Possibly one of Singapore’s most well-known Peranakan chefs, Shermay Lee has done it all. From writing cookbooks to setting up her own cooking school, this entrepreneur has even started her own line of Peranakan-inspired sauces that’s made entirely in Singapore to appeal to local flavours.
Currently, her line of sauces consists of a bak kwa (sliced barbecued pork) marinade — a sauce that’s inspiring everyone everywhere to start making their own bak kwa at home — and the cilicuka, a sort of chili sauce that can be eaten together with local delights like chicken rice, spring rolls and even as a dipping sauce for crackers.
We recently caught up with Shermay to find out what it takes to be a chef in Singapore and what inspired her to create sauces of her own:
LifestyleAsia (LSA): Tell us a little more about how your love for cooking started.
Shermay Lee (SL): I have strong impressions of cooking and being in the kitchen when I was 5. My paternal grandmother, Mrs Lee Chin Koon, or as we called her, “Mak”, often babysat me. This involved being in the kitchen while she cooked Nonya food, following her to Tekka Market and packing tengkats (tiffin carriers) to give food away. She also read comics to me and took me out for meals with my other cousins.
LSA: You’re very much influenced by your Peranakan heritage and it’s well reflected in your cooking style, could you share with us some of your fondest memories of Peranakan food when growing up?
SL: My grandmother is a very large figure in our family. She is much beloved and she positively impacted many of our lives. I think she must have planted a seed in me. Since childhood, and throughout my life, family conversations inevitably would revolve around food. I can distinctly remember the excitement, the opinions and enthusiasm around food. After university, I went to Le Cordon Bleu in London to study French cuisine and pastry. It got me a very good foundation but it also made it apparent to me that Peranakan cuisine is deep-rooted in me, it is part of my identity.
LSA: How do you constantly stay inspired as a chef?
SL: I travel as much as I can. I have a few foodie groups and many of my friends are chefs or cookbook authors, so we keep each other inspired.
LSA: What is your philosophy when it comes to cooking?
SL: You cannot be afraid of hard work. There are certain Peranakan dishes that are notoriously laborious – for example, Popiah or a complete Nasi Padang (mixed rice) – but you have to have a fearless mindset and attack each component – or find help! I often joke that some dishes take ‘a village to cook’ (in the old days it would have been the Peranakan daughters and daughters-in-law who would have assisted the matriarch) or take half or a whole day to prepare, but one must persevere. For busy days or certain purposes (such as teaching novice cooks), there are of course simple recipes which take 30 minutes to cook.
LSA: Who are some of your favourite chefs and why?
SL: Chef Patrick Heuberger is an old friend since the days I worked at Au Petit Salut at Chip Bee Gardens, then Dempsey, then Bistro du Sommelier. His style of cooking is hearty, robust and bountiful. Chef JP at UNA does the best paella I’ve had in town, he was the head chef of Barrafina in London, so I get to eat the same coquetas without the crazy queueing. Chef Julien Royer is technically very strong, his food is refined, creative, balanced and complex yet seemingly effortless. He’s been climbing up the rankings and it is well-deserved.
LSA: How is your cooking school different from other cooking establishments?
SL: We were one of the first to open a recreational cooking school that had a high standard, close to professional cooking but based on a home kitchen. Classes were taught by prolific authors or professionals chefs, all of them were hand-picked by me. We are also international, ranging from Japanese to French, we teach chocolate, pastry, cuisine, and boulangerie (bread baking). Our competitive advantages has always been Singapore heritage and Peranakan food because that is my interest.
LSA: You’ve recently created a line of sauces, tell us a little more about that.
SL: It had been my lifelong dream to eventually have my own range of sauces, after writing a book, running a school and shop. The sauces are based on my granny’s hand-written recipes and is the correct and traditional chilli for many local dishes. It is made of Southeast Asian red chillies and vinegar, but what makes my sauces special is the lack of cheap fillers such as unnecessary starches and sugars. It is deliberately coarse to mimic homemade.