In the home kitchen, most mothers reign supreme. Tales of dads cooking are becoming more common but by and large, women still prevail over the stove.
But no two families are the same and in some homes, it is the fathers who have played a dominant role in producing cherished family meals, often cooking every day for their nearest and dearest – in the name of familial love.
Paying homage to his mother’s food
At the Nunis dining table, dinner is in progress. Dad Glenn Nunis, 48, has just cooked a huge meal and his wife Coco, 43, and three kids Matthew, 22, Shane, 18, and Hope, 17, are busy helping themselves to their favourite dishes. Smiles of joy are etched on everyone’s faces, none more so than Glenn, who is gazing down at his family with unfettered happiness.
“Seeing my kids eat what I have made is very fulfilling. Most of the time, there is nothing left,” he says, laughing.
Glenn cooks for his family every day now, but interestingly he didn’t actually cook at all until leaving home as an adult. His late mother was a talented Eurasian home cook and it was his two sisters who were often in the kitchen with her.
“I think it was expected that my sisters would help her. I only helped cut vegetables during festive seasons, like Christmas.
“But my interest in cooking started when I left the house and wasn’t staying with my mum anymore. That’s when I missed her cooking so I used to call her and ask her how to cook this and that. And she would tell me over the phone, although she used the agak-agak method, so I had to learn as I went along,” he says.
After he married his wife and had kids, Glenn’s interest in cooking burgeoned and he inevitably became the main cook in the family, a role he continues to relish even while holding down a full-time job as an IT manager.
“He cooks mostly every day and I think it helps that we live five minutes away from his office. So he’s back home by 6.30pm and normally, he’s already prepared everything the night before, so the cooking process is much quicker. But cooking is really his passion – he even takes the time to garnish meals like a real chef,” says proud wife Coco.
Coco is so invested in Glenn’s meals that she has even gone through the trouble of photographing everything he cooks and uploading it onto an album she has created on Facebook.
“So now we have an album of everything I’ve cooked,” says Glenn, smiling.
Cooking took on an even more important role in Glenn’s life after his parents passed away unexpectedly in an accident in 2015. Since then, he has become even more determined to continue cooking the heritage Eurasian dishes he learnt from his mother.
One of his mother’s recipes that Glenn continues to make to this day is her prawn pineapple curry, a robust, spicy affair interlaced with plump cubes of pineapple and tender prawns.
“This is a recipe from my grandmother that was passed down to my mum. My mum made the curry paste from scratch and I do the same thing too. And it’s a hit – my wife likes it and the kids love it as well,” he says.
Glenn’s flavourful chicken pongtey was also trawled from his late mother’s recipe arsenal. “That is something that my mum used to make for us when we were growing up, especially when we were younger because we couldn’t handle spicy food at the time,” he says.
Because their grandmother played such a pivotal role in their lives, Glenn’s children also remember her cooking and have delivered the ultimate compliment to their father: “My dad’s food tastes exactly the same as my grandmother’s food,” says Matthew simply.
As his children are fast growing up, Glenn is now busy compiling all his recipes in an e-book, to ensure that his kids will be able to easily cook the meals he has prepared for them for years, should they ever want to.
The recipes in the book run the gamut from heirloom Eurasian recipes to meals he created himself as well as Filipino fare gleaned from his travels to the Philippines with Coco, who is Filipino.
“I am hoping that the kids will pick up the recipes and learn. I am actually compiling it the way I cook it, so that is something that I can leave behind for them one day,” he says.
Glenn says he knows he’s a bit different from other dads as most of his male friends who are also dads don’t cook at all. But to him, cooking is all about family anyway, which is why he loves doing it.
“I guess I am different from other dads in a sense, but it pleases me to see my family enjoying the food I make,” he says.
For pounding together to a paste
5 to 6 cloves garlic
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp heaped minced tauchu (bean paste)
1kg chicken thigh, cut into 4 pieces per thigh
1 tbsp thick caramel black soy sauce
2 chicken stock cubes diluted in 2 cups of hot water
1 small sengkuang, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 carrots, rolling cut
3 potatoes, cut into quarters
salt and sugar to taste
In a pestle and mortar, pound garlic and shallots to a paste. Set aside.
Heat oil in a wok and on low heat, lightly stir-fry the garlic and shallot paste; do not let it brown. Add the minced tauchu, stir constantly on low heat until fragrant. Add chicken and stir on medium heat for about 1 minute. Then add the thick sauce until the chicken is fully coated in the sauce.
Add chicken stock. Simmer with lid closed for about 10 minutes. Add the sengkuang, carrots and potatoes, cover with lid and allow to cook on medium heat until the chicken and vegetables are cooked, about 15 minutes. Add salt and sugar to taste and serve hot.
PINEAPPLE PRAWN CURRY
For blending into a paste
20 dried chillies, rinsed and soaked in hot water
4 medium red onions
4-5 cloves garlic
3 stalks lemongrass
2cm young ginger
2 tbsp oil
1 chicken stock cube, diluted in 1 cup water
salt to taste
1 tbsp assam jawa (tamarind paste), diluted in 1 cup water
1 small whole honey pineapple, cut into wedges
sugar to taste
1kg medium sized prawns, deveined, shells intact
In a blender, blend all the ingredients for blending until smooth. Set aside.
In a wok, add oil and stir-fry the blended rempah paste on medium-low heat until a layer of oil emerges, about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and salt. Add the strained tamarind juice and cut pineapples and let simmer for about 2 minutes.
Add sugar to taste and simmer for 10 minutes. Add prawns towards the end, stir to combine and allow prawns to cook until just tender. Once done, serve hot with white rice.
A lifetime of cooking
In his daughter’s sun-drenched kitchen, 72-year-old Henry Kok is cooking up a storm. His performance – and yes, it is indeed a sight to behold – is nothing short of masterful, like a ballet dancer gracefully alternating between different movements – deftness you will instantly see as he slices spring onions with precision, fries up some prawns and stirs the sauce for a dish.
In less than 30 minutes, Henry has whipped up three stunning dishes, barely breaking a sweat and maintaining his sweet, disarming smile.
In many ways, Kok’s prowess in the kitchen began at a very young age, as a child growing up in a financially-strapped family in Perak.
“I was one of seven siblings and when I was small, I used to help my mother in the kitchen. We were fortunate because my father’s boss let us stay in a wooden house with plenty of space. So to help ease the burden of buying groceries, we reared our own ducks and turkeys and planted vegetables and fruits, so we were more or less self-sufficient,” says Kok.
Kok learnt how to cook from his mother but adapted and changed many recipes along the way. When he moved to KL for work, he continued to cook for his siblings, many of whom had also moved to KL for job opportunities.
“When my siblings moved to KL, we all lived together and I was the only one who churned out all the food and everyone enjoyed it. Along the way, I experimented and came up with a lot of dishes myself. So that’s my passion,” says Kok, grinning.
Even after he married his wife Margie Chong, 73, (herself a talented cook) and had his two daughters – Wendy Kok, 48, and Mabel Kok, 45, he continued to cook.
“I’ve been cooking for umpteen years, my family enjoys my food. Even when I was very, very, busy, I would go home and cook,” he enthuses.
This is made all the more impressive given that Kok is one of the co-founders (alongside his two brothers) of Bina Warehouse, Malaysia’s leading specialist retailer and distributor of luxury bathroom and kitchen brands.
So even as he was building a mega business, he still found the time to cook for his family every day!
“It was an experience from when we were young. My dad used to make us get involved in kitchen activities like going to the market, cooking and cleaning, so we learnt from there and it’s always been a memory from young that we are a cooking family. Having watched and learnt from my dad, I also cook every day for my family,” says Mabel, who is now the CEO of Bina Warehouse.
These days, Kok has semi-retired from the business, although he still serves as the company’s managing director and puts in regular half-days.
But his passion for cooking remains and Kok still cooks for his daughters, their spouses Darren Chong, 39, and Steven Chu, 49, and granddaughter Cassandra Chu, 15, at least three times a week.
“Sometimes I go to their houses in Seputeh and I’ll bring the food I’ve cooked for them and sometimes they come to my home in Ampang and I cook for them there. I strongly believe that a family that eats together, stays together,” he affirms.
Some of Kok’s signature dishes include his assam fish, a triumphantly buoyant, lively affair with fiery underpinnings and citrusy elements underscoring the entire meal.
“It’s a Nyonya dish and the conventional way of cooking it is to use tamarind juice but I thought ‘I want to give the dish some oomph, I want the sourness and sweetness to stand out’. So I began to experiment with kalamansi juice and also pineapple juice. I added it together with tamarind juice – so there are three types of sour juices – and it turned out so beautiful. I’m happy with it,” he says.
Kok’s zest-driven deep-fried prawns with honey lemon curd sauce is also a thing of beauty, as the crunchy prawns are coated in a rich, sumptuous lemon curd-honey-mayonnaise sauce that elevates it to a whole new dimension.
“It’s also my own concoction. I’ve got a nephew whose wife makes homemade lemon curd jam, so I bought some and thought ‘Why not come up with a dish by making use of lemon curd jam?’ So I experimented and came up with this,” he says simply.
Kok says he doesn’t really think of himself as an anomaly, despite the fact that most home cooks are – for whatever reason – often female.
“I think fathers have been cooking, just that it’s not made known. The perception is that ladies always cook, but I’ve been cooking all my life. I have always been the main cook, more than anybody else. And cooking makes me happy,” he says succinctly.
“To which, Kok’s only grandchild Cassandra pipes in, “I don’t think he’s unusual – we’re all just so proud of him,” she says, beaming up at her grandfather.
HENRY’S ASSAM FISH
Serves 8 to 10
1 golden pomfret, about 800g (can be replaced with snapper)
7 to 8 okra, tip removed
10 tbsp cooking oil
3 stalks lemongrass, white part only, smashed lightly
15 to 20 shallots, blended
10 cloves garlic, blended
5 to 6 dried chillies, blended
10 fresh red chillies, blended
5 candlenuts, pounded
5cm belacan (6mm thick), flattened to 2mm and toasted over gas fire
6cm fresh turmeric, pounded
2 bunga kantan (torch ginger buds), sliced
a bunch of daun kesum (Vietnamese mint), sliced thinly
2 tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in rice bowl filled with 3/4 water
1 whole pineapple, halved (1/2 cut into slices for curry, the other 1/2 juiced)
10-12 kalamansi limes, juiced
salt to taste
sugar to taste
Steam fish until cooked; discard steaming liquid.
Microwave okra until tender, then cut into 2cm slices.
Heat wok with cooking oil. Fry lemongrass with blended shallots and garlic. Add blended chillies, candlenuts, belacan, turmeric, bunga kantan and daun kesum and stir to combine.
Add tamarind juice, pineapple juice and kalamansi juice and stir to combine. Add salt and sugar, then put in pineapple slices and adjust seasoning to taste.
Add okra and fish right at the end and stir to coat evenly for 1 to 2 minutes until flavours soak fish. Serve hot with rice.
DEEP-FRIED PRAWNS WITH HONEY LEMON CURD
Serves 8 to 10
2 green apples, skin removed and diced
4 tbsp lemon curd
4 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp honey
700 to 700g class A prawns, shelled and deveined
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of five-spice powder
rice flour to coat a plate
In a bowl, mix apples with lemon curd, mayonnaise and honey.
Season prawns with salt, pepper and five-spice powder and coat well in rice flour until batter is evenly distributed.
In a frying pan, deep-fry prawns until cooked but still tender. Coat prawns well in lemon curd mixture and serve immediately.