IF THERE was one thing chef Loh Hong Chye's mother did not have to nag him about, it was to finish his meals. A greedy child by his own admission, the head chef of the Princess Terrace Cafe at Copthorne King's Hotel would even sneak into the kitchen to pinch food.
'Whenever my mother caught me, I'd earn a slap on my wrist,' says the Penang-born Singapore permanent resident, 'but I was curious to find out how she cooked all that delicious food, so I pestered her to teach me.'
Determined to carve a career in the kitchen, he left school at 17 and started working as a waiter at a seafood restaurant in Penang before becoming its cook.
This was followed by a brief stint at a catering company before he opened his own restaurant serving Malaysian and Western food. Business was good but high rent forced him to close shop after three years.
He then cooked at Penang's Shangri-La Hotel and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel before coming to Singapore in 2003 with his wife and two of his three grown-up daughters to join Copthorne King's. The eldest has her own family in Penang.
On what he likes best about Singapore, Chef Loh, 52, who lives in Henderson Crescent, says: 'Singapore is very clean and peaceful and the people here are well-mannered.'
|AUTHENTIC TASTE: Chef Loh Hong Chye uses fragrant spices from Penang to keep the flavours of his cuisine true.
|WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
|A bowl of pig's stomach soup, a plate of Penang char kway teow with two tablespoons of lard, Penang Hokkien prawn mee soup, some Nonya kueh and bubor chacha (sweet potato and yam in coconut milk).
What Penang dish do you miss?
I miss the or luak (oyster omelette) from home. The kind sold here is dry and crispy but the Penang version is softer and more moist. The or luak in Penang also has Thai fish sauce added to it, which lends it a stronger flavour. My favourite stall in Penang is in Carnavon Street. Business is so good that the stall is open for two hours only every day, from 3.30 to 5.30pm.
Where are your favourite eating joints in Penang?
Besides the or luak stall, I like the Penang laksa at the Ayer Itam Foodcourt, which is near the Kek Lok Si Temple. The laksa gravy is not too spicy or sour. Another of my favourites is the wonton noodle stall in Penang's Chulia Street. I like the noodles so much, I usually have two bowls, one dry and one with soup. I especially like the stock as it is made with pork bones.
Where are your favourite eating haunts in Singapore?
I patronise the bak chor mee (minced meat noodle) stall at Newton Circus. Without the chilli and vinegar that the hawker usually adds to the noodles, its taste actually reminds me of my favourite wonton mee from home. I also like the steamboat at Copthorne Orchid Hotel in Dunearn Road because it boasts a large variety of ingredients.
What ingredient is a must-have in your cooking?
I cannot do without authentic spices from Penang. Although you can find five-spice powder here, it is less fragrant than the ones from Penang. It's the same with pepper. Also, the spice mix for inchee kabin (Penang-style fried chicken) is not available here. It consists of yellow ginger, nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon and cloves.
Is there any food you don't eat?
I try to avoid oily food as much as possible because I'm getting on in age and I need to stay healthy. That said, char kway teow doesn't taste good without pork lard, so instead of cutting it out completely, I halve the amount I use in my noodles to just one tablespoon instead of two.
What's the secret to good Penang Hokkien prawn mee soup?
Prawn heads are used to make the stock in Penang Hokkien prawn mee soup. The heads are fried and then blended into a paste before water is added to it to make a thick, rich stock.
What Penang-style dish has a similar Singaporean counterpart?
Penang popiah is similar to the popiah eaten here, except peanuts are not used in the Penang version.
What dish is your restaurant famous for?
The nasi ulam, which is a cold rice dish that comes with salted fish and lots of herbs such as basil, mint and ginger flower. You can't find this authentic Penang dish sold anywhere else in Singapore. It's available every day for both lunch and dinner.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Mar 23, 2008.