Sunday August 31, 2003

A taste for only the best

Meet a Malaysian whose life-long romance with food has taken him far and wide. Yet, he tells TAN LEE KUEN that there’s no (eating) place like home 

DATUK Kok Wee Kiat has eaten his way around the world and back. When he travels, his bible is the Michelin guide to the star-studded gastronomic constellations in Europe.  

“The green tells me to go, the red tells me to stop,” he says, knowingly.  

In winter, wrapped in a shawl, nose red with cold, he is guided by sight: “Walk around during mealtimes and find the busiest restaurant with locals.” 

In summer, when the sun is warming the stones of buildings and roads, he sniffs like a hunting dog, savouring the smells of pleasure and food.  

“I don’t know where I got my instinct to eat. I guess I genuinely enjoy it,” confesses Kok, a former deputy minister and a regular food reviewer for Tatler’s Best Restaurant guide. But entering any old Chinese coffeeshop and catching a whiff of fried kuay teow takes him back to his childhood.  

Born and raised in Seremban, Kok’s home was in the busiest part of town, 100m from the market. It was a lively scene of hawkers balancing wares on their shoulders or ferrying them around on bicycles. An Indian man would be touting his curry puffs, shouting: “Satu makan, dua mau!” while another sold what Kok then thought was the best kuih he’d ever had – that is, until he met his wife-to-be.  

“I was brought into her Nyonya family, and it was then that I realised that the Nyonyas made the best cakes and kuih,” he says chuckling. 

Of all the characters associated with food in his past, Kok distinctively remembers this Chinese fellow, blind in one eye, who made the best beef balls in soup.  

TUCKING IN: Kok still enjoys his coffee shop meals, but keeps a close eye on his weight.

But what was most outstanding was that this man used his beef balls to gamble – the stakes were money and, well, beef balls.  

“Because his beef balls were so wonderful, everyone wanted some, so he wasn’t short on takers,” recalls Kok. 

“Some days he did really well, but on others, he didn’t make much at all.” 

Kok’s love for food was partly fuelled by his father. 

“Because of him, I love Malay food,” he says. Kok remembers eating a lot of good satay. He would squat by the side of the road with his father and watch the satay man sweat over his portable grill.  

His father, a wise man who ran a halfway house for Chinese labourers, sent Kok away to Pasar Road English Primary School in Kuala Lumpur when he came of age. He went on to the Victoria Institution for his secondary education before studying law at the University of Singapore.  

When he was in Kuala Lumpur, he lived in the government quarters with his uncle, who worked with the Municipal Council. What he remembers of his culinary adventures at the time was his aunt’s stir-fried beef. It was a simple dish of sliced beef, ginger, spring onions and oyster sauce, but Kok says it was the best, even though she did not eat any of it herself.  

“My love of beef is attributed to the way she cooked it,” says Kok. 

“And you have to take into consideration that the beef she used at that time was local, not imported.” 

These days, Kok would buy his meat from Mr Ho’s Fine Foods, an old-time friend, cut the way he likes it, which is one and a half inches thick. He’d lightly pan-fry it, leaving it slightly cold in the centre. 

“I don’t normally eat steaks outside since I am fussy about the way it is cooked,” he admits. 

Kok started cooking in the Sixth Form. At that time, he had moved into the school’s hostel and would have his meals with the rest of his dorm-mates.  

However, being the school prefect, he was invariably late for meals and had only leftovers. Being the hostel captain, he managed to persuade the Hainanese cook to let him use the kitchen. 

“Cooking is not that bad, especially if you’re a little fussy about the taste you want and how you want it,” says Kok. 

When Kok graduated, he went into litigation, working for some of the best law firms in town, before switching to corporate and banking law. 

He started to travel, and he travelled extensively from one end of Europe to the other, north to south, east and west, sampling their foods as he went along. 

First the French, then the Italians influenced his taste buds. Western cuisine came as a gastronomic revelation for him:  

“When I was young, my father’s idea of western food was the Hainanese chicken chop.” 

These days, Kok dines out regularly in fine dining restaurants like Lafite and Cilantro in Kuala Lumpur.  

Today, at the age of 64, he is as sprightly as jumping beans. The Saturday after this interview he’ll be holding the second Amanti della cucina italiana - Lovers of Italian Cuisine – dinner at Villa Danielle in Imperial Sheraton. 

He is also the capitaine of the local chapter of the Society of the Musketeers of Armagnac, a society that fine dines for charity. In September, he’ll be attending their annual dinner in Condom, France. 

It’s a long way from the street side meals and snacks, but Kok still enjoys his coffeeshop meals, but keeps a close eye on his weight; “Below 70 kg!” he proudly proclaims. 

For all the good food now available in the country, Kok does miss a certain chicken dish his mother used to make. 

She would buy a live chicken from the market, keep it in a cage and feed it with natural foods until it was nicely fattened. Then she would bring to boil a simple broth of ginger and spring onions, then cut off the heat, dip the chicken in to cook a little before taking it out. This procedure would continue until the chicken was tender. 

Kok is a little wistful at this point because he didn’t learn the recipe and the mix of the chicken feed. His mother has since passed on. What’s more, he can’t find the right kind of chicken anymore. Sigh