When Junda Khoo said he wanted to offer home-style Malaysian food at a restaurant in Sydney's Chinatown, people thought he was crazy. “They told me no one will pay for home-cooked food. It’s too simple,” Khoo tells SBS Food. “But my Amah (grandma) said if you do simple things right, they can be amazing.”
She was right. The menu at Khoo’s popular Ho Jiak Haymarket eatery features at least 50 dishes based on amah’s days of cooking for the family in Penang, Malaysia, as well as the markets and road stalls that she took him to.
“Haymarket is a homage to my amah. I wouldn’t be here without her. Growing up, my parents were both working full time in Kuala Lumpur. It’s a four-hour drive away. So they would leave me with Amah and my grandad in Penang and she raised me,” he says.
“Every morning, she took me the markets to do grocery shopping. Back then, there were no grocery stores," he says. At the markets, the food was incredibly fresh. "If you were buying chicken, they used to slit the throat of the chicken right there.”
Back home, Amah would start cooking early. It took all day to prepare food for the whole family. At the time, Khoo was an only child, but seven people were living in the two-bedroom unit: Khoo, Amah and Ong Ong (grandpa), his parents, youngest aunt and youngest uncle.
“I was always in the kitchen because it smelled so good. I always wanted to help, but I was a nuisance,” he says, laughing.
It wasn’t until Khoo and his brother migrated to Australia that his passion for eating was transformed into actual skills in the kitchen. And as she got older, Amah allowed Khoo to cook during his visits back to Penang, and she took on the role of supervisor.
“In the last few years of her life, she was in a wheelchair. I had started Ho Jiak, I was a cook, so then she would let me do the cooking. But she was always yelling at me things like, ‘Not enough sugar!’”
But when Khoo was a little boy, Amah ruled the kitchen, and her cooking repertoire was enormous. Assam Nyonya fish (fish curry) is a special dish that stands out for Khoo.
“She would only make it once every two or three weeks back then. She’d use stingrays from the market. It’s the cheapest of the cheap because no one wants to eat it. We do a version with barramundi on the menu at Ho Jiak Haymarket and the new Ho Jiak at Town Hall, and it’s one of our top sellers. It’s a sweet, salty, spicy fish curry topped with fresh herbs.”
When collecting the recipes that would become Ho Jiak’s menu, Khoo spent time with Amah, trying to get her to impart her knowledge of techniques and ingredients. But as the years passed, she became forgetful. “She didn’t have any recipes written down, and what she would tell me wasn’t quite right. I had to cook based on the memory of taste and how I felt when I ate the dish. At Ho Jiak, I’ve tried to recreate the taste of the things I ate as a child.”
Although Amah was an important figure in Khoo’s journey to become a chef, Ong Ong was also an influential figure.
“He was awesome. He was the guy that bribed us, bought us lollies. He was the guy who made me fat, because being in Southeast Asia, we’d always have supper late at night, with Ong Ong," Khoo says.
“I was always in the kitchen because it smelled so good. I always wanted to help, but I was a nuisance.”
“He’d go play mahjong and get back at 8:30 when we were done with dinner. I remember he’d come into my room, and ask, ‘Hey want to go for supper?’ We’d go to a coffee shop and order Hokkien mee and wok-fried spare ribs. He would never eat. He’d just order a bottle of Guinness, and drink while the kids ate.”
Khoo says that Ong Ong was the only person in the family who championed his dream to cook.
“My parents said don’t be a chef, don’t do cooking, and Amah didn’t encourage it either. But when I was 16, Ong Ong went to the family and said, ‘This guy here will grow up to be a good cook one day.’ He called it and here we are now.”
Today, Khoo is a successful cook and business owner. There are Ho Jiak venues at Strathfield, Haymarket and Town Hall. But Khoo has never forgotten his roots.
“We came from a poor family, the dishes my Amah made are what fed us and got us to gather around the table,” he says.
“She passed away December last year , and those memories bring so much joy to me. Even though I mourn her loss, I try to honour her by turning that energy into the cooking we do at Ho Jiak.”
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Assam Nyonya fish
Serves 4 (or more, depending on the size of the fish used – Khoo typically uses a 1 kg fish fillet to serve four people)
- ½ red onion
- ½ white onion
- 5 long red chillies
- 1 bird's eye chilli
- 1 lemongrass stalk
- 4 cm piece turmeric
- 5 cm piece galangal
- 60 g bunga kantan (torch ginger flower)
- 1 handful Vietnamese mint
- 150 ml vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp belacan
- 60 g chilli giling (chilli paste)
- 1½ tsp chilli powder
- 2 tsp ground turmeric
- 75 g caster sugar
- 2 limes, juiced
- 90 g tamarind paste
- 1 kg fish fillet (you can use any type of fish; you can also substitute with whole fish to feed more people)
- Coriander, to garnish
- Spring onions, to garnish
- Mint leaves, to garnish
1. In a food processor or blender, place the onions, long red chillies, bird's eye chilli, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, bunga kantan and Vietnamese mint and blend into a paste.
2. In a frying pan or wok on low heat, add the vegetable oil. Add the paste and saute until fragrant. This should take 10 to 15 minutes.
3. While sauteeing the paste, set the oven to 180°C and dry-roast the belacan for 5 minutes, then set aside.
4. Add the belacan, chilli giling, chilli powder, turmeric, sugar, lime juice and tamarind to the same pan or wok. Stir the paste mix on low heat for another 15 minutes.
5. Let the assam Nyonya paste cool and store in the fridge.
6. Steam fish until it's cooked. You can do this by using a food steamer or steaming basket, or carefully placing the fish on a plate above a pot of boiling water. This recipe works well with deep-fried fish, too.
7. In a separate pan over low to medium heat, reheat 200 ml of the assam Nyonya paste until it's hot. Add 200 ml water to create a sauce and season with salt and sugar to your preference. Khoo usually adds ½ tbsp sugar and 1 tsp salt.
8. Transfer assam Nyonya sauce onto a plate or bowl. Place your cooked fish on top.
7. Garnish with coriander, spring onions and mint leaves.
Note: The ingredients for the paste can be found at Asian grocers. This recipe still works if you want to place the raw fish into the sauce and cook it that way. That’s how Khoo's Amah did it and it's how his dad prepares the dish to this day.
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