Eating Well

Why I’m Obsessed With… The Provenance of Food

According to wine and food maven Emil Teo

Why I’m Obsessed With… The Provenance of Food

There has always been the fragrance of curry floating in the kitchen of the Teo family household. Good cooking, for this Peranakan family, was about the provenance of the ingredients. Only the best processor of spices are sought for their goods. Such are the memories that Emil Teo grew up with. From a tender age, the executive director of his family business Taste of Tradition would tag along with his granny Tan Bee Luan to the wet market or to Little India to buy specific spices, dry them in the sun, and send to the mill before they were packed in recycled glass bottles to be distributed to 13 members of the extended family.

After 25 years in the family’s wine business, his first pet project is to produce Granny’s Curry Powder. Using only authentic ingredients in grandma’s recipe, he used the opportunity to train his little army of six children to help in the process, and undoubtedly, to get them acquainted with the gem of a family recipe.

His granny was not the only influence on his insistence for the best ingredients. His father raised chickens at home and they scratched around and ate their scraps — Teo was very fond of eating freshly laid eggs raw with a dash of white pepper.

His dad also built a fish farm in Pasir Ris in the early ’80s and some of his best memories were spent on the farm, laying drift nets catching prawns and blue swimmer crabs and fishing for large stingrays.

A few years ago, a notice was put up for people to abstain from swimming there as the water was not clean anymore. “The free-range barn-raised chicken is not what it seems, it’s actually pretty nasty to know. In the wine business, we see additives and processes for bottles that I would refuse to import. In food, I read about selection and raising of animals that we would rather forget; I study how plants are grown in ways that I’d rather avoid.”

This is why the provenance of food is so important to Teo.

I started being interested in food and cooking since before my kindergarten days, when I would follow my grandmother to the wet market.

I can clearly remember how granny would… prod and poke the produce, inspect the gills of the fish, hold a live chicken to size up how its flesh would be like, leaf through vegetables and grasp fruits, all while explaining to me what she was looking for… and while bargaining with the stall-holders.

I’ve become even more intrigued by the provenance of food because… being in the wine business, I have to be well read about how wine and food are made. Both emphasise on the variety of produce chosen, which plot of land it is grown in, the soil composition, how much sun it gets, the weather, humidity and dampness, the growing method, how the plant or fruit are cared for, when they are picked, and how they are processed and handled before bottling or packaging.

It is important to differentiate between the real and the faux to source for a great product.

I started making Granny’s curry powder when… my dad handed me the recipe and asked me to get it done about a decade ago. It was a fun project and brought back warm memories. Drying spice in the sun needs plenty of attention to keep them away from pests and rain.

The most tedious part of it all is… the packaging of the curry powder. We would funnel it into a used bottle and stopper it with a cork. When I took over, I used plastic bags and vacuum sealed them. I deployed my children to help with the packing and weighing. The kids would mark it, “Packed with child labour”!

I would always… visit the market each Saturday morning to go through the produce before deciding on the menu for the week. There is always a stock prepared for the week for soup and to fry pork scratchings for a snack. I’d also look out for anything special in the market to add some variety to the menu.

My friends would request that I cook Laksa, Mee Siam or Po Piah (薄餅).

My first food memory… no,my entire memory is crammed with food experiences.

My best food memory is… an elaborate alter table offering on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, followed by Po Piah for the majority of the extended family, including my nine aunts and three uncles. Tables would be set up around the house and they would be laid with a rich spread of options.

My grandma always… called out “chiak png” (吃饭) when food was ready.

Her favourite ingredients were… always fresh.

Her favourite technique was… varied because she’d used a charcoal stove, a gas stove and a gas oven, where suitable.

My favourite ingredient(s) are… bought on impulse based on whatever’s in the market that catches my eye and favours my wallet.

To me, the most important part of a dish is… the happiness it brings.

Understanding the provenance of a dish makes me
…worried for the rest of the world.

My signature dishes are… varied over time.

My children love my…
mother’s recipe for Spaghetti Bolognaise, we have multiple weekly requests.

My wife loves my… breadcrumbed pig’s brain fritters. She ate it not knowing what it was, said it was delicious and then screamed (at me) when she found out.

My guests love my…
wife’s company.

I’ll like food to be…
delicious, being raised humanely and grown naturally.

I created Granny’s Curry Powder because…
I need curry powder and our family craves it.

I’ll like my kids to be able to… be independent, think individually, be happy and have a healthy appetite.

Right now, my kids…
Martin, 21, can make quite a few dishes; Mariesa, 19,  loves making cookies; Mariena, 17, makes Pork Leg Rice Vermicelli to satisfy her cravings; Mark, 8, and Marion, 6, make pancakes and heat up frozen roti prata to eat with nutella, while Marcel, 4,  can fry an egg and helps me with mincing meat for sausages.

Besides curry, I’d like to make…
nothing else. It’s a hassle to make Granny’s Curry Powder as it must be done in large quantity. I do this so that the whole family still gets to eat it and now, with spices with top provenance assured.

This should be a hit with… all folks!

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