Growing up in his hometown of Ipoh, Philip Leong has fond memories of eating his parents’ Hakka fare, like steamed chicken with ginger and garlic. But having been immersed in Japanese cuisine for a good two decades now, Leong says even these heritage Chinese dishes have taken on a Japanese slant.
“Because I have been working in Japanese cuisine for so long, that base is already built inside me, so every time I cook at home, there are some kind of Japanese ingredients involved even though it is a Chinese dish,” he says, laughing.
Leong is the executive head chef at Nobu Kuala Lumpur, a job that requires total devotion to the craft of Japanese cuisine, an art that he has honed, having spent time working as a sushi chef in New York before he cut his teeth at Nobu Berkeley Street in London, where he stayed for over a decade.
“When I worked in Berkeley, it took me two years of just making staff meals before I took sections and then worked my way up,” he says.
But that experience proved invaluable in instilling proper work ethics in Leong who pays full attention to various elements like the freshness of ingredients, knife skills and accuracy of measurements in putting together signature Nobu dishes like the velvety, umami-rich black cod miso (that catapulted Nobu to fame) and the intricately-flavoured baby spinach with seared scallops, which combines supple, delicate scallops against the freshness of spinach.
“In the restaurant, it’s a totally different ball game. Plating-wise – everything has to be perfect and clean, taste-wise it has to be perfect. Every single ingredient, like the dressing, has to be measured correctly.
“For example, black cod takes at least three days to marinate and we need to select perfect Alaskan black cod fish – filleting the fish and marinating the miso has to be precise. If there’s anything wrong when you marinate, then the end product is not correct,” he says.
Suffice to say, Leong’s focus and attention is nothing less than 100% at the restaurant. Which is why once he heads home, his mind automatically shuts down a little, and his cooking style becomes more relaxed and intuitive.
“When I cook at home, I just open my fridge, see what I have and then I use that ingredient. At home, I don’t feel that much pressure or stress because I’m cooking for myself and I know my own taste. Whereas in the restaurant, I am cooking for someone, so that’s the most important thing,” he says.
As Leong often only gets home between 10.30pm and 11pm every night, his everyday meals tend to be one-pot dishes like noodles and light soups. “Like last night, I picked up some clams, and I already had miso at home, so I made a clam miso soup,” he says.
On his days off though, Leong has more time to cook properly and this is when he makes the meals that bring back cherished memories. Like his mother’s Hakka dish of braised chicken with mushrooms, for example, a heady meal redolent of spices and rich, undulating soy notes.
“Basically, the braised chicken with mushroom is kind of like a memory from my mum. Even when I was in London, I always cooked this dish at home, because it’s fast and easy to cook,” he says.
Then there is Leong’s ma po tofu – a classic, comforting Chinese dish that he has inverted with a Japanese twist, giving it a slightly fuller umami context.
“I learnt this when I was in London and I was tasked with making staff meals. This is one of the dishes that brings back memories and has a teaching element to it – everything has to be cut the same size and done step-by-step. In Chinese cuisine, they have ma po tofu but this is more Japanese-style, and I really like it. It’s purely vegetarian and again, it’s very easy to cook, it takes 15 to 20 minutes to complete the whole dish,” he says.
Ultimately, Leong says he cannot seem to shake off Japanese cuisine no matter what he cooks at home.
“Even like the other day, I was making pasta, I put some cream in and ended up putting dashi and miso too!” he says, laughing.
BRAISED SOY CHICKEN WITH WOOD EAR AND SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS
Serves 4 to 5
50g dried shiitake mushroom, whole
50g dried wood ear mushroom, whole
2 tbsp oil
2 to 3 cloves
1 cinnammon stick
10 pieces star anise
5 to 10 dried chillies (depending on how spicy you like it)
1 whole garlic bulb, peeled
50g ginger, skin intact, sliced
¼ chicken, cut into bite sized pieces
50ml dark soya sauce
50ml light soya sauce
50ml oyster sauce
Soak shiitake and wood ear mushrooms in water until softened. Reserve water that has been used for soaking mushrooms.
In a pot, add oil and saute cloves, cinnammon, star anise, dried chillies, garlic and ginger until aromatic. Add chicken and mushrooms and stir for awhile, then add water used to soak mushrooms and braise mixture for about 25 minutes on medium heat or until reduced by 50%.
Add all the sauces and stir to incorporate. Braise on low heat for 10 minutes or until mixture has slightly reduced. Serve hot with rice.
MA PO TOFU
Serves 3 to 4
2 tbsp oil
1 whole garlic bulb, peeled
300g white onion, diced
100g chilli garlic paste
100g white miso
300g spring onions, diced
150g soft tofu, cut into bite sized cubes
In a pan, add oil and saute garlic and onions until tender. Add chilli garlic paste, sake and water. Stir for awhile, then add miso and spring onions. Add tofu right at the end and stir to combine. Serve hot.