Home, Food & Business: Guan and Nyonya food
As part of research for this project I have been speaking with people in London about food and home. In the series ‘Home, Food & Business’ I have been focusing on those who have developed a career around food that reminds them of home and who predominantly have ‘home’ in multiple places.
I meet up with Guan on a Tuesday lunchtime, I had just got back from a week in France and although I had a lot of work to do that day I was still in holiday mood, so it wasn't hard for Guan to twist my arm into having a glass of wine with lunch. Or rather - "are you the sort of person who has one glass and then thinks another is a good idea? Maybe we should just have a carafe?"
With that one sentence, I knew me Guan were going to get on.
Guan gave up his Investment Banking career to train in traditional French cooking at Cordon Bleu in London for a year. But for his cooking post-studying Guan went back to his roots and developed a very specific style of cooking, Nyonya food. A combination of falling in love with cooking and a lucky break on TV with 'The Taste' meant Guan ended up changing careers and giving a life in the food industry a shot.
Guan is the first to admit that he has been lucky to have had the corporate background, this means at times he still has his foot in the banking world, which gives him the freedom to persue the food he loves, the food he associates with home and also cooking it in a way and an environment he enjoys.
Malaysian food is exciting because it is eclectic and draws inspiration from multiple sources; Malaysia is a country of migrations and many indigenous peoples. Because of this, it made sense to me that a Malaysian would go off and study french cooking - adding another inspiration to the mix! It was interesting to hear Guan talk about the enjoyment of transferring Western technique and skills to Asian cuisine; for example Malaysian cooking focuses on the balance of spice and sometimes the proteins get little love, where as the french know how to cook a piece of meat beautifully.
Why Nyonya food?
Although I grew up in KL, all of my family's roots are from the northern island of Penang, one of the strongholds of Nyonya cuisine. It's a cuisine that's very close to the heart and part of my family heritage. The combination of Malay and Chinese influences in Nyonya food gives it a balance, depth and complexity of flavours like no other.
How do you feel others connect with your food?
For Non-Malaysians, the aim is to transport them to the kitchens of Penang and Malacca. Many guests often comment about the depth, balance and complexity of the flavours at play. For fellow Malaysians or Baba-Nyonya guests, there's no more rewarding/humbling feedback than hearing the words 'a taste of home’.
What do you think about when you think of home and Malaysia?
Growing up in Malaysia, one thing becomes clear from a very young age: the country is obsessed by food! Breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper – Malaysians are eating all the time. It’s in our DNA. When I think of Malaysia, the melting pot of different flavours, dishes, races and cultures is the first thing that comes to my mind. In such a food-centric culture, I realised from the moment I could feed myself the importance of food in keeping families grounded and bringing people of all walks of life together. If the opportunity ever came along, I knew a life in food was something I eventually wanted to pursue and make a career out of.
What smells, or tastes immediately make you think of home?
There's nothing that reminds me more of home than the smell of a Malaysian spice paste ('rempah') being 'tumis' (sautéed) over the stove. The smell of chillies, shallots, lemongrass, garlic & belacan cooking away takes me back to the kitchen of my family home every single time.
On the flip side, if I had to pick the quintessential aroma or taste that reminds me of the UK, it would have to be that of a classic Roast dinner... a whole chicken or juicy joint of Sirloin cooking away in the oven with some vegetables and spuds.
What made you decide to have supper clubs, in your own home? It's an exciting time to be part of the Supper Club and Pop Up dining scene in London - the city is becoming ever more open to new cuisines and flavours. Supper Clubs allow for an informal, interactive environment in which guests not only get to taste the food, but they can also hear the stories behind the dishes, see how the dishes are prepared and really immerse themselves in a new food culture. Hosting it in the comfort of my home just adds to the immersive-ness and authenticity of the experience. Seeing like-minded guests bond over a meal I have prepared has got to be one of the most rewarding of feelings. It reminds me of the satisfaction I had growing up after feasting on my family's home-cooking. It's a dynamic no restaurant environment or private dining experience can match!