Chef Wee revisits old-school Straits flavors with a Western twist
By Andrea McKenna Brankin
Singapore is certainly famous enough for its food scene, with everything from diner-style burgers to Michelin chef’s being featured at several restaurants. But a new player in the private-dining space is taking local flavors from Singapore and Malaysia’s past and applying it to new, modern food presentations.
GS Wee has been a chef since his college years. He’s recently developed a new concept from old traditions to honor the days of the kampung around Southeast Asia. He describes the style generally as an East meets West combination. But it goes far deeper and is way more interesting than that once you take a look at some of the ingredients.
Wee’s roots trace back to Borneo, barely an hour’s flight from Singapore to the city of Kuching and another one-hour flight by Twin Otter 18 seaters to the village where he grew up. “My childhood was in a small fishing village by the sea called Mukah. My great grandma on my mother’s side was a Melanau.” The Melanau are an indigenous river people in Sarawak, one of the Eastern states of Malaysia. “This humbled tribal group lives by the sea and their staple food is Sago,” which is a starch extracted from the trunk of Sago palm and the starch can produce sago pearls, in cooking or cookies and desserts. “Growing up, I was pampered by the varieties of fresh, organic vegetables and produce from the forest and the seafood provided by the South China Sea.” Wee was very attached to his grandmother who had great culinary skills. “That was my early journey as a self-professed food lover. My great grandmother was a native, or aborigine of Borneo. My grandma was a Nyonya, which had its own localized cooking and was the only way she knew. Native food from Mother Nature is what I know and Nyonya food was my daily food while growing up.
“In recent years, with more knowledge on what I was taught in Western cooking, I thought it would be a good idea to combine our native rich and colorful spices and ingredients to incorporate into the cuisine. My aim is to bring the cuisine into another level with harmony of different cultures.”
In addition to his grandmother, the natural environment also has inspired Wee as a chef. “Growing up, we had fresh harvest and produce; no preservatives, no additives, no pesticides and no elaborate seasoning to add flavoring to food.” He says simplicity is the only way they cooked their food. “We let nature display its own taste and flavor at its best. This inspired me at a young age, like a seed of passion for natural cooking, which germinated and has grown into my adulthood.”
But cooking is more than mixing food around; it has a deeper meaning to Wee. “To me, a chef is someone who cooks from the heart, who prepares food with pride and with an overall respect for food.” He notes that one important point of his history is that wasting food is “definitely a no-no!” He also believes cooking can be done by anyone. “Cooking is not rocket science. With fresh produce and ingredients, anyone will be able to cook as long as they have the desire to try.”
He found that ethos worked for him, as he went overseas to study in the US, where he landed jobs in Western and Eastern restaurants and also learned about wine and liquor working in stores in order to pay for school. “Companies sent me for wine and liquor tasting courses for product knowledge, to better serve customers.” He also notes that it is a requirement in cooking courses and restaurants to upgrade food handling hygiene, cooking styles and skills.
Those experiences eventually led him to set up a restaurant called Fortune with friends in Johnson City, Tennessee. At Fortune, he focused on Americanized Chinese food, but also introduced the Malaysian-Indian Ginger Tea-Tarik, Bubor Terigu, modified and simplified Sambal Chicken, Olive Fried Rice, Sambal Fried Noodles and Sweet & Sour Fish or Pork in Nyonya Sambal Sauce.
He also had a stint as the Secretary of International Students Association in university, which opened up his mind and taste buds to different various cooking and flavors from different countries. But for sure, his knowledge in spices and ingredients while growing up in Borneo had given him the edge to preformulate the taste prior to any food preparation. “I love to share culinary knowledge to people from all walks of life.” With this, Wee is pretty excited to share his new cuisine with Singapore.
In his endeavors here, more opportunities came when he was hired to be a healthy cooking facilitator in Singapore. To learn new skills, he worked in a restaurant and trained under a very experienced executive chef in Italian and French cooking. “It was an eye opener for me, as I saw the elaborate, colorful dressing and beautiful plating of the Italian and French cuisines. This enabled me to apply Western cooking as the main stage and touch up with local spices and ingredients.” These skills also sparked the impetus for him to create his East meets West combo cuisine. In a test run of his Devil May Care Gourmet, my husband and I had a dinner prepared by Wee to check out exactly what he’s talking about. He brought a large bag with all his materials, was fast in the kitchen and also came and sat with us to explain the various ingredients and preparation styles. One of the most interesting food items was a nut called Buah Keluak. It has a creamy taste and is definitely unusual on the palette… and maybe a little dangerous. But it’s great!
History of Black Gold
The Kepayang tree is indigenous to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and has a fruit the size of a small football. The seed has a hard shell and is called Buah Keluak - referred to as ‘black gold’. “The edible part is the fermented kernel inside the seed which is well-known traditionally for its astonishing, remarkable and unusual earthy, nutty and mushroomy smell and taste”, says Wee, who adds that it is the heart and soul in Nyonya cuisine, especially for its Ayam Buah Keluak (in a chicken stew) and Tulang Babi Buah Keluak (in a pork rib stew).
The kicker here is that all parts of the tree and young Keluak fruit and seeds contain hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison if consumed without lengthy treatment and preparation, according to Wee. He adds that it has a higher amount of hydrogen cyanide when the fruit is unripe. “This explains why you see all the fruits looking beautiful hanging on the tree and no animals daring to touch them.” Wee explains that there are two ways of treating the seeds so they become edible.
In the old days, the seeds were extracted from ripe fruits boiled, then buried in ash, covered with banana leaves and placed in a pit. Now, they’re put in a large wooden container in a cold, dry place for forty days. During the ash treatment, the kernel in the seeds turns from a creamy white color to dark brown or black. The old, wise de-poisoning treatment can be explained by modern science, as hydrogen cyanide can be destroyed by high temperature and is water-soluble. Thus, boiling helps to destroy or break down the hydrogen cyanide in the seed and the kernel inside. Forty further days of fermentation reduces the toxicity of the hydrocyanic acid and, at the same time, transforms and develops the unique color, flavor and taste of Buah Keluak. Much of the Buah Keluak imported to Singapore and Malaysia is prepared in this way, says Wee.
The second method is by crushing the seeds, extracting them from the kernel, boiling them before putting them under running water for a day. In the kampung, the villagers put the boiled kernels in a gunny sack and tied it to the bank of a stream to let the running water wash it overnight. After the second boiling, the kernels would be ready to be consumed. Wee notes that this is widely practiced in Borneo.
Aside from being a very laborious process, Wee says the two different methods of treatment display two different tastes, textures, ways of cooking and chewing property. “Both methods give addictive results and invite people to come back for more.” I can attest to that after I tried the one that was fermented for 40 days.
Even though it sounds like a risky process, Wee likens the poison issue to that of the puffer fish in Japan: It’s known for being dangerous but many people still eat it without any issues. “The tetrodotoxin found in fugu is more toxic than cyanide, and each year about 20 people are poisoned from badly prepared fish. But the Japanese eat 10,000 tons of this poisonous puffer fish delicacy each year,” says Wee.
From Poison to Palette
To prepare Buah Keluak for cooking, it requires scrubbing and washing the ash on the seeds. The seeds are soaked for three to five days and the water is changed twice daily. Before cooking, the lip of the seed is cracked open with a pestle and the smooth black or dark brown kernels are extracted.
Buah Keluak can be prepared in many ways in Nyonya cooking, but Wee usually prepares them in these two ways. Either he pounds the kernel with a pestle and mortar with lime juice, salt and sugar and grinds through a fine sieve to get a firm smooth dressing. Or, he’ll use the first method, then mix with minced prawns or pork and stuff the mixture back into the shells to be cooked together with Ayam Buah Keluak or Tulang Baby in rempah sauce (spice paste).
Wee explains that the dark, deep, earthy, nutty, mashed chocolate taste of Buah Keluak tinged with a slight bitter note has been called the Asian equivalent to black truffles. “Buah Keluak dishes are also considered equivalent to caviar in Nyonya food.”
Chef Wee, clearly well-versed in the history of local ingredients, as well as influenced by the cooking styles of Europe and Southeast Asia, makes for quite a culinary show for cozy, private dinners or small groups. He may even venture into more localized cuisine education.
In the future, Wee hopes to lead food tours of fishing villages in Borneo during the fishing season to show how local people make Sago and fish dishes. This includes going fishing in the morning, like the kampung fishermen, and bringing people to see how the locals process Sago starch and bake it on the clay bed to make sago pearl, make their local biscuits, all while staying in the kampung houses with them, says Wee.
But for now, Chef Wee is offering his cooking services to the Singapore set and hopes to reinvigorate a blast from the past in food style. Wee says his food is targeted towards foodies with an “adventurous attitude.” Combining historical ingredients to make bold new flavors, served in a modern presentation and an informative explanation of the whole dinner from a guy from a kampung surely makes for an audacious new way to enjoy dining.
As his tribe in Borneo says in Malaneu: “Bah-ke-mun,” which means, “Let’s eat!”