Heirloom recipes brought to life

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FOR septuagenarian Ong Jin Teong, life got much busier after retirement. The associate professor turned chef and heritage food expert not only demonstrates cooking Peranakan dishes but has also written two books to record heirloom recipes.

“What does engineering have to do with cooking?” is one of his favourite ice-breaker topics, and he would be happy to tell you.

His mother Khoo Chiew Kin was a whiz in the kitchen and took pride in cooking complex dishes for prayers, festivities and celebrations. Khoo encouraged her children — both the boys and girls — to do their own cooking from a young age.

An active member of 7th Georgetown (North) scout troop, during his schooling at St Xavier’s Institution, Ong recalled cooking a full course meal outdoors to earn his cooking merit badge. The meal had local dishes such as pisang goreng, chai tow in sambal sauce and kuih kodok.

In 1963, Ong went abroad to study electrical engineering. The cold gloomy weather in London soon made him homesick for Peranakan food.

He began to experiment and started to cook on a hotplate in the tiny kitchenette of his hostel, drawing from his observations of how food was prepared at home and at hawker stalls in Penang.

Ong joined international telecommunications company Cable & Wireless Ltd after obtaining a doctorate from Imperial College, London and got married. His first posting was to Barbados in the Eastern Caribbean.

In 1984, he returned to teach electrical and electronic engineering at the Nanyang Technological Institute, which later became the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore where he retired in 2005 as associate professor.

Ong said with newfound time on his hands, he toyed with the idea of writing a book — perhaps one on wireless communications, drawing on material from his lectures.

But as he reminisced of his childhood, he started to jot down recollections of family picnics in Telok Bahang.

That was when he realised that he should embark on something totally different from his profession: a book on heritage food, to record their recipes before they disappear forever.

“What is lacking is a dearth of early records of traditional food in Malaya. I could not find any records in the course of my research.

“My mother used to give cooking demonstrations at the YWCA and later for her Methodist Girl’s School’s Ex-Pupils Association. Her collection of recipes was compiled by my father and typed by my sister. The conversion from the old recipes to a more user-friendly format was rather challenging but that record helped tremendously,” Ong told Malay Mail.

According to Ong, the most challenging part of producing the book was the photo shoot session where he had to cook five to seven dishes in a single day.

Time consuming preparatory work had to be done the day before due to the complex cooking methods.

Ever the academic, Ong said the process for writing a recipe book involved a lot of research.

“Writing a recipe book isn’t much different from writing papers for conferences and journals where I had to do a lot of research. Everything had to be verified, including the spelling of the Penang Hokkien words used, which I later realised were Malay words but pronounced differently. The first book took nearly five years, much longer than the time spent for my PhD!”

On hindsight, Ong said he made the right choice. His books are well received by the Peranakan community, and he has more than 9,000 followers on his Penang Heritage Food Facebook page where he interacts with members by posting photographs of heirloom recipes or unusual looking utensil for discussions.

His first cookbook, Penang Heritage Food; Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook was published in 2011 and won a national award for best culinary history in the World Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.

Besides recipes, Ong is also fascinated by traditional cooking utensils, which he started collecting when writing his book.

At the last count, he confessed to amassing more than 200 cooking utensils which included traditional weights and measures, lesung and batu giling for grinding, and even traditional coconut graters.

He also has in his extensive collection, ovens, pot and pans, metal and wooden moulds used for making kuih.

Some of these old copper and cast iron moulds could be labelled antique — they were later made of brass and more recently, aluminium.

Ong’s latest book, Nonya Heritage Kitchen — Origins, Utensils, Recipes was launched in London and Singapore before the final unveiling in his hometown, at Penang State Chinese Association building in Jalan Perak, George Town recently.

The cookbook, which is dedicated to his wife’s jee chim (wife of her father’s brother) Lim Say Choo, showcases original recipes for kuih and the unusual utensils used to make these delicacies.