August 31, 2003
A taste for only the best
Meet a Malaysian whose life-long romance with food has taken
him far and wide. Yet, he tells TAN LEE KUEN that there’s no
(eating) place like home
DATUK Kok Wee Kiat has eaten his way around the world and back.
When he travels, his bible is the Michelin guide to the star-studded
gastronomic constellations in Europe.
“The green tells me to go, the red tells me to stop,” he says,
In winter, wrapped in a shawl, nose red with cold, he is guided
by sight: “Walk around during mealtimes and find the busiest
restaurant with locals.”
In summer, when the sun is warming the stones of buildings and
roads, he sniffs like a hunting dog, savouring the smells of
pleasure and food.
“I don’t know where I got my instinct to eat. I guess I genuinely
enjoy it,” confesses Kok, a former deputy minister and a regular
food reviewer for Tatler’s Best Restaurant guide. But
entering any old Chinese coffeeshop and catching a whiff of fried
kuay teow takes him back to his childhood.
Born and raised in Seremban, Kok’s home was in the busiest part
of town, 100m from the market. It was a lively scene of hawkers
balancing wares on their shoulders or ferrying them around on
bicycles. An Indian man would be touting his curry puffs, shouting:
“Satu makan, dua mau!” while another sold what Kok then
thought was the best kuih he’d ever had – that is, until he
met his wife-to-be.
“I was brought into her Nyonya family, and it was then that I
realised that the Nyonyas made the best cakes and kuih,” he says
Of all the characters associated with food in his past, Kok
distinctively remembers this Chinese fellow, blind in one eye, who
made the best beef balls in soup.
TUCKING IN: Kok still enjoys his coffee shop
meals, but keeps a close eye on his
But what was most outstanding
was that this man used his beef balls to gamble – the stakes were
money and, well, beef balls.
“Because his beef balls were so wonderful, everyone wanted some,
so he wasn’t short on takers,” recalls Kok.
“Some days he did really well, but on others, he didn’t make much
Kok’s love for food was partly fuelled by his father.
“Because of him, I love Malay food,” he says. Kok remembers
eating a lot of good satay. He would squat by the side of the road
with his father and watch the satay man sweat over his portable
His father, a wise man who ran a halfway house for Chinese
labourers, sent Kok away to Pasar Road English Primary School in
Kuala Lumpur when he came of age. He went on to the Victoria
Institution for his secondary education before studying law
at the University of Singapore.
When he was in Kuala Lumpur, he lived in the government quarters
with his uncle, who worked with the Municipal Council. What he
remembers of his culinary adventures at the time was his aunt’s
stir-fried beef. It was a simple dish of sliced beef, ginger, spring
onions and oyster sauce, but Kok says it was the best, even though
she did not eat any of it herself.
“My love of beef is attributed to the way she cooked it,” says
“And you have to take into consideration that the beef she used
at that time was local, not imported.”
These days, Kok would buy his meat from Mr Ho’s Fine Foods, an
old-time friend, cut the way he likes it, which is one and a half
inches thick. He’d lightly pan-fry it, leaving it slightly cold in
“I don’t normally eat steaks outside since I am fussy about the
way it is cooked,” he admits.
Kok started cooking in the Sixth Form. At that time, he had moved
into the school’s hostel and would have his meals with the rest of
However, being the school prefect, he was invariably late for
meals and had only leftovers. Being the hostel captain, he managed
to persuade the Hainanese cook to let him use the kitchen.
“Cooking is not that bad, especially if you’re a little fussy
about the taste you want and how you want it,” says Kok.
When Kok graduated, he went into litigation, working for some of
the best law firms in town, before switching to corporate and
He started to travel, and he travelled extensively from one end
of Europe to the other, north to south, east and west, sampling
their foods as he went along.
First the French, then the Italians influenced his taste buds.
Western cuisine came as a gastronomic revelation for him:
“When I was young, my father’s idea of western food was the
Hainanese chicken chop.”
These days, Kok dines out regularly in fine dining restaurants
like Lafite and Cilantro in Kuala Lumpur.
Today, at the age of 64, he is as sprightly as jumping beans. The
Saturday after this interview he’ll be holding the second Amanti
della cucina italiana - Lovers of Italian Cuisine – dinner at
Villa Danielle in Imperial Sheraton.
He is also the capitaine of the local chapter of the Society of
the Musketeers of Armagnac, a society that fine dines for charity.
In September, he’ll be attending their annual dinner in Condom,
It’s a long way from the street side meals and snacks, but Kok
still enjoys his coffeeshop meals, but keeps a close eye on his
weight; “Below 70 kg!” he proudly proclaims.
For all the good food now available in the country, Kok does miss
a certain chicken dish his mother used to make.
She would buy a live chicken from the market, keep it in a cage
and feed it with natural foods until it was nicely fattened. Then
she would bring to boil a simple broth of ginger and spring onions,
then cut off the heat, dip the chicken in to cook a little before
taking it out. This procedure would continue until the chicken was
Kok is a little wistful at this point because he didn’t learn the
recipe and the mix of the chicken feed. His mother has since passed
on. What’s more, he can’t find the right kind of chicken anymore.
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