Anderson Ho made his name in Singapore as a frontier-pushing “New Asia” chef; this weekend he returns to Penang for a couple of exclusive dinners.
He was born in Penang, spent his growing up years in Kedah, and is now happily settled in Singapore, where culinary talents such as himself find suitable support to flourish. Anderson Ho has gone on to win many gold medals in international cooking competitions.
A collaboration between Singapore’s FoodCult and Burmah108, a private cooking studio in Penang, sees the return of Ho to Penang to chef a duet of dinners that promise to push the boundary of dining frontier on the island.
Says Chui Lim, one of the owners of the cooking studio: “At Burmah108, we want to create interesting culinary events that will help shape the Penang dining scene.” Her passion is shared by FoodCult, an innovative F&B concept marketer most known for its underground dinners in Singapore.
This will be the first time that Ho cooks in Penang. The two exclusive dinners this weekend (today and tomorrow) see Ho cooking in the style he has come to be known for, “New Asia” cuisine, inspired by his memory of flavours from Penang.
“We did not want to innovate the classics and do modern Penang cuisine as we did not want to change what is not broken,” says Ho, who first went to Singapore in 1986 to study at the SHATEC culinary school.
During his tenure at the Raffles Hotel, he worked with European masterchefs such as Alain Ducasse, Alain Senderens and Gerard Boyer, and became conversant with contemporary French cuisine.
Explain “New Asia” cuisine.
I have not used this term for a long time! There is some sort of a stigma around it, for fusion food plays with the familiar to change common perception – which can be confusing for some people. It’s best explained as an Asian chef’s expression of food that fuses what (Western cooking techniques) they have learnt. For me, it’s Western techniques and Asian flavours – or it can be the other way around. My take on food is that, as long as it tastes wonderful, I will serve it. Why should I restrict myself from crossing the border, or from expanding the envelope? I am not a purist, I am much more an adventurer.
“New Asia” was a term I used when I was cooking in a restaurant; after I left La Papillon, I do not need to categorise my food anymore. In the restaurant dining scene, we need to have a definition of what we do if we are doing something different or customers, and the media, may not be able to understand it.
Today, there is a new term in Singapore – “Mod Sin” – but I don’t think it encapsulates my cuisine totally either.Now I don’t know how to describe my own cuisine. If you look at my appetiser for the dinner, it is actually very common – a French salad with Asian elements such as lime. The presentation can pass off as French cuisine; the flavour has many Asian nuances.
You have “disappeared” from the Singapore dining scene. Tell us what you do now.
I am working for SATS Catering (Singapore Changi Airport’s main airline caterer) as the executive sous chef; I also mentor the Singapore National Culinary Team, including the young chefs.
Share with us your relationship with, and memories of, Penang.
I spent a lot of my childhood playing in Penang. My dad was a merchant and Penang was a free port then, and I followed him everywhere, even though “home” was in Kedah.
One of my fondest memories was watching Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss premiere in Penang, in the 1970s. We took the ferry to Penang, had ice cream at the Magnolia ice cream bar and even rode a trishaw! I always thought only tourists took trishaws, so it was a real treat. Bullock carts were still roaming the streets and once in a while, you could see people smoking opium!
Even now, some of these streets have not changed. That’s one thing with Penang – they have preserved so many buildings, unlike in Singapore where preserved buildings are just one short stretch here and there.
Every time I go back to Penang, I explore the small streets and take some photos – the pictures remind me of my childhood days.
Name three favourite Penang flavours.
Penang laksa, with its assam pedas flavours, char kway teow, and durian! Uncle Chai, who is well-known for his private dining space and Hakka dishes, is a family friend who owns a durian plantation in Balik Pulau where I had the best durians ever, squatting below the durian tree. That was the first time I learnt there are so many types of durians. I have brought my children and family back to visit him in recent years.
Name three Penang ingredients that have good culinary potential and what you imagine can be done with it.
Pandan – which I am using in my dessert for this weekend in a combination of pandan cake, pandan ice cream, and pandan jam. Coconut – I am using both young and old coconut in the seafood soup; coconut water from young coconut is used to poach the seafood and then used to fuse with clam stock for the soup. It is then finished with lemongrass and miso. Calamansi lime – I am using it in the salad dressing for my first course.
What are some of the tastes of Kedah that have stayed with you?
That would be red bean slush topped with Milo – “Ang Tao Ka” – a childhood drink for me; fried kway teow loaded with lard and large prawns; and a snack made of bread with barbecued dried pork (bak kwa) coated with batter and shallow-fried. The hawker stall that sold this opened around 5pm and closed by 8pm – it was that tasty!
Please explain your Return of the Penang-born Chef menu.
I am a fan of seafood, and that comes through in my menu. As is my usual style, I like to cross influences from many countries.
> Salad of crab with rice paper crisps: In this dish, local mud crab is mixed with Japanese mayonnaise, chilli, coriander leaf, green apple, spring onion and a bit of calamansi lime juice and zest. The Vietnamese rice paper is topped with furikake seasoning (they add this to steamed rice in Japan), then deep-fried. This clicks because I am still using rice – as rice paper. This element came about in the salad as I wanted something crispy.
In the past, I used to serve this dish in cocktail glasses, where it’s all in layers: tomato jelly, salad, basil oil, then foam. Now, I place the composition on a plane (plate), and add more Asian elements.
> Fruits of the sea in a coconut “cocotte”: This is one of the very first few “New Asian” dishes that I created. My first cookbook, CrossRoads, which was created before 2000, included this dish.
The “fruits of the sea” are mussels, clams, prawn and grouper poached in coconut water from young coconut. The seafood-poaching liquid is then fused with mussel stock, and aromatised and flavoured with lemongrass, miso, and coconut milk. It is served in a coconut shell with a garnish of young coconut flesh – so both old and young coconut are used in this dish.
> Seasonal fish confit in an ocean of green: This is a dish of green peas, green peas powder, snow peas, pea shoots, and basil oil, and is more Western in essence. The fish is slow-cooked in oil to confit it. It is finished with a sprinkling of green peas powder made by blitzing dried green peas.
> Seared wagyu beef striploin with port wine jus and mushroom soil: This is also a more Western-style dish and where my modern influences come in, as mushroom soil is very trendy right now. I would have preferred to use a charcoal grill, though.
> Coconut Mystery dessert: This dish is an incorporation of various local desserts! In particular, my childhood favourite hot desserts: bubur terigu, tau suan, and bubur pulut hitam.
How do you go about creating a dish that can evoke or trigger a certain memory?
Using my Coconut Mystery dessert as an example – I drew inspiration from my favourite childhood desserts, and borrowed what has coconut components in them. For example, pulut hitam is usually drizzled with just salted coconut milk. I took this idea but turn it into coconut ice cream. And I use pandan leaf, a common Asian flavouring, but I used it in a slightly different form.
I draw taste inspiration from my past, not recreate it. Cooking is a journey for me. For chefs, creation is very personal. We tend to create what we like personally as the first step.
How relevant is social and cultural identity on a plate; do diners need to connect to what’s on the plate?
As I have mentioned, I am not a purist – if everyone were a purist, there wouldn’t be any Peranakan cuisine! For me, what is important is just good taste – everyone can connect with that.
Do you seek to surprise?
Having run a restaurant before, I acknowledge that sometimes you need to do that, but to me, consistency is more important, especially if you run a restaurant. You cannot constantly surprise someone.
> Anderson Ho’s 'Return Of The Penang-born Chef' dinner is an affiliate event of the Georgetown Festival 2014. Find out more by calling +6012 335 8263.