Cooking and storytelling go hand in hand for business owner John Puah, who specializes in food photography. This talented, creative and passionate cook inherited his po po (grandmother’s) love for food. Indeed, he hopes to one day publish a cookbook paying tribute to the woman who inspired his career.
The first page will probably contain the recipe for his po po which he will call “Braised Chicken with Shallot from Ng Chai Hoon”. Puah describes this dish as “soy sauce chicken loaded with savory shallot jam”.
“My grandmother knew braised chicken was my favorite and when she cooked it for me, it was her way of showing her love,” he says. “Now when I prepare the dish, it reminds me of the bond we created through food.”
Much of Puah’s childhood was spent in the care of her po po who provided her with three home-cooked meals a day. She arrived on a Monday with bags full of fresh produce she had bought at the local pasar (wet market). She turned them into a range of home-style Malaysian dishes.
“After we prepared everything, we would sit down to eat and watch cooking shows or documentaries,” Puah recalls. “That’s how I was exposed to cooking, just by observing it and watching cooking shows or documentaries.”
“My grandma knew braised chicken was my favorite and when she cooked it for me, it was her way of showing her love.”
This evening routine continued until Puah came to Australia in 2000 to continue her studies.
“[My po po’s] The love of food continued to influence me even after I left home,” Puah recalls. “Food has become a part of who I am and even led me to drop an engineering degree and pursue a career in food.
Puah held several hospitality jobs throughout college and eventually bought the Well Co. cafe, which he and his wife, Amanda Owen, ran for five years.
“In 2016 I sold the cafe and decided to combine my other passion, photography, with my love of food to create a successful social media photography business specializing in foodservice and hospitality” , he explains.
“Every culture has its own culinary history; every dish has a meaning behind it,” adds Puah. “As a photographer, I want to capture it so I can tell the story of food.”
Days spent at his creative company, Jasper Avenue, create content for chefs and business owners. However, it is at night that Puah brings family recipes to life. He nearly perfected the sweet, caramelized flavor of his po po shallot braised chicken, though he was never given the physical recipe.
“The secret is to slowly break down the onions and the chicken,” he explains. “Use the moisture from the chicken and onion to further reduce it, instead of adding more water.”
Each bowl fills Puah with warm and comforting memories of his childhood and he is proud to offer his friends a taste of authentic Malaysian cuisine.
“I want to invite them into my world and share a piece of my culture,” he says. “These are the flavors I loved and grew up with, and I want them to love it too.”
Puah hopes to carry on her po po’s food legacy by translating and photographing each of the recipes she made for him as a child. “Making the food itself is a story,” he says. He plans to document every recipe from start to finish. One day he will put them in an heirloom cookbook for future generations to learn and enjoy.
Do you like history? Follow author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.
Photos credited to John Puah.
Braised chicken with shallots
- 1 whole chicken, cut into small pieces
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 350g shallots, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons soya sauce
- 2 tablespoons soya sauce
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- Pour vegetable oil into a large skillet over high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning, until browned (half cooked). It will take 4-5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
- In the same skillet, drizzle the 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Fry the shallots, stirring occasionally, until softened (about 4-5 minutes).
- Combine sauces and in skillet, stirring for 1 minute or until fragrant.
- Add the chicken pieces. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is almost thickened. It will take about 15-17 minutes.
- Serve with jasmine rice.