Today’s Chef in the Spotlight is a lovely lady who needs no introduction. She is the affable Chef Debbie Teoh who is famed for being a chef, a foodie, an author, a food stylist.. basically an accomplished ambassador of Nyonya cuisine and culture. With more than 15 years of experience in the food industry, Chef Debbie is a true-bred Nyonya who hails from Malacca. We wasted no time getting and interview with her. Here is what the talented lady has to say about cooking as a passion.
1. Hi Debbie! Thanks for having us, could you tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up.. your childhood experiences?
Hi Ciki. I grew up in Malacca where I felt like I was the little ugly duckling or black sheep due to the fact that I could not speak any Chinese dialects such as Mandarin especially. Back then, in Malacca, most Chinese people spoke Mandarin, but since I went to a Convent school that was run by Sisters, we spoke English and Bahasa only. I went for Chinese Mandarin classes but we didn’t speak the lingo at home or use it. Whenever we went to shops or stalls, people would scold me or say things like “you are OCBC -orang cina bukan cina” (translation -looks chinese but not chinese!) As a result, I preferred to hang out with mostly Malay kids or Peranakan kids. My maternal Grandma was from a rich family in Penang and she could speak perfect English, read widely, played the piano and smoked – not a norm for ladies during her era. She always had a maid and wore the kebaya with a sanggul(hair accessory) that tied up her hair. She gave up her sanggul the moment she had a stroke which made her hand weak and unable to tie up her hair. She was strict on all of us but never made us cook as we had nannies to do it for us. English was the medium of communication for us and some hokkien.
My paternal Grandma passed away when my dad was young, so we never knew her but Great Grandma was a Malay lady by the name of Aminah. My paternal grandpa was the headmaster of the Banda Hilir English School [BHES], Master Teoh. He was also a strict person who loved ballroom dancing and playing the violin. He loved dancing so much that he built a dancing hall at the back of his home in Banda Hilir which has since been sold. Peranakan ‘patois’ patua was the medium of communication and English most of the time.
Mom met dad when my maternal grandpa was transferred from Penang to Malacca. Till today, I still feel most at home with the Malay stall vendors as my Hokkien dialect is more Penang style Hokkien. Actually now in KL, there are a lot more Penangnites who operate stalls and this has made the Hokkien dialect easily understood compared to say 20 years ago. So things are getting easier for me.
2. So as a result of your mum and dad’s heritage, how would you describe the type of Nyonya cuisine that you create?
I am still very true to tradition. If it’s a Penang Nyonya dish, let it be the original, and if it’s a Malaccan Nyonya dish , so be it. I still cook pineapple jam the old fashion way using the brass wok ‘thang tia’ for my pineapple tarts. However, if its for Chinese new year, then the pastry is with butter- the more modern melt in the mouth type. Jam is still considered very old fashion.
3. What were your favorite foods growing up?
After graduating from my ICSA and IT courses.
5. Where and when did your career in food begin?
When I was working for an IT recruitment firm which made me resign and open up my own café in YR1996
6. If you didn’t become a chef, what would you be?
Can’t think of anything else as food has always been my passion, inspiration and love!
7. Who/what has shaped your cooking the most over the years?
My two aunties who taught me everything from cooking to baking, and my mom’s cousins.
8. What are your favorite culinary weapons in the kitchen?
My mortar and pestle, my electric blender, my stand mixer and oven.
Salt. It heals everything from a sore throat to an itchy back. It can even wash off bad odour from meat/seafood or cure bad breath!
10. Can you please tell us a bit about the Nyonya promotion at the Park Royal and how you came to be part of it?
Parkroyal was having the intention of sending their chefs to Penang for a Nyonya cooking workshop and then their Director of sales, saw my facebook event where I taught Season 7 Top Chefs finalist Nyonya cooking. She arranged for a meeting with their top management and the Hotel Manager spoke to their Singapore office about me running a Nyonya promo there, and rest is history.
11. So after the promotion at Park Royal where for one month, where we can dine on your wonderful Nyonya cuisine, how do we get in touch with you if we would like to order your dishes?
The Parkroyal Nyonya Promo is for only 1.5 months till July 3rd 2011. After that all food will be by orders only- via phone call / email. Advance booking is required with a minimum of 1 week or more.
12. What was the most challenging meal or Nyonya dish you had to make? Why?
Perut ikan as the fish stomach has to be pickled before cooking and to get a fresh and huge fish stomach is quite a challenge these days unless I go back to Malacca or Penang.
13. What is your least favorite food?
I’m not a soup person. Chinese herbal/wine soups but western soup is fine.
14. Can you describe your favourite Nyonya inspired drink/beverage?
Not a drink but more of a sweet broth. Bubur cha-cha with all the goodies inside like yam, sweet potato – orange, white and purple, sago pearls, thick coconut milk, gula melaka and most importantly the pisang raja; a must for me!
15. What are some recent dining and culinary trends you have been observing?
All going back to basics which we grew up with. Look at all the ‘kopitiam’ nowadays.
16. What was the most spectacular meal you have ever had?
Meals cooked by my aunties who taught me everything, and I feel that it’s the most genuine and simple dishes that make each one of us stop for a moment and reflect back to those memories from years past.
17. What is your best cooking tip for a home enthusiast?
Always cook from the heart genuinely, and the meal will just be lovely. Of course you need to get good quality ingredients first!
18. What do you eat when you are home?
Bread with dishes or just bread toast with lots of butter and kaya. I love coconut a lot. I even have my fresh durians dipped into coconut milk which has a mixture of some salt and sugar! Just dunk it and at the end, drink up the coconut- durian slurry in the bowl!
19. Good heavens, how do you stay so slim then Debbie?
I know I have atrocious eating habits but once I start cooking and things get busy, I have no time to eat! That’s why so slim!
20. What’s a basic cooking technique that you couldn’t possibly live without?
Sautéing..its the very basic step to all Nyonya cooking, Malay and Indian cooking
21. Finally, what is your advice for all those new, up and coming Chefs out there?
Be true to yourself. Listen to your inner thoughts and be brave to follow those dreams.
(Photos without watermark, are courtesy of Chef Debbie Teoh) Those interested in placing orders please call 012-2200537.
Chef Debbie Teoh’s C.V.
Debbie is a true bred Nyonya who hails from Malacca, whose father is a baba from Malacca & mother a Nyonya from Penang. Author of numerous cookbooks, “UNDERWRAPS” & Asian Titbits by Marshall Cavendish, Penang Food guide & cookbook by Star Publications & “Nyonya Flavours” by Star Publications. Latest book is called Authentic Nyonya Tastes by Life Publishers/ Nanyang Press. Debbie also develops & tests recipes for companies such as Faber, Aowa, Arezzo, La Gourmet, Kara Santan, Jati, Panasonic, Pyrex, U-Ai, Agromas FAMA, Luen Heng and many more.
On a monthly basis, she is a contributor for magazines such as Oriental Cuisine by Life Publishers & Flavours by Star Publications. For food web sites, Debbie also contributes to Singapore’s famous Singtel food site called INsing. She is also a Nyonya Food Consultant for Tourism Malaysia. A food stylist for commercial tv advertisements, packaging and menu board or card, Debbie has worked with medias such as Leo Burnett, Untold Images, Studio DL, Adept Studio, Friedchillies TV, Verso Creative just to name a few. Her forte is Nyonya Cuisine for both northern & southern Nyonya. Has vast experience in Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian & western cuisine for both cooking & baking.
In between writing, Debbie caters for private functions, birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. Bake 3D (dimensional) cakes, has a variety of about 20 nyonya kuehs, bakes biscuits for sale during festivities like Chinese New year, Hari raya, Christmas & Deepavali. Debbie was invited by Tourism Malaysia to do a cooking show, restaurant review & dinner for Mr Chua Lam- Hong Kong’s famous food gourmand. It was a show with TVB Hong Kong & Shenzen TV. Mr Chua Lam wanted Debbie to cook a Nyonya dinner, which was authentic & not what you could find in the restaurants. Debbie prepared 10 types of nyonya dishes including desserts. The show was aired in Astro.
Prior to this Debbie, also was the Nyonya Food Consultant for Hong Kong Cable TV for their food guide & cooking class for Celebrity chef Ms Susie Wong better known as “Ah So” in Hong Kong. “Ah So” is a radio deejay & has a cooking show in Hong Kong’s Cable TV. Debbie did a kaya making workshop for “Ah So”. In October 2007 Debbie was again the Malaysian consultant for Hong Kong’s U Magazine & Apple Daily, a market tour to distinguish the spices & herbs & restaurant review here in the Klang valley.