The Cook In My Book

Li Kui featured a lot in The Water Margin; not surprisingly, as this colourful character is full of vigour and straightforward honesty. If the band of heroes wanted anything done, the go-to fellow was Li Kui. He got things done. “Things” usually meant killings. When I came to the part where Li Kui split open Taoist Luo the Immortal with his axe, and upon seeing his blood was white, he exclaimed that the celibate must be filled with sperm. I knew I had to write about my friend who is equally sharp-witted and hilariously funny. I shall, for obvious reasons, call this friend The Cook. He is as brutal as Li Kui, but not with killings but with his honesty. Li Kui, also known as The Black Whirlwind, was dark-skinned, rash and obstinate. He wielded his axe effortlessly, “chop, chop, chop,” and “crack, crack, crack,” as he hacked his victims into many pieces. Wherever he went, people were scared of him – he had that nasty killer’s demeanour about him and it would not surprise me one bit that if looks could kill, it would be his. The Cook, on the other hand, is a fine specimen for any lady. He has the killer looks and it still irks me that the pretty girls in school fell for him as they over-looked me – and I am the taller and darker one. Maybe they found me mawkish when I should have been hawkish. He has a fair complexion, with faint freckles and big attractive eyes with double eyelids (something I only get if I rub my eyes hard). He wears his hair well-combed, never tousled. He frequents a local Malay barber whose services many cannot afford or justify. Like Four Eyes, he is a strong swimmer, gliding playfully in the water like a dolphin. Needless to say, a strong swimmer possesses a finely tuned body that is toned to perfection with a long torso, a flat abdomen, a thin waist and powerful legs. Unlike Four Eyes, The Cook did not win at any swimming meet, but as a swimming instructor, he too attracts a bevy of star-struck teenage girls. Why didn’t I learn to swim, guys?

Li Kui was brash, uncouth, strange-looking and his antics amused many. The Cook protested that he is nothing like Li Kui, “He’s the hatchet man – everyone avoided him!” He sneered before adding “I’m the exact opposite,” he emphasised that his good looks often got him out of trouble whereas everyone feared Li Kui and his fierce looks and wild temper often got him into serious fights. But, The Cook did admit his reputation as a “pain in the ass” was difficult to object to. Today, he is under lockdown due to the pandemic and so, his focus is on cooking up sumptuous meals for him and his pretty wife. Just like Li Kui, he often goes “chop, chop, chop,” and “crack, crack, crack,” but instead of chopping up people, he is busy hacking salted fish bone, pork ribs and ox tails with his cleaver. His “kiam hoo koot” curry and beef curries are legendary. Be sure to note he accompanies each food tasting with his poppysmic trademark as he deconstructs the dish he is cooking.

The Cook’s family name was wrongly spelt, it should have been Weng.
His forebears liked to think that they were good merchants but they were really just obedient and savvy – they knew how to bow to the right people, and bend over for the ones with power and influence. For all their efforts the highest title they were bestowed was that of a Salt Official, an honour awarded by the Imperial Palace that rewarded them a monopoly on salt. The Cook’s grandfather had a wooden plaque with “Salt Official” incised in gold characters. Grandpa lived in a courtyard house with its own lily pond in Longyan China, near Jiangxi and Guangdong. That they managed to pluck themselves up and leave the Chinese equivalent of the Appalachians was, of course, a stroke of luck. But, they also managed to string together a network of collecting stations in Indonesia trading in native products such as tobacco, gambier, nuts, coffee, and rattan, with export depots in Singapore and Penang – “that was a bigger stroke of luck”, The Cook surmised. I think The Cook was quite unfair to attribute a genius’ foresight and pioneering spirit to mere luck. His father was supposedly the love child of Grandpa’s and his Eurasian lover who was of Indonesian/Dutch blood. So it has been whispered, but there is no one left to confirm this rumour.The Cook contended that it fits with his hazel eyes, high bridged nose, light-coloured curly hair and handsome looks.

The Cook’s parents married when they were barely out of their teens – an arranged marriage that the young kids did not know how to object to. “The Dialect Association made the introduction,” he said after a long pause. “Mom and Dad were from the same Hokkien sub-dialect group, their accent was very unlike Penang Hokkien,” he said.
The Cook reckoned his dad was a big catch for a sundry shopkeeper’s daughter from Kerian, Perak. In those days, a daughter of a sundry shop owner would have been a lucky strike for any self-respecting bachelor, so my unlocking of The Cook’s hidden meaning that his dad must have been a really really wealthy merchant would be spot on. “Chinese family fortunes are supposed to last for three generations; arse luck I’m the 4th,” he complained. His dad had a shop in the Chinese section of Beach Street in Penang when The Cook was still a little boy. It is of course quite forgivable for a little kid to think his family was poor. A cocktail of peer group pressure and parental ruse meant most kids in school grew up not knowing they were richer than the others. Most of the bosses and their wives (towkays and towkay-sohs) knew to act poor, so their children would study hard in school to climb up the ladder of success. Crying poor also allowed them to negotiate better deals and secure looser payment terms from their suppliers.

“Later on, dad began to import wheat flour and safety matches,” The Cook said. “Safety matches?” I asked. The Cook looked at me with disdain and said, “Yes, they are matches that don’t ignite by accident.” His mum was busy with seven kids and did not involve herself in the family business. Her full lips were never weighed down by gravity, the sweet smiles they produced melted anyone’s bad mood and they often turned harsh words into kind ones. She was no termagant. Her children were all very attractive and smartly attired. The beautiful daughters wore pretty dresses; the boys incredibly captivating with their handsome looks and strong muscular bodies. Everyone looked intelligent and happy. A casual glance would tell a passer-by theirs was a well-loved, well-fed and wealthy family. No one wore unmatched socks that needed rubber bands to keep them tight around the ankles and no one were embarrassed in school with uniforms that were three sizes bigger – their possessions were mostly made to fit or made in England.

When The Cook was little, he did not know the shop in Beach Street belonged to them. He assumed his uncle owned it and that his dad was the worker, because whenever he visited, his cousins were always there playing in the shop. They told him they often stayed behind till late, whereas he was often told to leave before it got dark. When the war came, all business contacts were severed with the Indonesian suppliers. Konfrontasi in the mid-1960s was a violent conflict that erupted when the Indonesians opposed the formation of Malaysia. The Cook’s dad lost his shop and ended up as a commission agent at a first floor office along Penang Street. It was rumoured that some old company money was parked in Singapore but no one bothered to find out. The Cook didn’t pursue it either – “if the horse has bolted, there is no point to close the gate,” seemed like an appropriate reminder. “It could be worth a fortune,” I prodded. He looked at me and screwed up his face with a pout before adding, “The rice is already fried, and you want it uncooked?” He seemed annoyed at my inane questioning, so I did not delve into it further.

Unlike Blue Eyes, Wu Yong and Four Eyes, The Cook did not pack his bags and leave town when opportunities seemed thin after their school years were over. “The other side is not necessarily greener,” he contends. So, he made his side greener. For that, I salute him! That is exactly the one special trait of Li Kui’s that I admire. He is doggedly loyal and unequivocally forthright. If you want to pick someone to stand by you through thick and thin, pick The Cook. He found opportunities where others didn’t. A small octopus may camouflage itself and hide in crevices or under rocks but bet on The Cook to catch it. He has a knack to find success when most others fail to even hear the opportunity knocking. A successful loss adjuster in his heyday, he was as feared as Li Kui but by scammers and fraudsters who panicked at the sight of him.

The Cook calls himself the AA Cook. “AA?” I did not dare ask him if that meant he was an anonymous alcoholic. His encyclopaedic knowledge of cooking stupefies me somewhat. It is not just the names of pork cuts and beef cuts or the myriad of fish and shellfish he knows or the exact proportions of spices and herbs for a dish, it is his ability to serve up a Peranakan, Mediterranean, Indian, Malay or the many Chinese provincial styles of the most delectable food at a moment’s whim. I bet his Mrs is very satisfied with him. His mom was a superb cook; “She taught me the basics,” he replied when I asked how he knew the tiniest intricacies of cooking. By that he meant he watched and learned as she busied herself in the kitchen, and magically produced superb dishes that only stoked the children’s appetite. It was said that he was the only one in his family who could read recipe books. He has this gift of visualising everything he reads that it becomes real. He can taste the food from reading its recipe, and he can tell you the recipe from tasting the food. The immense fecundity of his imagination left me speechless.

The Cook’s guiding principle was possibly adopted from Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” The man simply does not own a single wrinkle on his face. “Worrying never got me anything,” he said as he pointed to his thick mop of hair that is devoid of a single strand of grey. His mantra has always been “Be brave! Where are your balls?! Try new things. Don’t stop learning.” He left one big motto unsaid, but I knew from his body language that it was about telling himself he is better looking than the next guy and that gives him his exaggerated swagger. He names his proudest achievement by singing “Staying Alive, Staying Alive.” I think The Cook is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes in his brotherhood.

Stayin’ alive, live long and prosper! Portrait of Ung Tek Fuh by Anne Koh.

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