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Sunday May 9, 2010

Mum’s the word

Three restaurateurs share their stories of how time spent in the kitchen with their mothers not only taught them how to cook for the family but also infused them with the passion to run their own food outlets.

SHE was merely five then but she remembers the scene vividly. She was in the kitchen watching her mother make the family’s favourite dish: braised duck flavoured with ginger. It was a for special occasion which also called for the black beans and oyster sauce gently simmered for hours over a charcoal fire.

And when Leong Lai Choo turned 11, her mother gave her the run of the kitchen.

“My mother had to be in Singapore for a week and I got to show off what I learned. That was the first time I cooked for so many people,” says Leong, 44, who runs The Nyonya One restaurant in Seri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur.

Aside from honing her culinary skills, the kitchen was the place for mother-daughter bonding. While she may have no difficulty being physically affectionate with or saying “I love you” to her two children, such outward displays of emotion were rarely forthcoming from her mother Low Siew Yoong, now 74.

“She came from a different era where people believed that it was best to keep the feelings of affection for one’s children in the heart instead of expressing them outwardly.

“However, because of the time I had with her, I know deep down that her love for me is as high as a mountain,” says the former beautician who traded her creams and potions for a nasi lemak business in the pasar malam with her husband five years ago before opening their 10-month-old restaurant.

As Leong grew older, the kitchen became their special nook where she would listen to her mother as the latter dished out advice on taboo foods, nutrition, boys and life, in that order.

She is undoubtedly the boss of her kitchen at home where she is very fond of boiling soups and cooking dishes that have been passed down from her mum.

Taking a cue from her own childhood, she is teaching her 13-year-old daughter, Brenda Anne, some kitchen basics, and this proud mum attests that her daughter can make very good bak kut teh.

With The Nyonya One, however, Leong is content to leave the running of the kitchen to her husband Simon St Maria while she takes care of the service side.

But that doesn’t mean she does not have a say in the menu. As it is, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the basil, mint and spring onion chicken (known as the B.M.O Chicken), is made according to her mother’s recipe.

Their nasi lemak, by the way, does not contain santan, thanks to Leong who insists on low-fat cooking in all her dishes wherever possible.

For May Miranda, 48, owner of May ‘n’ Mike’s in Petaling Gardens, the kitchen was where her mother Stella, now 84, taught her the importance of sharing.

The youngest of five siblings, May says she grew up at a time when the family was experiencing financial challenges.

The Mirandas could only afford to have meat on Sundays and even a simple dish like Hokkien noodles was considered a treat they looked forward to when their father got his monthly salary.

“We didn’t have money but we grew up with love and it was from the kitchen that my mother taught us how to share.

“On Sundays, for example, when we cooked mutton curry, she would set aside a portion for my brothers who could not make it for lunch so that they would be able to enjoy it later,” May recalls.

Another lesson that Stella would impart on May was one of generosity. As a child, May often wondered how her mother could be so generous with a neighbour when they barely had enough themselves.

One day, on seeing her mother giving a bowl of chicken curry filled with the choicest parts, May blurted out that she needn’t do that when all they got from the same neighbour were bones and chicken neck.

“My mother turned round and told me that my neighbour was expecting and that we should pity her because her own mother was not with her.

“She also said if the same thing were to happen to me, she hoped someone would treat me with the same kindness. That is how my mother impressed upon me the lesson that you should give only good things to people.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t her mother who got her on the road to starting a restaurant. Instead, it was her late mother-in-law Lisa D’Cruz who shared with her the recipes for what are now May’s signature dishes like prawn toran and fish pottu.

At a time when the idea of being in the food business had yet to take form, Lisa enlisted the help of May, who had just married into the D’Cruz family, to help prepare the family meals. These were interesting sessions as May not only became familiar with her mother-in-law’s recipes but she also heard stories about the scrapes her husband, the late Michael D’Cruz, got into as a child.

Today, May’s three children, all girls, are keen on following in her footsteps in the food business.

Her eldest, Sharrolyn, 26, has her own place called The Ranch in Kota Kemuning, Selangor, which she opened a year ago. Among the items on the menu is Indian grilled chicken, a dish that was inspired by May.

The other two, Sherona, 22, and Shereen, 21, have big plans to promote their mother’s business which, they say, has an annual turnover of RM1 million.

Unlike Leong and May, Rose Weiss, 42, who goes by her husband’s surname, never spent time in the kitchen with her mother.

“We were forbidden to step into the kitchen!” says Weiss, who has been running Chez Rose (formerly known as Klimt’s) in Damansara Heights for the past 25 years.

The reason was that mum, Hasmah Pakir Mohamad, 65, wanted her to concentrate on her studies.

“We owned a rubber estate and there were three maids in the house – one to do the washing, another to clean and the third to cook. So, there was very little point or need for us to go into the kitchen,” says Weiss who is of Afghan and Thai descent and the eldest of four siblings.

So she studied, and by the time she got her degree in economics, mum had already groomed her for a diplomatic career.

There was one snag, however. Weiss did not like the life at all and so she became a management trainee at the Pan Pacific in Pangkor.

There, mum was not around to keep her away from the kitchen, which she found fascinating because she had been denied its entry as a child.

And was she in for an “enlightening” time.

“This was the era where chefs were a really rough lot, the type who would not hesitate to catch you by the scruff of your neck and throw you out of the back door if they caught you smoking in the kitchen!

“Nowadays you have people expressing their shock at how Chef Ramsay can cuss and swear in Hell’s Kitchen, but that was exactly how the atmosphere was back then,” Weiss says.

And, not surprisingly, one German chef would declare that her slender and petite frame would render her unsuitable for the heat and heavy work.

“When you are in an industrial kitchen, being a chef is more than just stirring. At Chez Rose, for instance, I can have 15kg of lamb shank in a pot and to handle that you need brawn,” says Weiss who heads seven staff in her kitchen.

However, her mother’s lesson on perseverance, industry and the need for perfection would not be lost on her. Now a mother of one, Weiss not only mans her own kitchen but supplies frozen soups to other outlets as well.

Another thing which was not lost on her was her mother’s sense of vanity. As such, Weiss ardently promotes low-fat food and eating plenty of vegetables at Chez Rose, which serves pork-free continental cuisine.

To date, Hasmah, who lives with Weiss, has yet to overcome her amazement at her daughter’s ability to whip up good European fare, but she has accepted that the kitchen is the place for Weiss after all. To show her support, she often comes for her favourite dish, the vegetable strudel which Weiss has created especially for her.

As a Mother’s Day treat, Leong, May and Weiss are sharing their favourite recipes with Sunday Metro readers.

Healthy eating: Leong Lai Choo showing off her santanless nasi lemak at The Nyonya One.

B.M.O Chicken (courtesy of The Nyonya One)

3 chicken thighs
Pinch of salt, black pepper and turmeric powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5-6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon Szechuan red pepper seeds
2 tablespoons hoi sin sauce
1 tablespoon dark soya sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
3 tablespoons sugar dissolved in ½ cup water
Sprigs of fresh thai basil, mint and spring onions

Chop chicken thighs into small pieces and season with salt, black pepper and turmeric powder. Wait half an hour for marinade to seep in. The smaller the pieces, the easier it is for the flavour to penetrate the meat. To seal in the juices, half fry the chicken after marinating and set aside.

For the sauce, put Szechuan red pepper seeds in vegetable oil and fry over low fire till fragrant. Throw in smashed garlic cloves, followed by hoi sin sauce, dark soya sauce and oyster sauce. Stir briefly before pouring in sugar solution.

When sauce thickens, put in chicken and allow to cook until gravy is almost dry. Quickly throw in fresh thai basil, mint and spring onions and stir fry. Recipe serves three.

Indian Grilled Chicken (courtesy of The Ranch)

1 whole chicken leg
Pinch of salt and white pepper
¾ tablespoon chilli powder
¾ tablespoon powdered chicken stock
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon orange juice
Butter for basting
½ medium onion sliced
4-5 curry leaves
1 tablespoon ghee
¾ tablespoon cumin seeds

Debone chicken leg and marinate with salt, white pepper, chilli powder, powdered chicken stock, sesame oil and orange juice. Leave aside for an hour before grilling. Baste with butter to keep meat moist.

For the topping, fry sliced onions and a few curry leaves in ghee and cumin seeds until the onions turn soft and brown. Arrange on top of meat. Serve with steamed vegetables, fries or baked potato.

Vegetable Strudel (courtesy of Chez Rose)

A mixture of broccoli stalks,
julienne of carrots, button mushrooms and capsicums
2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 cup vegetable stock
1 sheet filo pastry
2-3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon chopped basil

Pre-blanch broccoli stalks, julienne of carrots, button mushrooms and capsicums. Sauté in olive oil, adding salt and pepper to taste. Then reduce in vegetable stock until vegetables become soft. Wrap vegetables in filo pastry, put in the oven and bake.

For the sauce, sauté garlic and onion in olive oil, add in chopped tomatoes and basil. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce in vegetable stock, thicken with cream and pour around baked vegetable strudel.

To finish, sprinkle chopped Italian parsley on top.

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