“Everyone’s grandma has a special place in their heart,” says chef Loong Oon. That’s especially true for him. Growing up in Ipoh, Malaysia, Oon’s paternal grandmother raised him and his siblings while their parents worked. She expressed her love through food, and even though he didn’t realise it at the time, her passion for feeding the family lay the foundation for his future career as a chef.
“Every day she went to the market to buy fresh ingredients, and she’d spend all day in the kitchen cooking. She cared a lot about who she cooked for and what she was cooking.”
He remembers her labouring over soups that would simmer all day, and hand-pounding fish for fish balls that were less chewy than the machine-processed ones you could buy at the markets. “It’s a traditional thing in the Chinese community to have soup every night for dinner, and she made a different one every day. Sometimes it was a simple chicken soup, sometimes it was more complicated like fish ball soup or offal with white pepper. Her soups were so amazing,” he says.
“A lot of families start their meal with soup, but in my family, my grandma would only let us have soup after the meal. If we ate the soup first, we would fill up on it. You had to behave and eat your meal before you got your soup.”
Much has been done to celebrate his amah (grandmother), who passed away earlier this year. She’s the namesake of Oon’s Sydney restaurant, Amah, which he opened in Chatswood in June with Junda Khoo, the restaurateur behind Ho Jiak's multiple venues. Many of her dishes are on the menu, but because “Malaysian grandmothers don’t have recipes”, dishes like the bright, nourishing fish ball soup are based on Oon’s memories of the flavours, the ingredients and techniques he saw her using, plus a lot of educated guessing.
Amah wasn’t the only grandparent who showed their love through food. Oon’s maternal grandparents lived two hours away, in Penang, and visiting them and eating with them was all about special-occasion eating, rather than comforting everyday food.
“My grandfather was a big food lover, and he always took the family out to nice restaurants to enjoy a really good meal. They did eat at home, but not as much. There was a maid who cooked, so food at home wasn’t as much of a big deal. It’s a really different life – it’s quite common to have maids in Malaysia and a lot of Asian countries.”
Although going out to eat was a highlight of their visits to Penang, one of Oon’s most vivid memories is of a lunch he had at their house when he was about nine.
“We would visit my grandfather every few months. One day we were having lunch at home and one of the dishes was toothfish. It was my grandfather’s favourite. I remember we had it pan-fried. The skin was super crispy, and when you cut into it, the flesh fell apart. It was so oily and fatty, but also silky and sweet tasting. I’ll never forget it.”
Toothfish wasn't always easy to come by in Malaysia. “When he was older, my grandfather couldn’t go out so much anymore, so if my aunties or mum would see toothfish at the markets, they always bought it for him.”
"It was my grandfather’s favourite. I remember we had it pan-fried. The skin was super crispy, and when you cut into it, the flesh fell apart. It was so oily and fatty, but also silky and sweet tasting. I’ll never forget it.”
A knockout, sour-sweet, Assam Nyonya curry toothfish is on the menu at Amah, but the version Oon remembers has a simple dressing of soy, sugar, water and rice vinegar. The key to this dish is getting the skin crispy, and finding the toothfish in the first place.
Toothfish isn’t always available at the local fishmongers, but when asked if any substitutes are suitable, Oon is quietly uncompromising and recommends going to the local fish markets to find it.
“I don’t think there’s any other fish that’s close to it. You could use another fish, but it wouldn’t be the same.”
Oon spent years cooking in fine-dining restaurants, and rose up the ranks at Merivale to become head chef at Mr Wong. While he’s loved his career, being in the kitchen at Amah, and sharing with people the food he’s eaten every day of his life, is like coming home.
“As a young chef you get blinded, thinking you need to work for the best people, the best restaurants, cooking the most well-known cuisine,” he says.
“But as soon as I started cooking the food that was my comfort food, the food I eat every single day, all of a sudden things made sense. I’m cooking what’s close to my heart.”
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Pan-fried toothfish with ginger and shallots
- 1 knob ginger (small)
- 200 ml neutral cooking oil (like vegetable or canola oil)
- 200 g piece toothfish (you can buy this frozen at your local fish markets)
- 1 piece shallot, white part only
- 4 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1½ tbsp rice vinegar
- To make the ginger oil, thinly julienne the ginger and add it to a small frypan over medium heat. Fry the ginger in 150 ml of oil until the pieces are crispy (around four to five minutes).
- Remove the ginger from the oil and drain the pieces on a paper towel. Reserve the ginger oil and set aside.
- Thinly cut the shallot into rounds.
- To make the soy dressing, add the soy, sugar, vinegar and 3 tbsp water to a small pot over high heat. Bring it to a boil, then set aside.
- Add 50 ml oil to a small or medium non-stick pan. Add the fish and fry, skin-side down, for around 5 minutes on medium heat until the skin is crispy.
- Flip the fish over and turn the heat off. Let the residual heat cook the fish through (around 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish).
- Once fish is cooked, serve it on a plate. Pour soy dressing and 2 tbsp of ginger oil over the fish. Garnish with fried ginger and shallots.
This recipe was given to Jacob Leung by his mother, who adds curry leaves, kecap manis and fried garlic for a distinctly Malay touch.
The secret to the success of this dish is to incorporate the smoky flavour of the wok into the rice noodles.