to inspire home cooks and document his own food memories. In a way, Wong is practising his fun-loving and generous mother’s philosophy: share her recipes, no holding back, and keep some things secret.
As a young boy growing up in Petaling Jaya, Wong’s world revolved around food thanks to his mother who was a cook by profession.
In his blog, he recalls being the extra set of hands; visiting wet markets to carry ingredients, stir-frying, chopping and washing. His mother taught him how simple and cheap ingredients cooked the right way could yield amazing dishes.
It is a practice he continues till today. One of his memories gives you an insight into Auntie Ruby’s fun-filled and joyful kitchen. He recalled that she was never once stressed out, kept her calm and improvised when ingredients were missing.
After his mother passed away, he picked up the wok chan or spatula to start cooking again for his family in Singapore. He credits it to one special reason — missing his mother’s dishes.
“It is not just Malaysian dishes but hers. I was just blessed to have a Mum who was such a prolific cook that could please both family and friends alike.
I would rather have my Mum’s food anytime to any Michelin-starred chef’s!”
Wong was inspired to start his blog with the encouragement of Dr Leslie Tay who runs the highly successful food site, www.ieatishootipost.sg. “I knew Tay from my previous church when he was just a medical student. Little would we guess that our paths would cross again because of food,” he explains.
Previously, Tay had also invited Wong to contribute some articles on his website and suggested he use the name “Food Canon” because of his job. “It was also a clever play of food and photography,” he says since Wong also used the same brand of camera. When Wong decided to start his own site, he revived that name.
According to Wong, Auntie Ruby’s cooking skills were honed from an early age by her Nonya stepmother. His mother had a great flair for cooking combined with a keen interest in food.
She operated a canteen at the Guinness Anchor Berhad brewery in Sungai Way. “I have a lot of memories from my childhood of helping out in the kitchen and tasting her special dishes like prawn mee, curry and assam laksa that was a hit with the factory workers.”
As Auntie Ruby was a friendly soul, everyone from the makciks in the Malay kitchen and the Hainanese chef from the Western kitchen would share their recipes with her. “I knew her as a cook who was learning all the time,” remembers Wong.
She eventually left to open her own place “Sek Yew Fook” in Paramount Gardens, Petaling Jaya. The place served economy rice or chap fan for lunch.
Its draw was her home-styled dishes with popular items like her stuffed chilli fish or ikan sumbat sambal, Hakka yong tau foo and curries.
Her wide repertoire also included mui fan or rice served with creamy egg gravy, fried rice and noodles. In the evening, her crab dishes and tong sui drew movie-goers from the nearby Paramount cinema. Even her ice kacang was a cool hit.
“My mum was more of a cook rather than a business person. I used to think she would have earned more if she had partnered with a good restaurant manager or businessman,” he says. The dutiful son often used to imagine how things could have turned out if he had taken over the reins of the business from her.
It was a hard life for Wong’s mother. She used to do everything to eke out a living including baking kuih bangkit, love letters or kueh kapit, peanut cookies and pineapple tarts for Chinese New Year. “I can recall slogging and working hard to help make those cookies but it was never enough,” he says.
Wong’s late father, Wong Pak Kee, remains much in the background. On his blog, Wong reminisces about his father who had a vegetable and fruit business at Hock Lee, the popular mini market for expatriates in Kenny Hills.
“I do not have many childhood memories of him since he did not interact much with his children,” he says but he admits a love for the bag of fruits his father brought back every day.
Every Sunday, his father had to eat his favourite stir-fry pork ribs and lamb chops – dishes he also taught Wong to cook for him. One of his father’s hobbies was photography and at one time he even served as the president of the Photographic Society in Malaysia.
For Wong’s first post on his blog, he aptly featured his mother’s famous char siew in all its sticky glory. Unlike other recipes, this family favourite is prepared in a wok rather than the oven. “My mum’s char siew recipe looks simple and many have duplicated it successfully. Some even gave the feedback it can get smoky in the cold weather that they risked setting off their fire alarms!”
The dedicated Wong even experimented with his mother’s recipe using various pork cuts and the sous vide method. Details matter to Wong. He documents his cooking notes with useful pictures for novice home cooks to tackle the recipe at home with confidence. In addition, he shares tips on how to cook the dish in large batches for entertaining since he often cooks for his church members.
It took a long while before he attempted some of his mother’s recipes eg. the Hokkien prawn mee. “There were so many steps that I got giddy just trying to read it,” he explains. In mid-2011, he decided to tackle cooking the dish, adjusting the taste of the broth until it was like how his mother made it.
”Having those memories on my palate was important. I felt I had arrived even though the truth was it took many takes to get it consistently right.”
For this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations, he made chai buey and was extremely satisfied when it tasted just like his mother’s. “The challenge was to do it consistently well and for that to happen I needed to cook the same recipes regularly until I mastered it. As all cooks know, a good dish is a product of many correct little steps that can be mastered if a cook is keen and patient enough.” His mother’s curry puff still eludes him. “I find it difficult to do pastry well,” he says since it needs deft hand skills but he’s not one to back down from a challenge. “I’m not giving up.”
The keen home cook also delved into modern cooking techniques including sous vide. “I am always interested in the whys of cooking. My mother cooked from experience but she could never give good reasons on some of her methods.”
Long before his experiments, Wong was always trying to learn the science behind his mother’s dishes, like her tau yew bak. “My mum could never explain the secret to her tau yew bak but I now know it is all about heat control i.e. keeping the fire low.”
Wong believes the sous vide method is helpful for any type of cuisine and can be applied to certain dishes from his mother’s repertoire like char siew, bak kut teh, soy sauce chicken and even kaya. “Sous vide may sound mysterious but it is basically about cooking slow and low at precise temperatures, not agak-agak.” For parties, he uses the sous vide method to cook the char siew in big batches, saving him from the back breaking work.
Despite blogging for two years, Wong is still going strong, driven by the great satisfaction that any blog reader will be able to reproduce his mother’s recipes for their own table. “She loved to share her recipes and I am sure she would have been pleased with the blog and the popularity of her recipes if she was alive today.”
Wong is also currently working on a cookbook showcasing his mother’s recipes.
Positive feedback from his readers also spurs him on. “Home cooks want to cook well and better. When they cook a familiar dish better or learn a new one, it is natural to be thankful.”
According to Wong, the feedback is usually from Malaysians or Singaporeans living overseas who miss their comfort food or local cuisine. Some readers even go to the extent of even sharing their own past memories. Kat Lim, 41, is one fan – a Malaysian relocated to Abu Dhabi. “I enjoy reading his stories, particularly the nostalgic ones,” she says. The keen cook and baker also follows his recipes loosely and enjoys his snippets on kitchen gadgets.
In future, Auntie Ruby’s legacy will also be passed down to Wong’s two daughters, Sarah and Deborah. “They love to bake but they don’t cook with me but they were privileged to grow up with my Mum’s cooking,” he says about the two girls who are now studying for their A-levels.
Wong, who is very sentimental about his mother and his past, still feels strongly about his Malaysian connections. “I may be a Singaporean now but it is hard to shake off the fact I am very Malaysian in my heart, outlook and tastebuds.”
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on October 18, 2013.