Sydney-based chef Chui Lee Luk talks of her childhood curiosity in the kitchen, and the melding of ingredients and smells to create a truly awe-worthy meal.
Chui Lee Luk

10 Oct 2013 - 12:47 PM  UPDATED 29 Oct 2013 - 11:03 AM

Blachan Frying in the Rempah

Curiosity drove me back to the kitchen time and time again. Food, and an appreciation of the mechanics of cooking, played a large part in my immediate childhood environment and took up a lot of my attention. Perhaps it was a lull in playing in the garden, an increase in the humid heat, or pangs of expectant hunger that would lure me back to peek at what might be happening in the kitchen? Certainly another inviting drawcard was that the tiled walls of our kitchen made it seem constantly cooler than other rooms in the house.

My aunt, who lived in the apartment building near the harbour in town, had a kitchen through which I was curious to wander and rummage. It opened onto the balcony and was stacked with ingredients in bags, bottles and boxes, all hermetically sealed so the competing smells weren’t so apparent.

My paternal grandmother had an old-fashioned kitchen. It was dark and, because of this, seemed to have a slightly threatening air: smells pervaded the atmosphere but I wasn’t sure what they were. And I was a little bit too frightened to poke around and search them out.

No matter which kitchen it was, there was a different smell every time I wandered in. New ingredients had been brought home and laid out on the bench in readiness for the next meal. As I skipped in and out during preparations for cooking, I sensed a different nuance to the smells every time I returned. I could discern the smell of a fish cut up for steaming — perhaps a mullet, hinting at iron and fish leather. The mullet might be set on a steaming dish and covered by sharply scented salted cumquat, pungent garlic and metallic-smelling slices of chilli. These smells would be augmented by the more appetising savoury aroma of soy sauce.

Everything smelt raw and inedible at this stage; it was a wonderful transformation as these ingredients amalgamated and the new smell of the dish was delicately brought out.

I was a child who demanded to stand on a chair so that I could look at what was happening at heights invisible from my rather low vantage point. I was a keen stirrer of pots and pans, curious to see the chemistry that transformed these raw ingredients into something completely different.

The question that always came from my mouth at a much younger age (and still does, even now) was: ‘How you do you know whether a dish is done or not?’ I was usually met with vague, and thus disturbingly dissatisfying, answers: ‘A couple of minutes’; ‘Oh, you know when...’; ‘Just leave it for a little bit longer’. These answers were given by the adults as they poked their heads further over the stove to smell what they were cooking, having warned me away for the very reason that it was hot and dangerous. Isn’t it exasperating when adults find it so hard to articulate what’s going on?

When I was banished from my high outpost for being naughty (insisting on stirring when my help wasn’t welcome), it was the smells that signalled change was happening. The wet paste of shallots, ginger, garlic and chilli hitting the hot wok smelt intense and raw. The peanut smell of the swirling oil was instantly acrid and sharp and that hint of toasty seafood was in the air: that would be the roasted blachan. The sharpness would gradually recede and become more mellow and increasingly more appetising. A piece of fish added to the sauce makes the smell strange again; the scents of iron and fish scale momentarily stop the aroma being so delicious. And what’s that fruity sour smell that has crept in: tamarind or lime? With time, all becomes harmonious again, the ingredients still discernible yet blended. At table, the dish reveals itself to be assam of fish.


Chui's mullet steamed with salted cumquat

The key ingredient of this dish is the salted cumquats, which need to be prepared about a month in advance. Wash and thoroughly dry a couple of tea cups full of cumquats. In a sterilised glass preserving jar, sprinkle a layer of fine sea salt, lay down a layer of cumquats and keep repeating until all the cumquats have been salted. Leave to mature in the pantry.

The mullet should be scaled and eviscerated but otherwise left whole. Rub 1 teaspoon of salt over the cavity and the outside of the fish and then brush with some vegetable oil. Put on a tin plate in readiness for placing in the steamer. The paste can now be prepared: grind a couple of salted cumquats with 1 tablespoon of salted soy beans, 1 teaspoon of chopped ginger and 1 teaspoon of sugar until you have a fine paste. Spoon the paste over the exposed surface of the fish and add a couple of halved hot red chillies. Steam at high heat for about 15 minutes until the fish is cooked, then serve immediately.


This is an extract from Chui Lee Luk's book, Green Pickled Peaches. Now available for purchase at the SBS Shop.