Introduction

Introduction

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

A sence of memory and inspiration: an invitation

If you were to ask me, as a chef, to explore the place from which I derive inspiration, I’d immediately choose memories of my early childhood in Malaysia. This was the time when I discovered my deep-seated interest in cooking and eating. (If you’re familiar with Malaysia, you’ll know that I’d be considered rather odd if I hadn’t actually followed this national preoccupation.) This background has shaped me to think and cook in a particular way.

In the present day, I’m a chef and restaurateur, firstly running Claude’s Restaurant and more recently Chow Bar & Eating House. I have been involved with Claude’s in Sydney for over a decade. I learned and fine-tuned technical aspects of cooking here, graduating to creating dishes and then orchestrating menus. Claude’s is also where I learned the craft of running a restaurant. It’s a dual role that bridges creativity with practicality. Duality is what interests me: the point at which tension is created; even if it’s tension only of my own making, it keeps me amused.

In recent years, it’s become clearer to me that individual expression comes from a deeper understanding of the evolving concept of self. One of my methods for reaching this understanding is to mine memories for emotional resonance. My dishes, menus and the personality of the restaurant are an authentic reflection of self and also a reflection of the journey I’ve taken to arrive at this juncture.

I spent the first seven years of my life in Sabah, Malaysia. It’s a place that has had diffculty feeling that it belonged anywhere. Located at the northeastern part of Borneo Island, Sabah is physically removed from the main part of Malaysia. It was part of the colonial British empire until 1963, when it chose to join the Malaysian Federation. Whenever I look at the land mass on a map I feel it resembles an amphibious lion, with Sabah the head of this creature.

The household in which I grew up comprised my two parents and younger sister and sometimes, perhaps, a member of our extended family. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins were never far away and formed part of our daily community. The various tables around which we shared meals have become some of my most formative memories of first-time food sensations, creating my likes and dislikes of certain dishes and ingredients.

We lived mainly in Sandakan and for a short period in Tawau. There was an abundance of stimuli for a curious child in these environments. The main industries of the towns were aggressive, environmentally unfriendly agriculture: rubber plantations; harvest of timber from first-growth tropical rainforests; palm oil plantations. (I now wonder if my vivid memory of the resinous smell of the rubber being extracted from the deliberately carved spiral trail on the trunk of the tree is indeed memory or imagination.) As a family living in Sandakan, we heard and spoke a mixture of Malay, English, and Chinese dialects. Here again, the mix of stimuli, in this case of cultures, filled my head with further questions as I struggled to understand what was being said. The Chinese population in my part of Sabah spoke mainly Hakka or Cantonese with local inflections, coloured by words adopted in an organic way from the cultures with which they mixed. Walking through the wet market in the early morning, the adult I was with (mother, grandmother, aunt or cousin) would switch languages and dialects with ease. I heard words from different languages which initially were unintelligible babble. With the passage of growing up and learning, these became languages that I understood. And, with further passing of time, have now forgotten.

Every day was an adventure, although there was a discernible routine dictated by the harshness of the weather. The daily climate, I remember, seemed to range from sometimes intolerable tropical heat to heavy rain. The routine in the morning would be to go about errands as early as possible to avoid the onslaught of heat and then hunker down within the cool walls of our darkened house, perhaps napping, when the sun was at its most fierce. Sometimes this daily routine was punctuated by thunder or lightning storms, the rumblings and flashes of which scared but fascinated me. It was a thrill to listen to the distant rumbles that gradually came closer, passing overhead with the threat of danger and then, little by little, drawing away.

My memories have influenced me to cook in a certain way. I believe that the child comprehends most of the factual points of any remembered situation, but doesn’t necessarily comprehend the context. As an adult, I’m now able to read the background, undertone, implications and interlinked relationships of the remembered situation. This is like a forensic examination of memory. The common touchstone that links the child in me with the adult is memory processed through the senses. When I try to understand and then explain how I’ve developed in the way I have, I inevitably file these memories by my five senses: it is the senses that form the anchors for my memories.

In the chapters that follow, you’ll find dishes that have been created with the knowledge and experience I have now, inspired or influenced by the original memory or meal from my childhood. I’d like to reveal what goes through my head when I’m planning a dish, and I also want to encourage you to think independently and use my thoughts as the beginnings of your own explorations.

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