HIS childhood friends used to call him a sissy for giving up soccer games to help his grandmother in the kitchen. But the taunts did not bother Benjamin Seck, 35, chef-owner of Peranakan restaurant True Blue Cuisine in Armenian Street.
'I stayed in the kitchen because I wanted to. I really enjoyed helping my grandmother cut and pound ingredients,' he says.
However, he was not a homebody.
'I loved climbing trees to pluck fruits. I knew where the best mango tree was in my neighbourhood,' says the boyish-looking bachelor.
Then he adds with a laugh: 'I got caught once and I lied that my aunt lived in the house before running away, mangoes in hand.'
Although he was passionate about food and cooking, it was his love for flowers that he initially pursued as a career. He left secondary school to study ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, and worked full-time as a merchandiser for a florist for six years.
Then he opened a shop in East Coast selling Peranakan kebaya and jewellery. But he continued to cultivate his interest in cooking by learning Peranakan recipes from his mother.
'My mother was secretive. All she would say was 'you add this, this and that' so I had to be very sharp in gauging the amount of ingredients she used as I watched her cook,' he recalls.
Then in 2003, he decided to combine all his passions - Peranakan food, kebayas and antiques - and True Blue Cuisine in East Coast Road was born. The eatery moved to Armenian Street as the new Peranakan museum restaurant in January.
Working alongside his 61-year-old mother in the restaurant kitchen, chef Seck whips up modern Peranakan dishes such as pomelo salad with edible orchid flowers, while she cooks traditional Peranakan favourites.
'We want to offer an experience of the Peranakan lifestyle and there's no better way than through food,' he says.
What is the secret to a good Nonya chap chye?
There are two. First, the cabbage has to be braised thoroughly so that the taste of the fermented bean paste permeates it, but it must not be overcooked. Second, the amount of fermented bean paste used has to be well controlled so that the dish isn't too salty.
What ingredient can't you do without in your cooking?
Belachan (fermented shrimp paste). There's no way one can cook Peranakan food without it. It lends the dish its distinctive taste and kick. I've prepared vegetarian versions of Peranakan dishes without belachan and they just taste flat.
What dish is your restaurant known for?
The ayam buah keluak (right) , which is a chicken stew with black nuts. We don't stint on the buah keluak by stuffing minced prawn or meat into the nut. We fill it with pure buah keluak paste, and the gravy is thick and smooth.
What made you decide to cook Peranakan food with a modern twist?
I didn't want to clash with my mother in the kitchen. You know how Peranakan matriarchs are (laughs). If we cooked the same dish, I'd have to follow her recipe. So I had to think out of the box. Besides, I like experimenting with food.
Where are your favourite local eating haunts?
For fast food, I love the fried chicken from Popeyes at Changi Airport. It doesn't taste oily, and the meat is well flavoured and fried to the right degree of crispness.
I also like the char kway teow at the Old Airport food centre. It is cooked slightly wet and comes with big, juicy cockles.
Lei Garden restaurant is another favourite. I especially like its black sesame tang yuan (glutinous rice ball) which is served dry in a coat of finely crushed peanuts. It's best eaten piping hot.
What dish do you miss most?
Babi assam, which is stewed pork belly in a vinegar and assam (tamarind) sauce. After stewing for a day, the pork belly is air-dried for another day. It is then sliced and pan-fried till crispy before serving.
It's a tedious dish to cook so Peranakan restaurants don't usually serve it. It's not on our menu because our restaurant doesn't serve pork.
What is your guilty food indulgence?
I eat kueh at every meal. My favourite is the red tortoise kueh stuffed with mung bean paste. I like both the Peranakan version, which has a softer skin because sweet potato is added to the dough, and the Chinese version, which is slightly chewy.
From now till Feb 28 next year, Citibank card members enjoy a one-for-one degustation meal at True Blue Cuisine.
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