A chat with Juliet Choo about Food.
How did you acquire your love and skills in cooking?
Growing up in a Peranakan family, my Mother put me to work in the kitchen at an early age of ten. This was when and where I learnt the basics of Peranakan cuisine. I did not enjoy learning as it was something expected of me.
My maternal grandma was an excellent cook and I enjoyed observing her preparing all sorts of Peranakan kueh kueh as Chinese New Year approached, and also a whole range of dishes on ancestor worship days.
TK remembers driving up a narrow gravel path near the junction of Paya Lebar and Braddel Road to her single-storey terrace house. Grandma would be bent over cooking at her wood-fired stove outside the house.
We used to laugh when we saw prawns falling off her plate as she carried them with her trembling hands to the dining table. Old as she was, she would insist on cooking until she was confined to her bed.
Never knew why ‘rocks’ and the only explanation I came up with was that if all else failed or went wrong, the name prevented comments like “not good enough!”
In the Domestic Science room my teacher Miss Kam encouraged me to experiment and to keep on trying. She also spent time in the mornings before lessons began to share Jesus as my Rock and Refuge. On reflection, I felt special to have been singled out!
The DS Room is where I also learnt to endure failure and to persist and develop the confidence to deviate from recipes and to be creative. The Rock is not just a refuge but also a symbol of confidence, endurance and persistence.
TK was my biggest fan. He always encouraged me to taste & improvise, and loved inviting his colleagues to our home in Kuo Chuan Avenue for meals.
Jeremiah 45.5 “I will give life to you as a prize wherever you go” encourages me to confidently express my individuality to cook and share Singapore food with others when we travel.
Do you have favourite Dining Out memories?
When living in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, I enjoyed our meals at the Chinese restaurant at the Aberdeen Marina Club.
The Members Only restaurant had a nice ambience, a great view of the luxury yachts berthed there, and courteous and efficient service. The food from the menu which we came to know rather well was tasty, well-presented and good value.
Another memory is the kaiseki lunch at Ukai Toriyama in Takaosanguchi outside Tokyo. The restaurant is set on the side of a beautiful forested hill. There is a main reception area and separate koshitsu for groups of up to 8 diners. Each has a kimono-clad hostess. Upon arriving she greeted us and opened up the rice-paper panels to reveal the mountain-side, flowering shrubs and a crystal-clear stream with fish swimming by.
The food was served a course at a time with a focus on local vegetables, fish (Artic Char called Ayu) and marbled beef. Individual servings were small, exquisitely presented and very tasty. There were many courses but one did not feel like one has overeaten. Just happily satisfied and sedated.
When you are away, how do you decide whether to share your cooking?
I think and pray about the people I plan to stay with, whether they will be happy to share their kitchen with me and if they are adventurous in their eating. I will bring easy-to-pack spices to work with ingredients which are easily available in that particular area we are in.
What and where have you shared with others outside Singapore?
I have cooked for family and friends in Perth, Melbourne Sydney, London, several North American cities, Ancona in Italy and in different parts of Japan.
Sometimes I prepare one-dish meals but others can go up to as many as 6 dishes. The number of people I cook for has varied from 4 to 8. Some one-dish items are bak kut teh, steam-boat and mee siam. Multi-course meals depend on what is easily available in the market. I have cooked chilli crab, spicy clams in black-bean sauce, nasi lemak. Bak Kut Teh has been very well received! The ingredients are readily available, the taste easy to like and the dish is unique to Singapore and Malaysia.
Sharing meals like these and enjoying the reciprocal home-cooked meals by the hosts bring our relationship to the next level.
Do you have any advice to share with those who are novice cooks?
In my Cook-in column, I encouraged Readers to try out and experiment with my recipes. You can do the same and be pleasantly surprised at the results. Above all, have fun!
What did you enjoy about your Cook-in experience with The New Nation?
I enjoyed visualising and planning the menu for each session.
Working with a professional photographer was interesting. I gained experience in plating and presenting the dishes prepared, and looked forward to seeing the results in print. We worked well as a team and that was fun.
Can you share any thoughts about cooking for therapy?
It has become a habit that I talk to God when I cook. He keeps me calm and focused. I pray for the results and also for each person invited to the table.
It is also therapeutic to look into the fridge and create a menu from whatever is available. TK and others are often pleasantly surprised by what is finally served up.
Cleaning up as I cook helps to keep the kitchen presentable. I do not like working in a messy kitchen but in a neat, clean & tidy environment, I find healing.
Editor’s Note: To conclude our time with Juliet, here is some information on the Feature Photo (shown at the title bar).
The Feature Photo is Juliet’s pescatarian recreation of Tau Kwa Pau.
Recreating restaurant and hawker dishes is one of the kitchen magics that I have always marvelled at. Mom can taste any dish and somehow be able to tease apart the ingredients. Before we could say hey presto!, that dish would appear on our dinner table.
This pescatarian take on Tau Kwa Pau was recreated just for me, as the original version is filled with chopped meat & has duck gravy involved somehow. According to our Creatively Capable Chef, each piece of taukwa is fried, cooled & cut in half. The insides of each half is scooped out. The newly cleared space is filled with chopped cooked sotong, fishcake, braised soya sauce eggs & cucumber. Served with pickled green chillies, chilli sauce & soya sauce from braised soya eggs.