For some, a dish takes them back home. But for Malaysian-Chinese chef Malcolm Chow, the food of his past has driven him forward.
"It took me a year to practice wok," Chow tells SBS Food, voice raised over the sound of a wok burner that he's firing with a foot pedal in his restaurant's kitchen, Chow's Table. "I learned. I just learned. I practiced every single day for three or four hours. I burned everything in the beginning. But that's how you learn, isn't it?"
Chow's food apprenticeship began once his family moved from Kuala Lumpur to Australia when Chow was six. Family mealtimes occurred after school and before service at his mother's restaurant, Malaya - a little patch of China in Wantirna, on the leafy eastern outskirts of Melbourne.
He would help his mum prep beef, cut vegetables and wash dishes before eating the likes of steamed fish with lots of ginger, chillies, fish sauce, sesame oil and soy sauce with his brother, sister and staff. Then he and his siblings would return home for showers and homework.
But their mum's three-cup chicken, which she used to cook at home, was a standout, even though she only used a few ingredients. The chicken thigh on the bone, skin on, was rich and meaty. The trio of sesame oil, soy sauce and Chinese rice wine gave it punch. A bowl of steamed white rice balanced the flavours.
"One hundred per cent my home," Chow smiles.
Her influence has taken Chow far, including training and cooking at some of Australia's most esteemed fine-dining establishments like Vue de Monde and Tetsuya's. However, when the time came to open his own restaurant in Western Australia's Margaret River region, he embraced a more simplistic approach.
He spent a year perfecting his wok technique then returned to Melbourne to learn how to make authentic Chinese roast duck from his mum's friend. In other words, he began rediscovering the taste of his origins.
"Chinese food was never really on my radar until I was approached to own this place," Chow explains, looking through the restaurant windows to take in the tall karri and marri trees that define so much of the Margaret River region bush landscape. But Mal knew fine dining was a risk in a regional outpost, even one with a wine reputation such as this.
Ultimately, Malay-Chinese food felt a lot more like home.
"Mum used to cook [chicken] on the bone, whole," Chow explains in his restaurant kitchen, prepping three-cup chicken with his 2-year-old son Zeke, who's playing on an iPad in the background. "But for this, I will cut it up into chunks."
"I love it. I love cooking at home. I love eating. I think you can see that."
He thinks one of the best things about recipes handed down over generations is their potential to evolve. Chow's mum didn't season. But Mal is a flavour playmaker.
"I make this at home and add mushrooms and chilli to it," he says, starting up the oil in the wok and tossing in sliced garlic and ginger and dried chillies. "Three sauces and Thai basil, that's the base of it. It's a good winter dish. Comfort food."
Nevertheless, the values passed down through intergenerational dishes don't change, such as how cooking is integral to independence, and can help families learn more about who they are and where they came from.
Mal cooks family dishes with his both his boys, Parker and Zeke, for all these reasons.
Zeke already can't get enough. "Spicy," his toddler pronounces, shovelling another fork into the bowl for another mouthful.
"Not spicy," laughs Chow.
Malay-Chinese flavour is, for Chow, defined by turmeric, coriander and cumin. But more than anything it's defined by sharing love with the people who matter.
"I love it. I love cooking at home. I love eating. I think you can see that," he smiles. "Food has just always been around me."
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Three cup chicken (san chi bi)
Three-cup chicken is originally from Southern China but was made famous in Taiwan. Malcolm Chow often adds black fungus mushrooms and shiitake to his simple dish.
- 50 ml canola or peanut oil
- 4 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 100 g ginger peeled and sliced
- 4 whole dried red chillies
- 500 g diced boneless chicken thigh, skin on
- 100 ml dark soy
- 100 ml sesame oil
- 50 ml Chinese rice wine
- 40 g rock sugar
- 50 g fresh Thai basil
1. Heat oil in pan or wok.
2. Add garlic, ginger and dried chillies at high heat and fry until golden, keeping the aromatics moving so they don't burn. If you have more time, turn down the heat and thicken the sauce over a slow braise. Ginger and garlic are sliced to prevent burning in the hot wok or pan.
3. Add diced chicken. Stir fry for two to three minutes or until it’s taken on colour and cooked through a little.
4. Add soy, sesame oil and rice wine. Bring to the boil.
5. Add rock sugar and turn the heat to a simmer.
6. Cook on low heat until the wet ingredients have reduced and thickened slightly - a further three to five minutes.
7. Turn heat off and serve with boiled rice.