Monday, June 27, 2011

Home-grown cooks

WHAT spurs people to cook at home?

Cost is one factor. Eating out is not cheap – not where quality is concerned.

A plate of mixed rice with vegetables and meat in the city can cost up to RM7. If you are feeding a family of three, then one meal alone can easily come up to RM30 with drinks thrown in.

Then, there are parental concerns.

The upper floor of Huck’s Cafe, a private kitchen started by Poh Huck Seng in his double-storey corner house in Gasing Indah. As Poh limits the number of diners to 20 per night, the waiting list is one-and-a-half months long.

Two years ago, Susan Beh, 40, discovered that her son, Aidan, now six, had eczema.

“We found out that this was caused by a food allergy, and triggered by oyster sauce, sesame oil and mushrooms, the very things which are often found in commercially prepared food,” says Beh.

As a full-time mother, Beh is lucky that she can supervise Aidan’s meals personally, something she could not do during the first two years of his life when she was working and cooked only on weekends.

Beh says it is love for her family that motivates her.

Poh Huck Seng

“When your loved ones request for a certain dish, it is hard to say, ‘no’. That was what sparked my interest.”

For Poh Huck Seng, a 47-year-old father-of-three, cooking at home was the last thing on his mind in his bachelor days.

But when his first child was born 19 years ago, he had a change of heart, simply because he wanted the best for his son.

“The first thing I made was apple juice. At that time my son was only three months old.”

Since then, this doting dad has used his kitchen skills to impress his children. Since it was Poh’s wife who did the daily cooking, this event organiser thought that he would provide some novelty to their diets.

“They learned how to count by watching me bake almond butter cookies. Each child would have their own shape and they’d recognise which one was theirs. They would gobble everything up before the cookies had time to cool!”

Home cooking eventually paid off for Poh. When he started posting everything he cooked on Facebook in an album called Huck’s Café, it attracted his friends’ attention and soon, they began to request for “sampling sessions”.

“It’s a popular trend in Europe where people will go to an individual’s house for a taste of home-cooking. I thought why not give it a try so I started taking reservations,” he says.

Today, Poh has taken to cooking as a full-time venture, opening his double-storey corner house in Gasing Indah in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, to diners who will either give him a menu to follow or surrender themselves to the surprises he comes up with.

As Poh only limits the nightly capacity to 20, the waiting list is one-and-a-half months long. For reservations, check out Huck’s Café on Facebook.

Published in The Star 28, June 2011.

Cook for comfort

If you care about what you’re eating, preparing your own food is safer than eating out all the time.

ELAINE Ho is not telling anyone not to eat out. Nor is she turning her nose up at those who do. What she’s saying is: Cooking at home can be a good thing.

Ho, 28, lived and worked in Australia for 10 years before returning to Malaysia in 2009 when she got married. That was when she discovered that most of her friends and family members resorted to having all their meals outside. Ho, who has a degree in Food Science and Technology from Curtin University, Western Australia, found this alarming.

“Food may be cheap here but there is the question of what’s inside. The oil may have been reused many times and there is the hygiene issue, especially with hawker food.”

Eating well: Elaine Ho strongly advocates home cooking.

This planted the seed of an idea for her website, which she works on full-time. She filled it with simple recipes and food tips, like how to stop vegetables from wilting, the correct way to wash mushrooms, and how to cut meat and store fresh fish. It has everything that a home cook would find handy, and on good days, the website sees up to 600 visitors.

Ho’s recipes may be too simple for advanced gourmet cooks, but they are intended more for the younger crowd, perhaps those who are living on their own for the first time.

“Cooking at home has its own appeal. Thanks to personalities like Nigella Lawson, people are beginning to embrace cooking at home. They see it as a ticket to popularity where the home of a good cook is always a favourite place for a gathering with friends.”

But is Ho realistic? Not every young adult can afford his own apartment. When all the space one has is a room and the landlady says that the kitchen is out of bounds, then what?

“Find another place. Obviously, she does not have your best interests at heart. A reasonable person will realise that in order to put in your best at work, you will need proper nutrition,” she says.

All that fuss over a meal, says Ho, will definitely pay off in the end.

“When you take charge of your own meals, the quality is there. Let’s say you fry your own noodles. You can throw in lots of vegetables and meat, adjust the salt level and hold back on the oil. Noodles cooked in a shop will either be too oily, salty or will not contain enough meat or vegetables.”

Nutrition is another crucial issue. A burger bought from a stall will contain too much fat. A plate of chee cheong fun is made up entirely of starch and sugar. If you include fish balls, there may be a little protein.

In the long term, a diet high in fat, carbohydrates and sugar is not going to bring good news.

“I am not saying, ‘Don’t eat out’. If you’re Malaysian that’s almost impossible because there are so many good food places here. What I am advocating is that eating out should be a treat, not something that is done for every meal.”

Ho has heard enough groans though – the two most common complaints are: no time, and too much hassle with the cleaning up later.

This is where Ho makes her entrance as the food scientist.

The first thing she asks is for the lazy cook to think green with spinach, green apples, kiwifruit, green pears, celery, cucumbers and broccoli. They are rich in nutrients that can support retinal health, and help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Green fruits and vegetables also contain chlorophyll, which has been proven to be effective against cancer.

The next thing is to wave the flag for things like tomatoes, watermelon, strawberries, raspberries, red apples, red onions and red grapes. They contain powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage.

So, can eating out offer the same deal?

“The thing here is to think of the end result, not the hassles,” says Ho.

Next is to set aside the notion of cooking as a chore.

“Think of quick meals. A baguette stuffed with minced chicken, a slice of fried egg and Chinese parsley is an example of a quick and easy meal. Egg sandwiches sprinkled with spring onions don’t take more than five minutes.”

As for the lack of space or appliances, well, there is always the rice cooker. Think of one-pot meals where carrots, beef and rice can be cooked at the same time. There is also the option of steaming fish and vegetables in the same pot while the rice cooks.

Ho suggests looking at cooking as therapy.

“The goal is not to achieve full marks for whatever you have cooked. Instead, look at it as a way to bond and communicate. At the end of the day, the aim is to bring your family or friends to the dinner table where you can eat and enjoy each other’s company.”

Published in The Star, Tuesday June 28, 2011